Go Vegan World’s campaign against milk caused a stir within the dairy industry. We look at the claims from both sides of the argument
The National Farmers’ Union issued its battle cry in the form of a strongly worded letter to The Sunday Times. “[Pro vegan] adverts like this dishearten the nation’s dairy farmers,” wailed NFU dairy board chairman and dairy farmer Michael Oakes.
The advert he was referring to was part of Go Vegan World’s ongoing campaign to promote veganism. As part of the initiative, the group had paid for a full page ad in weekend paper. The message in the advert was: “Dairy Takes Babies from their Mothers.” While he didn’t refute the central claim in the advertisement, he did say that animal welfare is paramount to dairy farmers – whether the animals are destined for the meat or dairy chain. Most significantly, he described Go Vegan World’s claims as ‘misleading’.
According to the vegan group, it was not trying to mislead anyone, rather depict an accurate picture of the dairy industry – and one that is supported by evidence. GVW Campaign Director – and Founder of the Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary – Sandra Higgins said: “For the NFU to defend the dairy industry by referring to animal welfare and benign treatment entirely misses the point of the campaign.
“Veganism is about justice. Justice can’t be accorded to others unless we are willing to swap places with them. None of us would voluntarily choose the life and death of any mammal used in the dairy industry or any other form of animal agriculture or animal use. The only way to be fair is to abolish all use of them. There is no need for farmers to feel threatened or disheartened about veganism. We will need and value farmers more than ever in a vegan world.
“Farmers can rest assured that there will be no more vocal and effective a voice in ensuring that they receive all necessary support to transition to alternative, more ethical and sustainable ways of making a living, than that of the vegan community. Other animals share our capacity to feel and have an interest in living for their own reasons. To respect this fact, we are morally obliged not to use them.”
This run-in was just one incident in the dairy industry’s prolonged attack on veganism – happening both here and in the States. Some months earlier a number of congressmen in America had got their knickers in a twist over the use of the word ‘milk’ to sell plant-based beverages. A letter to the country’s Food and Drug Administration [FDA] said: “While consumers are entitled to choose imitation products, it is misleading and illegal for manufacturers of these items to profit from the ‘milk’ name. These products should be allowed on the market only when accurately labelled. We urge the FDA to enforce this matter by requiring plant-based products to adopt a more suitable name that does not include the word ‘milk’.
“As you are aware, milk has a clear standard of identity defined as ‘the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by complete milking of one or more healthy cows’.”
The letter appeared to labour under the idea that hapless consumers were unwittingly purchasing the plant-based products in the belief they were, like dairy milk, derived from an animal. The idea was dismissed by some. Writing in the LA Times, columnist Emily Byrd described the intervention as ‘Big Food stepping in to squelch competition’. She said: “There’s something else going on here. Whatever lawmakers may say, they’re trying to protect the dairy industry, not consumers.
“Dairy is struggling. The latest data from the USDA show that Americans are drinking nearly 40 per cent less dairy milk than they were a few decades ago. (In 1970, the average American was drinking about 12 ounces of milk per day. Now it’s closer to seven ounces.) This fall, the USDA stepped in to buy $20 million worth of cheese to reduce a glut caused by lack of demand. The dairy industry’s response to this socialist price support? ‘Not enough!’
“Consumers are not buying plant-based milk because they have been tricked into believing they actually came from a cow. Some are interested in exploring new flavours or finding healthy alternatives to cow’s milk; others have concerns about the environmental impact of conventional milk production or object to the treatment of dairy cows.”
It’s important to look at the context of the escalating row between the dairy industry and vegans.
The rise in plant milk sales that Emily Byrd outlined in her article are mirrored on this side of the pond, with UK consumers increasingly choosing to go dairy-free. This year saw non-dairy milk enter the Office for National Statistic’s [ONS] ‘inflation basket’ for the first time ever. This is significant: according to ONS senior statistician Phil Gooding: “The annual basket review enables us to keep up to date with all the latest trends, ensuring our inflation measures reflect the changing costs experienced by consumers.” In other words, being added to the inflation basket reflects a significant increase in sales, which in this case the ONS put down to ‘the rise of campaigns such as Veganuary, where some people go vegan for a month’.
In tandem with the rise in consumer demand for plant milks, dairy farmers continue to face falling incomes. Official statistics released this year by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs [DEFRA] said average incomes on dairy farms are expected to fall by just under 50 per cent in 2016/17 to £22,500, putting the drop down to a combination of lower milk prices and reduced production. Dairy farmers saw their incomes fall by 49 per cent in 2015/16 to an average of £42,300 (this figure include payments that dairy farmers are expected to receive under the EU Milk Reduction Fund).
The drop prompted MP Tim Farron to write to the Groceries Code Adjudicator [GCA]. The leader of the Lib Dem Party said urged the organisation to launch a probe into the ‘failure of supermarkets to support British dairy farmers by failing to pay a fair price for milk’.
He said: “During the coalition, the Lib Dems worked hard to set up the GCA to help get a fair deal for farmers – it needs to do its job. This crash in incomes will have been devastating for many dairy farmers who are struggling to make ends meet.
“The GCA needs to look into the industry as a whole to make sure that our farmers receive a fair price for their produce.It must stand up for ordinary dairy farmers to ensure they aren’t exploited by processors or supermarkets, and can make a decent living from farming.”
This falling income is perhaps the reason behind The NFU’s over-zealous response to Go Vegan World’s advert in The Times. But despite farmers feeling threatened by the growth of veganism, organisations such as The Vegan Society and Go Vegan World itself have said that while they don’t support animal agriculture, they support farmers, and would support any possible moves into plant-based industry. Go Vegan World founder Sandra Higgins told Vegan Life: “Feedback shows a misconception about veganism from the animal agricultural industry which has reacted very negatively to the campaign, particularly the dairy sector. They have attempted to justify their use of other animals by referencing adherence to welfare regulations, failing to understand that the goal of Go Vegan World is for members of the public to completely cease using other animals by being vegan. Understandably, some people employed in the animal agriculture industries are defensive and fear that their livelihoods are being threatened by Go Vegan World. We are always at pains to point out how highly valued farmers will be in a plant-based economy.”
The Vegan Society adds: “By supporting UK farmers who are interested in transitioning from ‘livestock’ farming to growing more local, sustainable crops, [our farming campaign]Grow Green offers one practical solution to climate change as well as a way to eliminate the suffering of farm animals. One of the ways to achieve this aim is to first petition the government to shift agricultural subsidies in support of environmental protections post-Brexit. This opens up a dialogue with parliament and builds public appetite for subsidy reform. After we’ve achieved this, our next goal is to make sure these subsidies are directed away from animal agriculture, into plant protein crops.”
Increasing evidence suggests this move away from dairy is more crucial than ever. A recent ground-breaking investigation by charity Animal Equality uncovered a breach of animal welfare laws on a Dorset farm JF Cobb & Sons – which [at the time of going to press] supplies milk to retail giant Marks and Spencer.
According to Animal Equality: “Animal Equality [took] footage from a UK dairy farm flouting animal welfare laws which ban solitary housing for calves beyond eight weeks old. The footage shows calves up to six months old caged in solitary pens, many so big they can barely take a step forward or back. It also shows them struggling to get into plastic hutches, designed to shelter them in poor weather, resulting in large open sores on their backs.
“Separating day-old calves from their mothers and confining them in solitary pens is standard practice on dairy farms around the world. However, under UK law calves must be moved to group housing at eight-weeks old to fulfil their strong need for social interaction. The footage captured by Animal Equality also shows large calves desperately trying to groom each other through the metal divides of their individual pens.”
Animal Equality alerted Dorset Trading Standards which checked the registration dates of the ear tag numbers on calves in our photographs and confirmed that many were older than eight-weeks old. M&S also sent in auditors.
Marks & Spencer said: “We are very disappointed to see these images; any breach of our standards is completely unacceptable.Our experts are on site and working with the farm to take immediate action and all necessary steps to address the situation.
“We work hard to uphold the highest welfare standards.”
Despite the age of the animals, Trading Standards was satisfied
Partner Nick Cobb said: ‘We work closely with vets and industry welfare experts to establish the best approach to looking after our animals and our health and welfare performance is industry-leading. There is no suggestion that the health and welfare of our animals has been compromised.
“We have been in liaison with Marks & Spencer and our milk buyer over this matter and last week spot audits were undertaken, including from Trading Standards. All of these audits were passed successfully, with no concerns over animal welfare.”
Dr Toni Shephard, executive director of Animal Equality UK, said: “Seeing row after row of baby calves alone in tiny pens — when they should naturally still be with their mothers — is truly heartbreaking. But realising that many of these are actually older female calves who, contrary to UK animal welfare law, have been confined like this for many months is shocking.”
She added: “UK animal welfare law recognises how vitally important exercise and social interaction is for calves and restricts solitary housing to just eight weeks, yet on this farm Animal Equality found female calves as old as six months cramped and suffering in individual pens.
“We are calling on M&S to break ties with this supplier immediately. We urge all supermarkets to implement a zero-tolerance policy when farms break animal welfare laws.”
This increasing awareness of how dairy cows and their calves are treated is continuing to have an impact on retailers and hospitality businesses. Alongside mainstream chains like Zizzi incorporating non-dairy options onto menus, independents are also catering to the vegan crowd. The recent conversion of one London café to veganism again prompted the ire of The NFU. North London coffee shop The Fields Beneath removed dairy from its menu on Mother’s Day this year, after the owners learnt about dairy production watching videos online.
Café owner, Gavin Fernback, said: “We started off under the radar,’ explains Gavin. ‘We switched the croissants for vegan ones without shouting about it. It was a slow transition with me being there to talk to customers a lot about it. We went veggie in December, dropped cheese in Feb and were fully vegan by the end of March.
“We ran a special offer: 30 coffees for £30 from January, giving people a really strong incentive to try dairy-free for 30 coffees. By the end of it, we hoped that choosing dairy-free would be normal, they’d keep buying coffee from us and they’d stick to non-dairy. More than 150 people signed up and almost everyone has kept with the new milks.
“We do consider what farmers are putting out there and it is nothing personal against them. They are not bad people. But there is a disconnect between how farmers love animals and how we love animals. Vegans help challenge that missing link.
“As soon as that disconnect is broken, the idea of killing a cow becomes as mad as killing your own dog, your own brother.”
Admitting that the vegan message is ‘not going away’ NFU dairy board chairman Michael Oakes said: “There a lots of good things and lots of positives to dairy farming but the industry needs to work together to get the message out there. Cows are not just a source of milk but actually we get attached to them and you would not be able to be a dairy farmer if you did not like cows. It is very disheartening when we know how hard we work to protect the welfare of our animals.”
And where was this reported? In the Farmers Guardian in an article entitled ‘Dairy industry needs positive promotion to fight veganism’.
The signs are looking good: mylk (not milk) is here to stay.