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Friday, January 23, 2009

So you drink milk, eh?

I have been a lacto ovo vegetarian for almost 3 years, and have recently been considering the ethical arguments for such a position. Alan has almost finished Peter Singer's book "The Ethics of What We Eat", and I am making my way through it. Singer outlines the processes and conditions of factory farmed animals, pointing out that if abboitoirs had glass walls, there would be far more vegetarians. The processes and conditions that sentient animals such as cows, pigs and chickens suffer through is horrific, and at times just the thought made me feel physically ill.

Piglets are taken from their mothers, kept in concrete pens without bedding, fattened too quickly and treated as breeding machines. They are unable to walk, roll or turn around, suffer lameness, heart attacks and insanity. Six pounds of grain are used for every pound of boneless meat produced, putting stress on the environment. This is just the beginning.

Australia has a highly intensive factory farmed chicken industry, with the market dominated by Inghams and Bartter/Steggles. As the chickens near market size, the are unable to move without pushing through other birds, they are unable to stretch their wings at will, or get away from other more dominant and agressive birds, causing great stress. When you walk into a chicken shed, you will experience a burning feeling in your eyes and lungs, which is ammonia from the bird droppings. The birds are bred to produce the maximum amount of meat in the least amount of time, feeding on the least amount of food. This causes their muscles and fat to grow faster than their bones, leading to leg and joint problems, chronic pain and bone disease, paralysis from broken vertbrae, which leads to collapse and the inability to get to their food and water, everntually leading to starvation. This happens to 400 million chickens in Australia, and almost 9 billion in America.

At 6 weeks of age, the birds are caught by factory workers and put into crates, then on a truck to be slaughtered. Birds are grabbed by their legs (to increase efficiency, they are grabbed by one leg so four or five birds can be held in each hand) and flap and writhe about, often suffering dislocated and broken hips, broken wings and internal bleeding. Their feet are locked into metal shackles hanging from a conveyor belt that moves towards the killing room at the slaughter house. Approximately 90 to 120 birds are killed per minute, or 7200 per hour. Extreme cases of torture have been video documented of slaughter house workers who become immune to the nature of their work, which I am not going to write about here because it is too disturbing. For more information, I recommend Peter Singer and Jim Mason's book "The Ethics of What We Eat". There are also a number of websites with articles and videos.

Many vegetarians that drink milk and eat dairy products (including me until recently) argue that milk/dairy isn't actually meat, so is acceptable to eat. However, after doing just a small amount of research, I leaned alot about the dairy industry and was forced to confront issues I had never faced before. Dairy cows, like the chickens, are bred and injected with growth hormones to produce as much milk as possible, which causes considerable stress on the cow's body. The cows are atifically inseminated about once a year, as they only produce milk when they have given birth. Calves naturally feed from their mother for about six months, in which time a strong bond is formed. At dairy farms, calves are whisked away from their mother within hours (or less), and the mother's often display distressed behaviour, such as bellowing, roaming and searching behaviours, often at the last place the mother was with her calf. This behaviour has been known to last for up to 6 weeks.

Then another question really started to get me thinking... what happens to the male calves that are born on a dairy farm? If the female calves replace the culled dairy cows, what happens to the males? (Dairy cows are slaughtered between 5 and 7 years of age, even though their natural lifespan is around 20 years. This is because the cows are unable to continually produce the unnaturally high rate of milk demanded by the dairy industry). Well, male calves that survive are usually sent to auction before they have even learned to walk properly. If they are not slaughtered immediately, they are raised as "milk-fed" veal. For this, they spend the next 16 weeks of their lives confined in semi-darkness in a crate not large enough for him to turn around, tied around the neck to further restrict movement. Stressed from being separated from his mother, the calves are fed on a milk replacer, a diet which is deliberately so low in iron that he will develop subclinical anemia. This is desired as it means that the calf's flesh retains the pale pink colour and soft texture, as opposed to the normal healthy red colour of a 16 week old calf. For this reason, calves are denied hay or straw for bedding (because he would eat it, and it contains iron, hence changing the colour of the meat); the same reason for the wooden stalls and neck tethers - no iron fittings as the calf would lick them and get iron, and if he could turn around, he would lick his own urine in an attempt to satisfy his craving for iron.

I urge you to sit through and watch this video all the way through, and check out this website for some more info.

(Yes I am aware that PETA have done some very stupid and unethical things. However this is why it is so important to do your own research from a variety of sources and come to your own decisions about the choices you make).

Personally, I am convinced by the arguments (those mentioned here are only the beginning) and am giving a vegan diet a go. Initially, it was difficult to give up cheese and especially milk, however I have found a brand of soy milk that is quite nice. We have also found varieties of vegan cheeses and yoghurts that are very tasty. From my experience, people are often uninformed about the variety of alternative choices of ethically sourced food out there. It only takes a bit of consideration and research to improve this.

I am not evangelising and in no way fanatical about veganism or vegetarianism. However the betrayal that we do to ourselves when we choose to be ignorant is denying ourselves the opportunity to make informed decisions about our food choices and ethical decisions. I encourage everyone to do their own research and make decisions that are best for them.


  1. So what do you think and feel whenever you watch a BBC documentary with David Attenborough showing a wasp injecting its eggs into someother creature which is eventually eaten alive from the inside? Or a leopard seal tearing a penguin into pieces, lions bringing down a gazelle, or even a spider paralysing a fly caught in its web? I always want the penguin and the gazelle to escape but the mice I rescued from our cat always died. Nature can appear cruel yet that is the reality of the natural world, much as it offends our delicate sensitivities.There is of course no place for cruelty to animals and its apalling what is done to innocent creatures for a buck. I support abolition of all these inhumane practices but not eating eggs milk and meat seems like an overreaction. The human being is not an ovolactovegetarian but an ominvore. Its not impossible to love and care for animals but still eat meat.

  2. Thanks for your feedback. It's irrelevant how I feel when watching such a documentary, as I try to base my arguments on reason, not appeals to emotion. These are necessary natural occurrences, a product of evolution by natural selection. A lion does not have the brain capacity and reasoning ability to make a more ethical choice, so it is not reasonable to expect them to do so.

    Humans however do have reasoning ability and the opportunity to make an ethical choice. Personally, I want to make the most ethical choice I can when it comes to choosing food. Did you read the part on the dairy cows? Did you see the video about them? This is exactly why I have cut out dairy food. I am still able to drink milk, I just choose the more ethical option that doesn't involve the suffering of animals. Same with cheese. Additionally, I choose meat substitutes which are tasty, healthy and the more ethical option.

    You say that you "support the abolition of all these inhumane practices, but not eating eggs milk and meat seems like an overreaction". By eating cheese, milk and meat, you are in fact supporting the suffering of animals and these factory farming industries, and are choosing the lesser ethical position. I think it is important to be well informed on where your food is sourced from so that you can make the most informed and appropriate decision.

  3. I have been vegitarian by necessity before, and may have to be again (growing our own vegies)currently trying to ween myself off coca cola products as well.

  4. If it weren't for factory farms fucking everything up, I'd be indifferent of eating eggs and milk. I still suggest veganism for health reasons. But with the torture factory farms inflict upon the animals, there's no way I'd feel comfortable about giving in to such a thing. I'm not vegan, but only for lack of choices and money. I'm in a redneck town with few vegan choices, and they're all very expensive. I want to go vegan soon.