Dairy - For and Against

By Geoff Adams on May 31, 2016

Dairy farmers are being ‘milked dry’, but let’s remember the real cost of milk (By Gonzalo N. Villanueva, PhD Candidate, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne) -First published on The Conversation website.

The Australian dairy farming industry is in a state of crisis. Cheap dairy products and fluctuations in both the domestic and global markets have taken a financial toll on farmers. Consumers have rallied to help struggling dairy producers. But this is only half the problem. The true cost of dairy is also paid by dairy cows and the environment.

Welfare problems:

Despite the idyllic image of outdoor farming, several industry practices negatively affect dairy cows. To meet production demands, dairy cows are subject to a continuous cycle of impregnation, induced calving and milking. Tail-docking and horn removal are routinely performed without pain relief. Lameness is another major animal welfare problem, often the result of environmental pressures, such as tracks, herd size and handling. The average lifespan of a dairy cow is six to seven years, whereas generally cows can live for 20 to 25 years. One of the most controversial issues is young ‘bobby’ calves. A bobby calf is a newborn calf, less than 30 days old, who has been purposely separated from their mother. Immediately after separation, cow and calf call out and search for each other. Most bobby calves are slaughtered within the first week of their life. Handling and transport pose added problems for young calves who have not developed herding behaviours, are vulnerable to stress, and are forced to go without their mother’s milk. Each year, 450,000 bobby calves are slaughtered. Advocacy groups frequently uncover the routine abuse of bobby calves in Australian abattoirs and challenge the dairy industry to do something about it. Yet aside from the wider ethical questions over the use and exploitation of animals, farmers are not legally doing anything wrong. This is because the treatment of animals operates in a legal context where animals are considered absolute property. What’s more, farm animals are exempt from the provisions of anti-cruelty legislation. Codes of practice are practically useless, because they promote low welfare standards and are unenforceable.

Environmental impact:

As well as systematic welfare problems, livestock farming is, both directly and indirectly, one of the most ecologically harmful human activities. The Australian livestock sector is worth $17 billion and dairy cattle farming is a $4.2 billion industry. In Australia, livestock farming accounts for 10 per cent to 16 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, with dairy farms contributing 19 per cent of this, or three per cent of total emissions. Methane emissions, from digestion and manure, and nitrous oxide from livestock are significant contributors. Globally, the livestock sector is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the world’s transport. Livestock production accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land, including the land used to grow crops to feed these animals. Animal agriculture is a key factor in land degradation, deforestation, water stress, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Livestock farming will also be affected by climate change, particularly changes in temperature and water. The quantity and quality of pasture and forage crops will also be affected. Diseases may increase due to fluctuating weather and climate.

Emissions can be reduced:

Just as the energy sector is attempting to transition to low-carbon energy sources to tackle climate change, the agricultural sector needs to transition to an ethical and sustainable alternative. From the current crisis, there are several opportunities for farmers to seize. Large transitions are possible in land use, production, output and profitability. Places such as Gippsland in Victoria, which currently produces 19 per cent of Australia’s dairy, have the opportunity for agricultural development based on apples and brassicas, such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, turnip and mustard. Some of these crops are already popular in the region. As a result of climate change and increasing temperatures, some areas will be more suitable than others. While still in the stages of research, perennial grain crops – which store more carbon, maintain better soil and water quality, and manage nutrients better than annuals – have the potential to contribute to sustainable agriculture. New land uses could also include carbon plantings, biofuels and bioenergy crops. Investing into further research for alternatives to livestock farming is needed. Some have argued that livestock emissions can be technically mitigated by modifying animal feed, better managing pastures, carbon sequestration and manure storage.

Welfare issues remain:

But technical mitigation does not address the endemic animal welfare problems in the livestock industry. Consumer demand is one of the most powerful strategies to combat animal welfare and environmental problems. Research shows that we must reduce food waste and losses in the supply chain and change our diets toward less resource-intensive diets, such as a plant-based diets. Doing so would cut emissions by two-thirds and save lives. It’s possible to eliminate animal suffering and reduce carbon emissions by reducing and replacing livestock production and consumption. Alternatives to dairy milk include soy and almond milk. Soy milk is nutritionally comparable to dairy milk and has a significantly smaller environmental footprint. Policy initiatives also need to address these issues. The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ report recommends a policy approach that correctly prices natural resources to reflect the full environmental costs and to end damaging subsidies. In the interim, higher taxes on meat and other livestock products will be necessary to improve public health and combat climate change. Denmark, for instance, is considering proposals to raise the tax on meat, after its ethics council concluded that ‘‘climate change is an ethical problem’’. Governments everywhere need to have a transitional plan for livestock producers and workers – one that helps to cultivate the ethical and sustainable agricultural endeavours of the future. 


A RESPONSE (By Country News editor Geoff Adams)

The dairy price crash has created some understandable shock and surprise from the industry, but also created some opportunities for the usual critics of dairying. Melbourne academic Gonzalo N. Villanueva has used the current crisis to develop a case against the industry on the popular website, The Conversation. Using the emotional language of animal activism, referring to the separation of calves from their mothers and drawing on generalisations about isolated cruelty cases, the author sets out an argument for banning livestock production. Many farmers will be familiar with the language and the impressive sounding logic. The author maintains that animal welfare problems are ‘endemic’ but does not provide any recent Australian statistics on the scope of the issue, but does provide a link to the highly charged Animal Liberation website. He cites research on industry practices which is 20 years old. Well, 20 years ago Melbourne dumped raw sewage into the sea at Gunnamatta, but that has changed over time, and so has agriculture. 

A few more gems: Livestock production accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land, including the land used to grow crops to feed these animals. Animal agriculture is a key factor in land degradation, deforestation, water stress, pollution, and loss of biodiversity.’’ The source cited for this information was the international FAO body. Are our practices being compared to Africa, India and South America? In any case, a table shows Australia in the category where land devoted to pasture actually declined. The author could benefit from a trip to northern Victoria, where he can see the improved environmental outcomes associated with dairy production.

Then there is the ‘magic wand’ approach, demonstrated by the following statement: ‘‘Places such as Gippsland in Victoria, which currently produces 19 per cent of Australia’s dairy, have the opportunity for agricultural development based on apples and brassicas, such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, turnip and mustard.’’ So just turn your dairy farms into market gardens. Zap! Just like that. That’s a bit like saying: There is a big road between Dandenong and Melbourne city, (called the South Eastern), so all commuters from Dandenong have the opportunity to ride their bikes into the city and save all that air pollution caused by single drivers in big cars. We need more sophisticated ideas about land use change rather than simply saying: do this instead of that.

"Tail-docking and horn removal are routinely performed without pain relief.’’ Perhaps the author hasn’t had the benefit of a drive in the country, but any cursory inspection of a dairy herd will show the incidence of tail docking is extremely low. How can you represent animals if you don’t really know them?

The average lifespan of a dairy cow is six to seven years, whereas generally cows can live for 20 to 25 years,’’ Mr Villanueva said. The professional herd development body, Holsteins Australia, recently conducted a competition in Shepparton with one section for veteran cows, aged 10 years and over.

But the argument gets really interesting when it appears the livestock industry is being blamed for climate change: ‘‘As well as systematic welfare problems, livestock farming is, both directly and indirectly, one of the most ecologically harmful human activities.’’ Sounds pretty serious, but animal production figures for the generation of greenhouse gases, put the industry well behind energy generation and other big sources. Agriculture is closer to transport. ‘‘In Australia, livestock farming accounts for 10 per cent to 16 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, with dairy farms contributing 19 per cent of this, or three per cent of total emissions. Methane emissions, from digestion and manure, and nitrous oxide from livestock are significant contributors. Globally, the livestock sector is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the worlds transport,’’ the author states. So is this article about Australia or the world? Okay, let’s talk about the world. The author says: ‘‘Soy milk is nutritionally comparable to dairy milk and has a significantly smaller environmental footprint.’’ No, juice extracted from soy is not the same as cow’s milk, until processors add something to the product. An article on The Conversation website points this out. And environmentalists in South America would quickly point out the devastating effects of huge soy farms replacing rain forests in the Amazon. The world demand for soy is driving rainforest destruction.

The author’s agenda is finally revealed with the following statement: ‘‘It’s possible to eliminate animal suffering and reduce carbon emissions by reducing and replacing livestock production and consumption.’’ So, ban livestock production? In a pluralist society, diversity and difference should be embraced. It should be possible to allow people of all backgrounds and interests to engage in their own pursuits. Eating meat and drinking milk is one of those legitimate activities. Calling for the replacement of the industry is a bit draconian, based on the alleged shortcomings and imperfections of an industry. The road toll hasn’t resulted in the banning of cars. Most people in the dairy industry are working towards better animal welfare practices and improved environmental outcomes, and the trend in the industry is towards improvement. Their purpose and labour is not diminished by criticisms based on a grab-bag of ideas cobbled together to support a philosophical opposition. Dairy farmers find it difficult to engage with people who simply want them to disappear.

By Geoff Adams on May 31, 2016

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