I wondered some time ago about whether or not it's right to drink milk. We are essentially drinking another creature's breast milk (something no other species does except our own domesticated animals), and the more I discovered about the way the giant dairy industry treats its cows, about the hormones and the antibiotics we are indirectly consuming through them, and about the environmental damage the industry causes, the more I was put off. But then, who can deny the creamy deliciousness of cheese? And herein lies my conundrum.
I have been a vegetarian for six years (having decided some time ago that if I couldn't kill it, I shouldn't eat it) and have flirted with veganism for many years now, but no matter how good my intentions it always ended badly. It's the same old story. The initial elation at something new and exciting, the subsequent obsession, and then... the eventual boredom, new temptations, and finally... the break up.
Milk itself was pretty easy to give up - I genuinely prefer the taste of non-dairy milks anyway, and I haven't guzzled glasses of milk or had cereal since I was a kid so no big deal right? But yoghurt, and cheese... now that's a struggle. Especially for someone like me who's never had a sweet tooth. I've got a big, fat, giant "cheese tooth", and my dad lives in France (so you can imagine the temptation).
But then I interviewed a scientist (Dr Jack Lewis - my co-presenter on my weekly Geek Chic Weird Science podcasts) about some recent research which shows that we are putting ourselves at risk of superbugs by consuming meat and dairy from cows pumped full of antibiotics (for higher yields), leading us to consume (and eventually grow resistant to) antibiotics. Genuinely scary stuff. And this isn't just tree-hugging hippies talking either, it's the scientific community at large.
I also found out that my best friend's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer (which she is thankfully now in remission from) and that one of the first pieces of advice her doctor gave her was to cut out all non-organic dairy. Why? Because they are pumped full of hormones... oestrogen in particular. Again, scary stuff.
And then... I watched Earthlings, the hard-hitting documentary narrated by Joaquim Phoenix, which graphically highlights animal cruelty in large dairy practices (even those labelled as organic). Granted, this looks at the most extreme (and very shocking) cases but it's undeniable that intensive farming, and the constant cycle of pregnancy, lactation and separation from calves (who are then slaughtered for meat) causes a great deal of suffering.
Despite what this may look like, I'm not here to persuade you to change your own eating habits. I am a firm believer that we all need to make our own choices in life and shouldn't bully or badger each other into following suit (although, interestingly, I noticed that when I became a vegetarian, it was the meat-eaters who tended to lecture and try to persuade me to change my eating habits back, not vice versa). In principle, I actually don't have an issue with meat or dairy consumption itself, rather the damaging practices of modern day intensive farming. But I do believe that we all have the right to be informed about what we are putting into our bodies, and what we are doing to other creatures and the environment. And to make our own choices from the thousands available accordingly.
A choice to prioritise our own health and eat only organic meat and dairy so as not to consume unnecessary hormones/ antibiotics. A choice to buy eggs and dairy from small independent and local farmers who can explain their practices to you (city farms like the ones in Hackney and Kentish Town who even deliver to your door). A choice to eat a purely plant-based diet. A choice to support truly kind and innovative companies like Hen Nation, and Cow Nation, Ahimsa which remove all questionable practices such as beak burning, calf separation, artificial insemination, and slaughter of male calves and chicks, and use profits to pay for all working animals eventual retirement.
Yes, I'm well aware not everyone can afford this price tag kind of "food snobbery", but if you see things like cheese (or even meat) as a weekly or monthly treat rather than a staple it can make sense economically. Plus, if those of us who can afford to eat mindfully do so, the more prices will drop.
Of course, you also have the choice to eat whatever the hell you like and consider this article a sanctimonious waste of everyone's time.
As for me? I've decided to do my best to "eat kind". Like sexuality believe there is no black and white and that labels aren't really helpful any more. Fluidity is. So I'm dispensing with "vegan"/ "vegetarian"/ "pescetarian" etc. If I want to eat some cheese or yoghurt I will. But I will order it from Ahimsa. If I want to eat eggs I will, but I'll get them from my local city farm (or from my friend Frix whose parents have just started keeping 18 hens in their garden). And if I want to buy leather shoes, I will buy it vintage from a charity shop so as not to create more supply and demand. I know it's impossible for someone to live kindly 100% of the time, especially someone like me who is on a limited budget. From palm oil to coconut oil, meat, soya, dairy, wool, feathers - the list of shoulds and woulds for ethical and health concerns can be exhaustive, conflicting and confusing.
But we have the right to be informed, and to question practices which may seem so normal but when dissected, may not actually sit so well with us (as this child discovered in this now viral video).
And I believe that if an animal 'works' for us it should be rewarded as such, and not treated as our modern day slaves. They don't have a voice, but we do, and we also have a choice. We can eat and buy consciously, make mindful decisions for ourselves and our families, and challenge those giant money making companies who's primary interest most likely isn't in our's (or the animal's) wellbeing.