Can dairying ever be ethical and sustainable?

My grandfather was a dairy farmer in Mangawhai, farming 40 cows to make a modest living for his entire working life. I don’t know in depth the farming practices he used, but I get a very strong feeling that when you have forty cows you know who each of them is as an individual. These were not times of being sentimental about animal lives, and yet there was inevitably an intimacy working with a herd that size.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who has quit eating dairy herself because of the way the animals are treated even on organic farms, and another friend who couldn’t understand vegetarianism as an animal rights choice, because of the horrors of dairying – the separation of calves from their mothers, with the calves usually being sent to slaughter so we can drink their milk.

I love eating dairy. I love butter in my frying pan and cream in my coffee. Dairy is incredibly nourishing. Butter contains vitamins C, D, E & K, fat-soluble vitamins that hold our cell walls together and keep our cartilage intact, systemic processes that help us feel good and happy in the world. I have also come across the idea that dairy produces mild painkilling effects not dissimilar to morphine, and I am okay with that.

I didn’t buy butter for a few weeks and I found that olive oil is of course a perfectly viable solution for the frying pan, if not the coffee cup. Many people have substituted soy milk for dairy in their hot drinks, and yet soy is a major GE crop, so unless it’s organic it’s questionable whether we want to encourage use of this crop. Soy is also an endocrine disruptor unless fermented in traditional ways, and so maybe isn’t ideal for our hormone balance. It’s also difficult to digest and can cause irritation in the gut lining.

Others have switched to nut milks. If we are looking at packaging, we can see that ready-made nut milks are deeply unsustainable. Nuts are also treasures, the seeds of trees which have the life purpose of perpetuating their lineage. These trees produce many nuts, but again, unless they are organic, they are farmed in soil-depleting conditions and the use of pesticides on California’s almond groves has been associated with the frightening decline of bee populations.

The raw vegan diet has become popular over the past few years, and for good reason. We have been eating too much industrial meat and dairy and our consciences and our bodies have been rebelling. But the food we have switched to is often hard on the gut lining and depend extensively on imported foods.

If you have ever seen a cashew tree, they are big and they are abundant, but each cashew fruit only produces one nut. When I was in Cambodia and wanted to try the cashew fruit, I bought a bag of nuts from a convenience store to show our driver, and he expressed surprised at the enormous number of cashews I had been able to afford. It gave me a small shock of recognition of my relative richness, and also a feeling of imbalance that I could come to his country and raid his pantry like this.

Cows are lovely beasts. They are a domesticated breed which means that they have co-evolved in relationship with human communities. My ancestors in Europe were deeply integrated with these relationships, and I can only imagine that the practice of dairying emerged from the observation that cows often produce enough food for their own children, and then some. They have also been selectively bred over generations for these traits. And while there is a perfectly reasonable argument that baby food for cows is not adult food for humans, these practices have somehow become deeply embedded in our lifeways.

New Zealand is a dairying nation. We can grow almonds and hazelnuts and macadamias, but we probably won’t be growing cashews any time soon (or maybe the climate will enable that sooner that I think). Maybe we don’t need to stay a dairying nation, but I am curious about whether there is a possibility that our green pastures can support ethical and sustainable dairying at least during a re-balancing period.

I did a quick internet search and found this, a genius plan to keep cows with their mothers by bringing the milking shed to the family, and package their extra milk in reusable glass bottles (who came up with that idea??!)

I am trying to source sustainable and ethical dairy for Greenspace with packaging that isn’t destined for landfill, and at the moment I am ok if it can’t happen. Those of us who love our dairy have many other places to buy it. But if I can get hold of some of the good stuff I will be very happy.

I am very curious about the many layers of ethics and sustenance involved in any food choice. We have come a very long way away from traditional eating patterns where entire community groups had much the same diet. We have made many different choices in our lives and our bodies have many different needs. I am working on a non-judgmental and curious approach to all these choices.

This essay is a riff on ideas that I have come across over many years, and so I don’t have all the references to back up my opinions. In an ideal situation I would spend some time in the library checking my facts. But for now I am putting this out there for discussion purposes. Let me know what you think.