You’ve heard about cage-free chickens and pasture-raised pork, but what about slaughter-free dairy? Recently, a couple of dairies have made headlines for taking a Hindu-inspired approach to milk production.
In India, where cows are revered as sacred animals, most cows are safe from slaughter but milk is still in high demand. Indeed, the country is one of the world's largest producers of cow milk, second only to the United States. When Indian milk cows grow too old to produce, they're put out to pasture, and their bull calves are used to pull carts and plow fields.
Those practices stand in stark contrast to the industrial dairies of the U.S. and other western nations, where dairy cows are typically milked for about five years before getting turned into low-grade hamburger or pet food. Male calves born to these dairy cows are the primary source of veal—hence the "milk-fed" veal on your local Italian restaurant's menu.
For better or for worse, that’s how things currently stand.
But dairies like Pennsylvania's Gita Nagari Creamery are trying to bring India's more compassionate cattle care to the U.S. market, and hoping that the growing segment of the populace that demands cruelty-free, sustainably raised food will buy in.
“The cows have worked hard and provided for us," Gita Nagari co-president Pari Jata told Modern Farmer. "When they’re not productive, they deserve to be taken care of.”
This extended care is reflected in the pricing of the creamery’s products: Milk comes at $10 a gallon, which includes a $2.50 fee to support the dairy cows' retirement and a $1.50 fee that helps defer the cost of keeping male calves.
Gita Nagari has a 60-head herd that produces up to 600 gallons a week, though less than half of them are actively milked. The rest pull plows, or just live out the remainder of their happy, carefree days chewing cud. Makes you want to sing “Kumbayah,” right?
But according to a recent piece from Mother Jones, there could be a dark side to the practice. Consumers may have to make a hard choice between being compassionate toward animals and doing what's best for the environment.
Cows are this nation’s largest producers of methane, a natural gas more than 20 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide, according to EPA research. Methane is released into the air by oil extraction, trash decomposition, and... cattle digestion. That’s right, folks: Cow farts really are destroying the ozone. In fact, cows produce 18% of the world's greenhouse gases—more than the entire transportation sector.
So you can understand how keeping more of them around to produce the same amount of milk on slaughter-free farms (27 million more, according to MJ's numbers) is a lose-lose solution for environmentalists, no matter how attractive it may seem to animal rights activists. With the soybean boom eating up precious South American rainforest and the almond milk craze drying up California's water reserves, this wouldn’t be the first vegetarian trend to strain the environment.
For its part, Gita Nagari is trying to offset some of these environmental costs. Manure is used to fertilize produce, and bulls—not tractors—plow the fields. The Hare Krishnas who tend to and live at the Gita creamery even use an anaerobic digester to convert manure into cooking gas. Implementing this sort of thing on a national scale, though, would be incredibly difficult.
If we really want slaughter-free dairy to become a part of our future, then we need to first break away from our supermarket mentality of constant availability. If dairy milk were to become a luxury instead of a dietary staple, something like slaughter-free dairies could work. But as ever, striking the right balance will be difficult.
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