As a popular beverage in America and around the world, milk may seem as innocent as a baby sheep, or perhaps a snow angel. However, a great deal of controversy surrounds the sweet, creamy beverage. The dairy industry has been declining for years, and a steady drop in milk prices has negatively impacted dairies across the country. Not only that, the dairy industry has long been criticized for its negative environmental and potential health effects. With dairy farms across the country in chaos, it is difficult to determine whether milk-lovers should support dairy. To dairy or not to dairy?
Although milk was immensely popular in the mid-20th century, consumption has been deteriorating over the past two decades. The Mintel market research firm predicts that dairy prices will drop by 11 percent between 2015 and 2020, while outputs of non-dairy alternatives are speculated to increase by $3 billion in the next four years. The firm states: “Growth of non-dairy milk will continue as consumers perceive it as a better-for-you alternative to dairy milk, with more adults and families opting for plant-based beverages” (Daily Reporter, “U.S. dairy milk sales expected to decline until 2020, Mintel shows.” 05.22.2017). In fact, dairy alternatives have grown 61 percent since 2012, and sales are only increasing.
This uptick in alternative-dairy products is due, in part, to the debate surrounding the potential negative health effects of milk. Many believe milk to cause diabetes, heart disease, cancer, digestive disorders, allergies and anemia; however, there is little scientific evidence to support these claims (The New York Times. “Got Milk: Might Not Be Doing You Much Good.” 11.17.2014). While research has found no link between milk and cancer, heart disease can be caused by many fatty foods, including milk. Staying away from full-fat dairy products and instead consuming reduced-fat dairy may cut down on fat consumption. Studies find that infants who are susceptible to juvenile diabetes have an even greater likelihood of contracting the disease if they consume non-human dairy, but the National Health Institute advises that infants not consume cow milk until they are one year of age anyway. Milk is a caloric beverage and there are few benefits associated with milk consumption, but, despite this, it is unfair to say that milk causes major health concerns.
Although industrial farms have been affected by the decline in the dairy industry, small dairy farms, particularly in upstate New York, are facing even more alarming crises. Most small dairy farms are family legacies, but in the face of powerful dairies and government-regulated milk prices, many small milk farmers express feelings of powerlessness. The drop in milk prices has led to a string of suicides by farm owners who have struggled to keep themselves financially afloat (NPR, “As Milk Pric-es Decline, Worries About Dairy Farmer Suicide Rise,” 02.27.2018).
In the past three years, Agri-Mark, a New York– based dairy co-op, saw three of its 1,000 members kill themselves so their families would receive life-insurance money. Social isolation and sentiments of self-reliance have shown to distress farm-ers, many of whom do their jobs for passion rather than for money. The co-op has been disseminat-ing information on suicide prevention along with farmers’ checks to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health and to offer farmers mental and financial help.
The dairy industry may be declining, yet milk production is not (NPR, “As big milk moves in, family-owned dairy farms rapidly fold,” 01.11.2017). The production of milk is actually increasing yearly in the United States. The combination of fewer farms and more milk means that dairy farms are simply becoming larger, more industrial and more corporate. In 2012, farms with fewer than 100 cows comprised two-thirds of dairy farms but only produced 14 percent of the country’s milk. Although the dairy industry was formerly run by families, it is now controlled by corporations, driving small dairies into ruin.
This turn of events is unfortunate because local dairy farms are often slightly more humane than industrial dairy farms. A dairy in Fresno, CA, claims to “put cows first” by naming all of their cows and allowing them to wander and graze around pastures (Certified Humane, “Organic Pastures Dairy Company”).
However, despite these improvements, small dairies are still not cow utopias. Since cows can only produce milk when they are pregnant, they are artificially inseminated, which begins when they turn about a year old. After cows give birth, their calves are immediately taken from them and kept in isolated pens, where they are cultivated into beef if they are male or milk cows if they are female. Older cows who can no longer produce milk are also sold to the meat industry.
Cows living on industrial dairies are treated even worse. Most cows are kept in small stalls brimming with their own feces, unable to graze. Antibiotics are fed to cows to ward off diseases that breed in their waste and to maintain their unnatural volume of milk production (The Guardian, “Dairy is Scary. The public are waking up to the darkest part of farming.” 05.30.2017).
The problems with the dairy industry are not limited to poor animal treatment. Large, industrial dairies across the country are also contributing to major environmental problems like pollution. Industrial dairy farms that house over 1,000 cows produce large amounts of gases from manure, the manufacturing of feed and cows burping. These gases get trapped in and warm the atmosphere, contributing greatly to climate change (NPR, Gassy Cows Are Warming the Planet, And They’re Here To Stay.” 04.12.2014).
For instance, according to the World Health Organization, residents of the San Joaquin Valley reportedly live in America’s worst air pollution due to the large number of industrial dairy farms in the area (The Guardian. “Life in the San Joaquin valley, the place with the worst air pollution in America.” 05.13.2016). I remember driving through the valley during many a hot summer and being met with a palpable stench of manure and decay even from the highway. We call the area “Stinky Cow Hill.” My parents would close all the windows, turn off all the vents, and not allow us to exit the vehicle until we were a safe 10 miles away.
The effects of industrial dairy contribute to the area’s considerable air pollution and cause migraines and other health problems, including cancer and asthma (The New York Times, “How Growth in Dairy is Affecting the Environment.” 05.04.2015). According to the American Lung Association, the area is subject to America’s highest levels of harmful particles in the air, which can cause heart attack and stroke (The New York Times). The valley is framed by mountains, which keep polluted air from mixing with clean air, in addition to maintaining high levels of heat. Further, pollutants from industrial farming and oil drilling have poisoned the water supply with pesticides, arsenic, nitrate and uranium (Pacific Standard, “How Water contamination is Putting California’s San Joaquin Valley At Risk.” 07.07.2017).
Considering the environmental, ethical and social implications of the dairy industry, it is difficult to determine the right choices to make. Internet articles abound with conflicting information regarding the health effects of dairy, and little research has been done to actually determine whether dairy is good or bad for the human body. Without sound proof that dairy is malnutritious and without cows and farmers in your face to argue their cases, whether one should consume dairy or not is up to the individual consumer.
It is clear, however, that big dairy systematically devalues farmers, cows, consumers and the environment. Regardless of whether you avoid dairy or whether you are an avid dairy consumer, corporate dairy products and their affiliates must be avoided. Although industrial dairy is more affordable than local dairy, money given to small farms supports local businesses, local farmers and local cows. Safeguarding money from corporations helps to reduce their power, not only over cows and farm-ers, but over consumers ourselves. To find more humane dairy products, visit a farmer’s market or health food store. Look up dairy brands to determine whether they are local and/or humane. Unless the dairy industry improves its treatment of cows and farmers, in addition to addressing the environmental disasters that it is causing, the most effective way consumers can help is by supporting local farms.