Other Vegan Views articles
Milk and Calcium by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 82 (Spring/Summer 1999)

There is a legend on the Indian sub-continent that in times far beyond human memory, there was a time of famine when humans were saved by taking the milk of cows. For this reason, cows were held to be sacred and allowed to roam free without hindrance. When I explained to someone from Pakistan that I did not drink milk because of the way cows and calves were exploited, he was shocked and explained that where he came from, calves were allowed to suckle their mothers before humans took any milk. That was decades ago and I think the march of progress has brought a more commercial attitude. I suppose Western methods now prevail.

The attitude of Western nations is to maximise production without respect to animals. Finding that cow's milk provides nutrition, we therefore devise ways of increasing the amount of milk from each cow. The calf is taken away from its mother after 2 or 3 days, so that it does not take the milk that was destined for the calf but which we want for ourselves. The cow is made pregnant again as soon as possible so that she can be constantly lactating and when, through exhaustion, her milk yield begins to fall, she is sent to the knacker's yard for her carcass to become meat, her skin for leather, her bones and blood to provide fertiliser and to provide gelatin (also spelt gelatine).

The aim is to use the animal to maximum output. The welfare of the cow has no priority. Dairy cows are bred to give unnatural yields of milk and, by milking them dry each time, they are stimulated to produce to the maximum continuously. No wonder that their unnaturally swollen udders trail to the ground and that their rear legs suffer under the heavy weight. No wonder either that they are prone to disease: brucellosis and TB being common, even when treated with antibiotics. As Tuberculosis has been found in badgers, they have been blamed for the prevalence of the TB, instead of looking for the cause in the way cows are treated. As a result badgers are being slaughtered in certain areas in the hope this will reduce the TB in cows.

Children may be told that "the cow gives us her milk", but I have never heard of a cow offering her milk to any but her calf. The bond between cow and calf is very strong and it has been known for them to joyfully recognise each other after a year's separation, after which they become inseparable. The fact is that we take the milk from cows by cunning and force.

But why should adults drink milk? It is designed to feed young mammals until they can adapt to better foods at weaning. And why give human babies the milk of cows, sheep or goats? The milk of each species differs and is designed to promote the growth of each species into an adult of that species. The constituents of cow's milk, for instance, provide quick growth for an animal that does not require a highly developed brain. Human milk is constituted quite differently and does not need to provide quick growth, as the infants are cared for by their parents over a longer period, but it does nourish a more sophisticated organism and a very complex brain. The biological fact is that cow's milk is an inferior product for humans to the breast milk of the human mother. Breast milk is consumed at body temperature and directly, so there is no danger of contamination in the air. Raw milk, that is unpasteurised milk, is now considered unhygienic and milk for sale has to have been heat treated under carefully controlled conditions. A recent outbreak of distressful, life threatening disease by E Coli 157 food poisoning was suspected of being caused by incorrect treatment (known as pasteurisation). Dairy products are implicated in respiratory problems. Milk is suitably balanced for the suckling infant but becomes over-rich after weaning. As a consequence, excessive mucous is formed and this clogs up the respiratory passages and leads to breathing difficulties and earaches.

Cow's milk, as we are often told, is rich in calcium. This is needed for the calf to grow big, strong bones. For human adults, the high level of protein in milk, usually coupled to a high level of protein in other foods gives the body high acidity. To counteract this high acidity, the body takes alkalines from other parts of the body, mostly from the bones. The bones are weakened and become brittle, a condition known as osteoporosis, which affects mainly older people. As a remedy for osteoporosis, people are told to drink more milk, as this is known to be high in calcium. But a higher intake of milk only increases the acidity in the body and aggravates the problem.

The peoples in the frozen North (eg Inuits) have one of the highest protein diets in the world and also the highest incidence of osteoporosis in the world. Countries where dairy products and calcium supplements are consumed in the greatest quantity (USA, UK, Sweden, Finland) have the highest incidence of osteoporosis. Countries with the lowest incidence of osteoporosis are those where the least amount of dairy produce is consumed (the Asian and African countries). The digestion of milk requires a special enzyme and this may disappear after weaning if dairy products cease to be consumed. It would seem that this happens with some African peoples and when they are offered something like dried milk, they were unable to digest it.

There is an ample supply of calcium available to vegans. After all, where do cow's get their calcium from, if not from green leaves? All green leaves provide an ample supply of calcium for vegans (eg lettuce or broccoli). There is also plenty in nuts, grains and pulses. So if you take soya milk and wholemeal bread, as many vegans do, you will not need to worry about calcium. White flour has had the calcium extracted during the milling process, but the law insists on calcium being added to white flour, so you will not go short of it if you eat white bread.

In its early days (probably in 1945) the Vegan Society, published a Pamphlet 'Is Milk A Curse?' written by a medical doctor who distanced himself from the moral stance of the Society but condemned the use of cow's milk on scientific grounds. He pointed out that until the end of the Eighteenth century, cow's milk was made into butter or cheese but never given to babies. He summarised his attitude by a number of propositions which he called Nature's Intentions', as follows:

Nature's Intention No. 1: When nature designed the mammary gland for the nourishment of the young immediately after birth, she intended the milk only to be used as a temporary measure both in the interest of the mother and the child.

Nature' Intention No. 2: She fixed the composition of the milk in each species with the intention that it should be used only for that species.

Nature's Intention No. 3: When she forms the milk in the mammary gland it is sterile, and her intention is that it should pass directly from the gland through the teat straight into the stomach of the offspring without contact with the contaminating air, or the destructive action of light.

This neatly sums up the physical objections to the use of milk and its derivatives. On the moral side we see the cow as probably the most exploited animal in our highly exploiting modern intensive farming. And yet dairy products are not only illogical and unnecessary for human health, but they are a cause of much ill-health, apart from the diseases resulting from intensive farming or the failure in hygiene precautions (as in the recent cases of E Coli poisoning.)

A decrease in the use of dairy products should therefore result in an improvement of general health and a reduction in the heavy cost of the Health Service, as well as a relief from the heavy exploitation of the cow - the animal which humans now subject to great abuse. The logic of modern farming methods, however, drives in the opposite direction. Their scheme is to extract the greatest quantity of milk from each cow in order to lower production costs, by injecting cows with BST (bovine somatrophin) a hormone which increases the yield of each cow. Since cows already have hugely extended udders which trail to the ground and lead to the infection of bruscellosis and legs weakened from the strain of overweight, this can only lead to greater stress and suffering of the cow and there is no call for extra demand for milk, anyway. BST should not be confused with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or mad cow disease, which is a brain affliction we have inflicted on cows through the economy of feeding them unwanted parts of other animals, although no cow ever went scavenging around dead carcasses. The worry about BSE arises from its likely infection to dozens of humans, without concern about the agony it has caused to untold numbers of cows and the shooting of millions of them as a preventive measure. BST is now in regular use in the USA but has been banned by Europe. The US producers of BST claim that there is no proof that it is harmful to humans and say that Europe is imposing a restriction on free trading, which is illegal under the rules of the WTO. The European Commission is continuing to resist imports of BST, but it may have difficulty in resisting the pressure of strong international corporations and, would you believe it, the corporation marketing BST is Monsanto, who are already trying to impose Genetically Modified foods on an unwilling and justifiably suspicious British public. The public's strong suspicions over GM foods continues to limit crop experiments in the UK, in spite of a government willing to give way to the interests of big business.

The use of the milk of cows, sheep or goats may have been justified in the far distant past in desperate conditions of famine or near famine. To have used butter and cheeses in the Middle Ages during the winter when there was a lack of vegetables, can be understood; but to turn dairy produce into a regular part of the modern diet when so many other and better alternatives are available has led to cruel exploitation of animals and a decrease in human health.

Giving up milk makes sense.

Related Vegan Views articles...
Cross-reference: Milk