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Many people choose to go vegetarian for ethical reasons but continue to consume dairy. After all, eating an animal’s flesh is different from consuming a by-product, because it doesn’t require an animal to die… So, no harm done, right?

Sadly, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. This is your guide to why vegans don’t drink milk or consume dairy products. Ever.

In reality, the dairy industry is just as bad – arguably worse – than killing animals for their flesh. The cow’s milk in your favourite Starbucks coffee does involve slaughter, as well as untold physical and emotional suffering for these intelligent, sentient beings.

Perhaps the real problem is that people don’t really want to know. Ignorance is bliss. And I get it, because, in many ways, I found it easier to go meat-free than dairy-free (read about my personal vegan journey here). When cheese has been proven to activate the same areas in the brain as drugs, it’s no surprise that we’re not all clamouring to give up our cheddar at once.

But I think it’s important that everyone is aware of the facts. At the very least, you should make an informed decision and be intentional about what you’re choosing to consume. Let’s take a look at why you should strongly consider switching out your cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives.

Infographic about the reasons why vegans choose not to consume dairy products

1. Ethical Reasons for Not Supporting the Dairy Industry

There are many ethical reasons for not supporting the dairy industry. But if we boil it right down to basics, it becomes clear in our treatment of animals that we have come to view them as ‘commodities’ or ‘things’. In other words, a means to an end for our own selfish wants and needs.

When the number one priority for modern industrial farming is how much milk a cow can produce, it’s unsurprising that their welfare becomes relegated or even entirely overlooked in the process.

Peter Singer calls this a ‘speciesist’ view in his book Animal Liberation. You can think of this in a similar way to sexism or racism. Human beings have prioritised their own needs above the right to life, dignity and freedom of other animals. But why should this be the case?

The Short, Confined Life of a Dairy Cow

2.6 million female cows are used for their milk every year in the UK, but their life typically follows the same short and tragic pattern:

  • Go through first pregnancy at around 15-25 months old
  • Calf taken away hours after birth
  • Hooked up to a milking machine for 10 months
  • Impregnated again
  • Cycle continues another 4-5 times
  • Body steadily becomes crippled by pregnancies & intensive milk production
  • Sold to a slaughterhouse for low-grade meat (like burgers) or leather

To put it into perspective, a healthy cow will generally live to a ripe old age of 15-20, but dairy cows are sold to slaughter anywhere between 4-6 years old. This is because, when their milk yield declines, they are no longer seen as useful or profitable to keep alive. Plus, this doesn’t even account for those that become lame or injured (these are often sent to slaughter at an even younger age).

An increasingly popular, industrial method of farming involves ‘zero-pasture’, meaning a life confined indoors on a hard concrete floor. Many dairy cows never even set foot in grassy fields or are able to engage in natural foraging behaviours – leading to boredom, depression and stress.

Let’s take a look at some of these troubling aspects we’ve touched on in more detail.

Cows grazing naturally in the wild

Artificial insemination by any other name is rape

It’s easy to assume that cows just naturally produce milk and we’re doing them a favour by milking them. However, like all mammals, cows only produce milk when they have babies to feed and nourish their young. It therefore quickly becomes apparent that constant milk production requires a succession of non-stop pregnancies.

If you have any sympathy with feminism, then the suffering of a dairy cow should really hit home. In a nutshell, this is a multi-billion dollar industry profiting off the exploitation of the female reproductive system.

Waiting for cows to naturally reproduce wouldn’t be very efficient, so female cows are ‘artificially inseminated’. This involves being held in a restraining rack while having an arm inserted into their rectum, before insertion of a metal instrument into the vagina.

‘Artificial insemination’ is just an emotionally detached way of saying ‘rape’. And it doesn’t matter what species you are – it’s never okay.

Separation of mother & cow after birth

Perhaps the most harrowing part of the dairy industry is the cruel separation of mother and calf.

Once a cow has carried her calf to full term, the newborn is taken away just hours after birth. Mother and baby will never see each other again.

Why? Because it doesn’t make sense for milk to be wasted on calves when milk production is intended for human consumption. This just cuts into profits.

Understandably, this causes a horrible amount of distress for both mother and child. In the days afterwards, it is common to hear the anguished cries of new mothers grieving. The trauma of this early separation also impairs the social and emotional development of calves.

While animals don’t possess our intelligence, I think anyone with an ounce of compassion can understand the universal love that is the bond between a mother and her child. It doesn’t require words. Cheese may taste good, but there is no cheese on earth worth denying a baby their mother’s milk.

Injuries & surgical procedures

Before industrial farming kicked in with full force, cows simply produced enough milk to feed their calves (about a gallon a day). Through selective breeding and artificial hormones like rBGH, cows can now produce up to 7.5 gallons of milk per day.

This drastic and unnatural increase in production, combined with poor living conditions on factory farms, results in many physical problems that can lead to chronic and debilitating pain. From continual pregnancy and exhaustion to foot rot caused by standing at length in their own faeces, many dairy cows will suffer from lameness.

Mastitis is also a common infection of the mammary gland that is caused by bacterial infection. This means incredibly painful udders (not helped by the constant milking). As if this weren’t enough, reports of abuse on dairy farms are sadly not unheard of either.

I think it’s worth pointing out that if pets were kept in these kinds of conditions, we would call it animal abuse. But because it happens in the name of dairy farming, a blind eye is turned.

Common surgical procedures also include:

  • Castration – A painful procedure for male calves raised for meat
  • Disbudding (removal of horns) – Most dairy cows would naturally grow horns, but typically they are removed using hot irons, chemicals or saws, often without any anaesthetic
  • Tail docking – A painful and largely unnecessary procedure, usually performed with no pain relief, which can lead to permanent nerve damage and chronic pain
Dairy cows being milked on a dairy farm

It’s not much better for males

If it doesn’t sound much fun being a female cow, then consider the alternative.

To put it bluntly, male cows have no value in the dairy industry because they can’t produce milk. In a system where animals are only deemed useful in terms of how they can serve humans, it’s not surprising that males pose an annoying problem to modern factory farming systems.

As such, the ‘solution’ is that male calves are either:

  • Sold straight to the slaughterhouse for meat
  • Sold to the veal industry

The veal industry

It says a lot that even staunch meat eaters will often refuse to eat veal for ethical reasons. But what most people don’t realise is that by purchasing dairy products, they are unconsciously and inadvertently supporting this industry.

If you don’t know much about veal, then suffice it to say that… it’s abhorrent. Veal is the meat from calves that are killed at just a few months old. Known for its tenderness and mild flavour, in the past it has traditionally been regarded as a delicacy and status symbol.

In order to make veal, calves must be chained up so that they are unable to turn around or lie down comfortably. They are also fed a liquid diet that contains no iron or fibre. This is to ensure they don’t develop any muscles, which keeps their anaemic flesh pale and tender – all to satisfy a human’s tastebuds.

If the dairy industry directly supports veal production, then consider whether you want to continue playing a part in this cruel system.

2. Environmental Reasons for Avoiding Dairy

Cowspiracy brought the environmental impact of meat eating to the world’s attention. But did you know that the dairy industry also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and deforestation? Alongside ethics, many vegans therefore choose to avoid dairy out of concern for the environment.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The meat and dairy industries combined account for roughly 14.5% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions – significantly more than plant-based alternatives.

Due to the way their digestive system works, cows produce a huge amount of methane (not something they can particularly help). And, when kept in large numbers on industrial-scale farms, it only amplifies the issue. This gas is a major contributor to global warming – potentially up to 84 times more than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period!

To put it into perspective, according to PETA, the 13 largest dairy companies in the world produce as much greenhouse gas as the entire United Kingdom.

Environmental campaigners with "No Planet B" signs

Water pollution

Alongside chicken farming, the dairy industry is a leading cause of water pollution in the UK. Slurry (AKA the waste from cows) gets washed into rivers and waterways, wreaking havoc on the environment and wildlife.

This is also happening on a larger scale in the world’s oceans, where algae blooms are sucking oxygen out of the water and contributing to worrying ocean ‘dead zones’.

Deforestation

Animal agriculture requires a huge amount of land for the amount of calories it produces. This excessive need for more and more space leads to deforestation, which in turn contributes to global warming, biodiversity loss, and the displacement of indigenous populations.

3. Health Reasons for Ditching Dairy Products

For health-conscious vegans, there are many benefits to cutting down on animal products like meat and dairy (or, better yet, eliminating them altogether).

Growing up, you may remember being inundated with adverts promoting the dairy industry as one of the cornerstones of a healthy diet. You’d be forgiven for thinking that your bones would be brittle and underdeveloped without your daily glass of milk or fromage frais. However, this assumed wisdom is now increasingly being challenged.

When you think about it, a cow’s milk is tailored to the specific nutritional needs of baby cows. Calves have four stomachs and need to gain a lot of weight quickly. For humans, milk is therefore high in fat, unnecessary hormones, and difficult to digest. It is also linked to many illnesses.

Let’s take a look at some of these risk factors.

Dairy contains potentially harmful hormones

There are a couple of factors at play here. Dairy cows are pumped full of artificial chemicals in order to keep disease at bay in cramped factory farm conditions – hormones which you can’t help but ingest when you consume dairy products. On top of this, cow’s milk also contains natural hormones intended for baby calves.

Three of the largest risk factors for cancer can be found in dairy, including animal protein, estrogen, and fat. There is also a link to cancer in casein – a chemical in milk intended to help a calf bond with its mother.

Check out Nutrition Fact’s video above for more on the link between dairy and cancer.

Saturated fats & increased risk of heart disease

Milk is intended to nourish baby cows, therefore it is naturally high in saturated fat and cholesterol to help calves grow. However, when we consume too much of these products (especially past infancy), it can eventually lead to chronic conditions like heart disease.

Dairy is often championed for its calcium content, but what many people don’t realise is that it comes with a lot of bad alongside the good. There are many plant-based alternatives where you can obtain calcium in a purely beneficial way (leafy greens like kale, for instance, or fortified plant milks).

Another irony is that medical studies show that milk may actually increase a woman’s risk of getting osteoporosis. As Dr T. Colin Campbell points out:

The association between the intake of animal protein and fracture rates appears to be as strong as that between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

4. It’s Unnecessary

My final point is to emphasise that drinking the milk of a cow is just… well, pretty weird when you stop to think about it.

As we’ve discussed, milk is designed to help a calf develop into a healthy adult. There isn’t another species on the planet that drinks its mother’s milk past infancy (yep, that would be a bit icky), let alone drinks the milk from the mother of another species.

Despite what the dairy industry would have you believe, humans have absolutely no need for milk or dairy products. At some point in time, we have mutated to be able to digest cow’s milk, but it’s safe to say that consuming dairy is far from ‘natural’. In fact, most people are still lactose intolerant to some extent (think inexplicable skin flair-ups, acne, allergies, and bloating).

An assortment of dairy products

How Do Vegans Replace Dairy in Their Diet?

Cutting out dairy can be a bit of a daunting prospect at first, especially if you love cheese. And I say this as a previous cheese addict, so I really do understand this first-hand!

The good news is that there is more choice than ever before for vegans in 2024, with loads of cruelty-free dairy alternatives now available in supermarkets. These are usually fortified with important nutrients like iron, zinc and calcium, plus they contain no nasties like growth hormones or cholesterol. I’ve written a more in-depth guide on how to go dairy-free, but in short, some common dairy alternatives include:

Why not start the transition slowly? There’s no harm in switching out one or two dairy products for plant-based options, and just seeing how you get on.

Going Dairy-Free: The Kinder Choice for Animals, the Planet & Your Own Health

One day, people won’t be asking “Why don’t vegans drink milk,” but rather, “Why did people drink milk?”

Cows are gentle and intelligent animals by nature. They develop complex hierarchical social structures, form lifelong friendships, enjoy being playful, and have a powerful and instinctive desire to nurture their young.

In contrast, cows on dairy farms experience miserably short, confined lives that (despite many misconceptions) always end in slaughter. Throughout this cruel process, we also harm our planet and put ourselves at risk of various health problems.

I know it’s hard to read about, but I hope that you now have a better overall understanding of why vegans avoid dairy. You might consider the reasons not to consume eggs and go vegan yourself, too! The realities of the dairy industry are deliberately kept out of sight, out of mind. At least now, you can’t say that you didn’t know.

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