Telling the truth about dairy on “World Milk Day”

June 1 is World Milk Day (a FAO initiative). In my country (Belgium) the dairy industry is handing out milk cockails at a number of train stations to make milk more hip. Still, milk is under pressure.

I know some vegans like to say that milk is actually detrimental for calcium and strong bones, but that seems to be putting it too strong. I think it is safer to say that the benefits of dairy consumption for strong bones are still not clear at all, and there might be an increased risk of e.g. prostate cancer. In any case, we do know that 1) there’s good plant based sources of calcium and 2) other things besides calcium are important or strong bones (like exercise).

Calcium (and other nutrients in milk like B vitamins) are important. But it’s very important to note that the advice to consume lots of dairy every day for strong bones, is not just a health inspired advice but also – and in the first place – a commercially inspired advice. Diary is used as synonymous with calcium, which is of course misleading.

In the US, plant based milk alternatives take in about eight percent of the dairy market by now, in spite of agressive milk advertising. There’s soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, oat milk etc. Maybe even more significantly, just like artificial (lab) meat is approaching, artificial milk might hit the shelves a lot sooner. Muufri (pronounced moo-free), a start-up in Silicon Valley, is developping a biotech product that should be an exact replica of milk, both in terms of nutritional quality as well as taste. The proteins that you find in milk will be obtained on the basis of yeast injected with cow DNA. Products like these don’t have the aura of “natural” speaking in their favor, but of course milk has lost its naturalness a long time ago. By the way, this is a good example why vegans might think twice about being anti biotech engineering of food.

These milk alternatives may offer solutions for the problems associated with dairy. We all know how cows emit methane. And of course milk production requires that cows give birth yearly. The calves are separated from their mother on day one or very soon, as the milk is of course… for us. Some people might call this sentimental, but they haven’t heard a mother cow scream for days after her baby has been taken away.

There is the question of what to think about small scale farmers in developing countries who are directly dependent on their cows for their livelihood. I think our priority is in the first place with what happens in the first world and what consumers can do there, but we should already be open for other solutions in the third world too. It has to be noted that the majority of cow-related greenhouse gasses is actually from developing countries. Conversion from feed to food (milk or meat) is much less efficient there, which in the long run will undoubtedly change, and become detrimental for animal welfare (while better for the environment).

Dairy may be the easiest source of calcium, but it is not the healthiest, most sustainable or most animal friendly one. While the dairy industry wants to keep us to cling to the cow’s udder, it’s smarter to be open for alternatives and to remove the cow from the food chain, slowely but surely.

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