Much like their human counterparts, newborn calves suckle milk from their mothers during the early stages of their lives. But the commercial dairy industry often prevents calves from engaging in this natural behavior, illustrating just one of many reasons why the words ‘natural’ and ‘dairy’ do not go together.
The European Dairy Association (EDA), however, promotes dairy as exactly that: natural. In November 2021, the group shared a factsheet comparing cow milk and plant-based milks. One of the EDA’s major takeaways is that, according to the association, plant milk is less natural than cow’s milk.
The EDA’s portrayal of cow’s milk as natural partly rests on the amount of “processing” that happens during the production process. The group claims that plant milks are more heavily processed than dairy, insinuating that they’re less natural as a result.
But there’s a glaring issue with the factsheet. The EDA leaves out the lifelong processing that cows endure in the dairy industry. In fact, it largely avoids mentioning cows at all.
Natural or not
Self-promotion by the dairy industry isn’t new. The EDA’s comments aren’t surprising either. The plant-based milk market is the dairy industry’s top competitor. and in recent years, it has seen a meteoric rise.
Many people are opting to ditch dairy over ethical concerns, as well as environmental ones. And while it’s doubtful that the EDA’s factsheet will convince them that cow’s milk is more natural than plant milk, they may not be the association’s intended audience.
According to the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), cow’s milk remains a “staple product” of 98 percent of British households. The chart, shared by the EDA’s Twitter account earlier this year, was meant in large part for consumers like them.
But the chart promotes a skewed understanding of the dairy production process. For example, in the chart, EDA cites a step called “pre-treatment.” That phrase is meant to encompass everything cows experience up to the point of lactation. But the multiple ‘steps’ that they go through warrant some attention.
The industry breeds dairy cows and has done so for decades to produce an unnaturally high quantity of milk. They’re often conceived using sexed semen, reproductive technology that gives farmers control over the sex of calves. The industry uses this technology because it relies on female calves, known as heifers, to replenish their dairy herds. Most male calves are sold onwards, into the meat or leather industry.
An artificial existence
When first born, calves need colostrum, antibody-filled milk that mothers produce directly after birth to bolster their calf’s immune system. But in commercial dairies, farmers regularly milk the mothers themselves and then feed this colostrum to calves using a bottle or a stomach tube. As Farmers Weekly highlights, farmers see stomach tubing calves as “quick and efficient,” but they are far from natural.
Almost all calves in commercial dairies get a matter of hours with their mothers before separation, according to Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). Separating cows from their calves allows farmers to sell the mother’s milk for human consumption.
However, most people—over two-thirds of the global population—are lactose intolerant. Many struggle to make that connection, in large part because they are missing key information about where their milk comes from.
The high cost of dairy farming
According to Jimmy Goldie, chief technical officer for agricultural supplies firm Carrs Billington speaking at a recent dairy calf health and management event hosted by the AHDB, data shows that as much as 22 percent of heifer calves die after birth and another 11 percent do not complete their first lactation cycle. Death rates vary considerably from farm to farm, but artificial inputs like antibiotics are routinely used to combat health-related issues.
If cows make it to their first artificial insemination, which can happen from around fifteen months old onwards, and it’s successful, they will give birth nine months later. Cows who have had a calf previously—the industry expects three or four births before considering dairy cows ‘spent‘—face an additional step in their processing prior to birthing. Known as “drying off,” this process involves artificially ending their milk production by ceasing milking, changing their diets, and, in many cases, sealing their teats.
CIWF’s Research and Education Manager Phil Brooke points to other systemic issues in intensive dairy farming, such as over 20 percent of British cows being “being kept indoors all year,” making them liable to lameness. He also told Sentient Media that breeding for high milk yields risks emaciation, along with mastitis and lameness, that can, in turn, lead to “infertility and shortened life-span.” This is “hardly natural,” he says.
The EDA didn’t respond to a request for comment about its factsheet. But Brooke characterized “the production process” as an “inconvenient truth” that the association chose “not to mention.”
The EDA further suggests that while plant-based milks may “look” better for the environment, dairy milk may actually “perform” better by comparison if measured by “nutritional value” and not “total mass-produced.” The European Plant-based Foods Association (ENSA) told Sentient Media that this claim “lacks scientific ground,” highlighting a shortage of evidence to substantiate it in the factsheet.
The EDA also argued that the environmental benefits of various plant-based milks aren’t well supported by scientific evidence. This is “clearly bunkum,” says Mark Driscoll, a sustainable food systems consultant and member of the ENSA’s scientific advisory committee. He says that “across all metrics,” cow’s milk has higher environmental impacts than plant-based alternatives. ENSA, meanwhile, states that plant-based foods are “highly valuable” in protecting biodiversity and helping to mitigate climate change.
Brooke was unconvinced by the EDA’s environmental arguments, too. On the contrary, he says that reduced consumption of animal products, including dairy, would be “good for people, animals, and the planet.”
Tracy is an environmental journalist based near London, UK. Her background is in creative writing, and she's currently a staff writer at The Canary and freelances elsewhere.