‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is More Fact Than Fiction for Dairy Cows

The next big dystopian fertility story may have already been written. Around the world, cows suffer reproductive exploitation at the hands of dairy farmers.

dairy cow calf

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An exhausted mother draws near to her baby. After the strenuous process of giving birth, she is bonding with the new being she has just brought into the world. Seemingly moments later, the newborn is gone. The mother, her listless face contorted in pain, is attached to a breast pump monitored by a surrounding group of people. When a dip in milk production appears on her record, her custodians exchange glances of displeasure.

This scene is part of the award-winning television series The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name about reproduction under totalitarian rule. Dystopian stories like The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World have enjoyed a surge in popularity in the U.S. as the political climate prompts growing concerns about women’s reproductive rights. The 2010s have seen the release of other feminist dystopian stories like Vox, Gather the Daughters, and a movie adaption of The Giver—a novel by Lois Lowry about a society trying to live without emotions. In 2019, Atwood published the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, called The Testaments. Some dystopia genre fans view or read these stories for inspiration to prevent real-life future dystopias, while others do so simply to gain reassurance that we live in a better and kinder world. But do we? Upon a closer look, a system of reproductive exploitation that easily surpasses Atwood and Huxley’s dystopian brainchildren already exists in our world.

Fictional reproductive dystopias tend to follow a distinctive pattern. Typically, such narratives describe a social issue that unravels to the extreme and prompts rulers to seize reproductive control, which they claim is necessary for the sake of humans’ continued survival. The Handmaid’s Tale is premised on an environmental disaster that renders most women unable to conceive children. Some of the remaining fertile women, so-called “handmaids,” are forced to bear babies for the elite class. Women who fail to bear children are forced to work in a polluted area where they survive no longer than three years. In The Giver, some girls are turned into “vessels” at age 12 and expected to conceive children, who are then assigned to chosen couples. Some fictional dystopian societies resort to using reproductive technology as another way to control the population. The rulers of Brave New World mass-produce human clones to fulfill specific social functions: “Alphas” become factory owners and “Epsilons” toil as sewage workers. As dystopian stories near their climaxes, protagonists often discover that their societies’ rules rest on faulty premises. Handmaid’s Tale protagonist June learns that it is actually the men of Gilead, not the women, who are infertile. In The Giver, Jonas discovers that human emotion should not be forbidden, but rather celebrated. Both June and Jonas ultimately become rebels who rescue children from lives of reproductive tyranny and early deaths. Such parallel story arcs, per dystopian genre expert Keith M. Booker, can reframe as troubling some contemporary “practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable.”

The next big dystopian story may have already been written. Imagine a young female named Paulina, whose purpose is determined by authority figures before her conception. Paulina’s mother is artificially inseminated to conceive a baby who, upon maturity, shares her outstanding ability to produce milk. Paulina’s father is kept far away in a semen collection center, from where he fathers hundreds, possibly tens of thousands, of children. After her birth, Paulina’s keepers separate her from her mother and raise her on milk replacer. Soon after puberty, Paulina is artificially inseminated, just like her mother. After she gives birth, Paulina’s keepers take her baby from her in order to sell the milk that she begins to produce. Paulina would have repeated this cycle of conceiving and losing her offspring until becoming physically spent, except that something happens that her keepers consider a disaster: Paulina gives birth to twins, which results in inflammation that severely scars her uterus. During the next round of inseminations, Paulina does not conceive again. After a few more unsuccessful attempts to impregnate her, Paulina’s keepers decide to send her to her death.

What’s most disturbing about the above dystopian tale is that it is not a work of fiction. Paulina, until 2019, was a Holstein cow kept on a German dairy farm for six years. Like the handmaids in Atwood’s dystopia, her perceived worth was based solely on her ability to produce offspring and lactate. Paulina had the misfortune of conceiving twins, something known for causing complicated pregnancies and producing infertile freemartin cows—female calves who are born as part of a set of multiples that includes a male. No details about Paulina’s offspring are known, though her daughters presumably shared her fate of reproductive servitude. Her sons and any daughters deemed unfit to become dairy cows were either killed and eaten at 16 to 24 weeks old or “disposed of” during their first weeks of life. As the non-producing offspring of a dairy cow, rather than a beefier cattle breed, their lives would be deemed worth less than the feed that they would require. Rather than exemplifying unusual cruelty, the swift disposal of unwanted calves is routine on dairy farms, where only fertile female animals yield significant economic gain.

Like Paulina, most of the world’s 264 million dairy cows are born by means of reproductive technology. Since the 1930s, dairy farmers have been manually inseminating cows with sperm from bulls who are considered to be genetically superior. Artificial insemination has become so widespread over decades that repeatedly combining the same genes has led to severe inbreeding among cows. As of 2019, most of the 9.3 million U.S. dairy cows are the descendants of just two bulls born in the 1960s. Some female cows, particularly those with traits most desired by farmers, are also being forced to produce increasingly more offspring; these cows receive hormones to produce eggs that are fertilized into embryos and then used to impregnate other female cows. Slaughterhouse workers even remove egg cells from the ovaries of genetically-desirable dead cows to create new cow embryos. And the list of practices akin to dystopian fiction continues. Dairy cows are cloned. Farmers try to create more docile herds by killing individuals who resist when humans handle them. Dairy farmers then go on to brand the resulting more docile cows as “bad mothers” whose motherhood instincts have been “bred out” of them; the farmers claim that removing their calves is “for their own good”—despite maternal deprivation being a form of psychological torment that causes both cows and calves extreme distress. Similar to Brave New World, the dairy industry attempts to shape its victims’ personalities for its own benefit.

If the dairy industry practices described thus far do not sound dystopian enough, consider that consumers are heavily influenced to regard the food intended for baby cows as indispensable to humans. Over the last century, dairy producers, in addition to implementing their own marketing campaigns, have systematically convinced governments to tout their product as “nature’s perfect food.” Without receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies, which it has for decades, the dairy industry would not likely be viable. According to a 2019 study, the E.U. annually spends between €28.5 billion and €32.6 billion, nearly a fifth of its budget, to support animal agriculture, including dairy. In the U.S., the government has been financially rescuing the dairy industry since the 1930s, when the end of World War I led to a milk surplus and subsequently falling prices. The U.S. government’s support of the dairy industry continues to this day. Such reliance on governmental backing—a trademark of many fictional dystopian societies—ensures not only that cows’ milk remains a staple but also that the industry itself survives despite not being profitable on its own.

By so often invoking pictures of free-roaming cows on green meadows, the dairy industry conveys a deeply misleading and even utopian image of dairy farming. This glossy facade and dairy industry jargon obscure the reality that the industry’s profits are mostly derived from the exploitation of female individuals. In the U.S., newborn Paulina would have been called a “heifer” prior to giving birth, an “open cow” between her pregnancies, a “dry cow” when she was not lactating, a “springer” shortly before giving birth, and a “cull cow” once her profitability declined. Her slaughter would have been euphemized as “retirement.” In a truly dystopian manner, dairy farmers refer to cows according to how fertile, and therefore profitable, they are. Like an authoritarian propaganda department, the dairy industry manipulates both consumers and farmers into believing that its practices are ethical and “humane,” while using jargon and euphemisms to objectify sentient beings and minimize their distressing experiences.

Like June’s trauma of losing her baby as described in The Handmaid’s Tale, Paulina’s suffering as a dairy cow was entirely unjustified. Dairy products are not only unnecessary for humans to consume but can be harmful to human health. Dairy cheese is the number-one source of saturated fat consumed in the U.S.—a country struggling with an obesity epidemic. Diets high in saturated fat also contribute to heart disease, and dairy is linked to increased risks of several types of cancer. Despite studies showing that 95 percent of Asian-Americans and 70 percent of African-Americans cannot digest dairy without experiencing unwanted symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps, official U.S. dietary guidelines continue to characterize dairy as an “essential” food group. Dairy further poses a threat to global health by contributing to ecological degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions, and to an unjust food system that exploits vulnerable workers. Paulina’s life as a dairy cow was reduced to providing humans with her milk for no vital reason, as all nutrients found in dairy are present in other foods. Some pulses, seaweeds, leafy greens, and fortified plant milks even contain more calcium than cows’ milk. Like Gilead’s ruling elite, the dairy industry falsely presents its oppressive system as the only means to ensure a healthy human population—but in reality, humans can choose more compassionate, sustainable, and healthy alternatives to dairy.

As more people are experiencing awakenings akin to those of the protagonists in dystopian tales, public resistance to the dairy industry is rising. Animal advocates are increasingly speaking out on behalf of dairy cows and other farmed animals, including hens and sows, whose lives are reduced to laying eggs and bearing offspring for human benefit. Like The Giver’s protagonist Jonas, who realizes that his society normalizes violence by conditioning its members to suppress their emotions, animal advocates go through a process to unlearn the harmful social conditioning that underlies animal consumption. Viewers of news footage showing unmarketable male dairy calves being lined up and shot may experience horror, similar to how Jonas reacts upon witnessing a twin baby being killed in a birth center because of a societal policy of erasing genetic kinship. Further mirroring the dynamics of The Giver, dairy farmers stigmatize “emotive language” by animal advocates in an attempt to systematically erase animals’ suffering. Fortunately, in both dystopian tales and the animal agriculture industry, even the antagonists sometimes experience their own Jonas-like awakenings. Some former dairy farmers are overcoming dairy farming’s “numbing effect” and transitioning to other livelihoods.

Very few individual farmed animals are lucky enough to be saved from certain death—but Paulina is one of the rare survivors of animal agriculture. Shortly before she would have been killed, in 2019, she was rescued by the German sanctuary Hof Butenland Stiftung. The facility is run by animal advocates Karin Mück and Jan Gerdes, a former farmer; Mück and Gerdes together transformed Gerdes’ farm into a place where animals can live out their days safe from neglect, abuse, and slaughter. Ten months after her arrival, Paulina has settled in well at Hof Butenland, where she is reportedly loyal to her close circle of animal friends and happy with her position in the herd. Freed from a life of dystopian exploitation, Paulina has transformed from a nameless “milking cow” into a cherished individual with inherent moral worth.

The parallels between animal agriculture and Atwood’s and Huxley’s stories are striking. Dystopian authors themselves seem to make this connection; Huxley, in devising a society that maximally exploits humans’ reproductive abilities, even uses the dairy industry term “freemartin” to describe human characters. As Paulina’s story demonstrates, fertility dystopias are confined to neither science fiction nor human-centric abuse. Millions of thinking, feeling individuals presently suffer, largely unnoticed as the dairy industry’s live “stock.” Humans who care about reproductive freedom can and should reconsider whether a truly just society would permit economic gain to be derived from systemic reproductive exploitation. If the dairy industry was showcased as part of a dystopian T.V. show, who would the audience root for—the cows or the humans? When the next season of The Handmaid’s Tale airs, remember Paulina—and order that latte with oat milk.

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