The dairy industry is in decline. A report published by Mintel revealed that US dairy sales will drop by over 10% by 2020 and similar trends can be seen across the Western world. In parallel, the consumption of dairy-free alternatives is on the rise. In the UK, sales of “free from” milk have recently increased 10% year on year, and plant-based cheese has grown an astonishing 80%. Supermarkets are overflowing with dairy-free alternatives, and books like ‘This Cheese is Nuts’ demonstrate how we can create dairy-free alternatives ourselves. After another record-breaking Veganuary, it’s no surprise therefore that the UK dairy industry has hit back with Februdairy - a campaign of its own.
The aim of Februdairy is to flood the internet with positive content about dairy production – think cows sunbathing in English fields, playing rounders between glasses of Prosecco. The hope, I imagine, is for success on the scale of their campaigns in the 1980s when cameos from Ian Rush and the milky-mouthed lad from Accrington Stanley, reinforced a nation’s milk-drinking habit. You can’t blame the dairy industry for wanting to protect their profits, but I think their decline is terminal. Februdairy, in my opinion, just won’t work.
No amount of positive tweets can hide the truth of dairy production. Like any animal used for food, productivity and profit are far more important than welfare. Genetically selected for high yields and housed in restrictive conditions, they suffer from a range of health issues. The percentage of cows believed to be lame at any given time is 20-25%; the proportion with mastitis, 20-35%. Compassion in World Farming highlight a range of other issues including tail docking (illegal in the EU), disbudding or dehorning, branding and teat removal – all of which can cause significant pain. Perhaps the most depressing feature of dairy farming is the removal of calves from their mothers within 48 hours of birth (they usually suckle for 6-12 months), causing significant distress to both parties. If the calf is male, it’s even worse news – they are invariably killed or exported to veal farms. Finally, there’s the slaughter. After three to four years of faithful service the dairy cow, exhausted from over-production, is slaughtered, with at least a decade of good years ahead.
The worst practices are of course more likely to be pursued by factory farms than small-scale outfits. And for dairy cows from organic Soil Association-approved farms, conditions are much better. But even these farms are unlikely to save male calves or their mothers from an early, and inhumane, slaughter.
In addition to ethics, the industry also faces a health challenge. I’m not a nutritionist, and I advise everyone to do their own research, but I’ve been convinced that dairy isn’t as health-promoting as I once thought. Ground-breaking research such as The China Study associate dairy intake with all sorts of health problems. On a personal note, my skin has improved since I stopped consuming dairy about a year ago, and others I know say the same. Perhaps the health impacts are not that surprising – we’ve only been consuming cows’ milk for a fraction of our evolution after all.
Some might argue that the ‘truth’ around dairy has existed for a long time - at least since the successful marketing campaigns of the 1980s. So perhaps Februdairy has a fighting chance. This is partly true, but unlike in the 1980s, the dairy industry no longer has a strangle-hold over the dissemination of information. They now have to combat a clued-up and social media-savvy army of animal welfare charities and activists. Every post showing a happy cow in a field will be met by a plethora of posts highlighting all the issues mentioned above.
I’d even go so far as to argue that Februdairy may hasten the decline of dairy consumption in the UK. The one thing that the dairy industry has on its side is that for most Britons, the consumption of dairy is an ingrained habit. Whether it’s milk in coffee, butter on toast, or cheese with biscuits, many wouldn’t even consider an alternative. Habits only tend to change if people are jarred out of their normal ways of thinking which only happens when they are provided with new challenges and information. Veganuary has brilliantly shone a light on the dairy industry, and got us to really think about where our milk, butter and cheese have come from. Februdairy, in my opinion, is giving Veganuary an extra month for free. It is forcing us to decide whether we should drink the milk of another animal that has been treated inhumanely, or whether we should get it from a health-promoting plant that has not had to suffer at all. The debating it is creating is changing habits by the day. For me, the decision, was a no-brainer and I am certain that for others it will be the same.