To Milk or not to Milk 

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Milk – we’re all familiar with it. Almost everyone consumes it. In liquid form or processed in numerous dairy products. Some even bathe in it. On World Milk Day, June 1st of every year, the dairy lobby celebrates the white liquid. And every year dairy opponents speak out against the consumption of animal milk. Milk. Yay? Nay? On the fence?

The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung (German Food Association, DGE) recommends daily consumption of milk and dairy products. Claus Leitzmann, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Science affirms that milk is an important source of nutrients. Yet, “Milk is only an ideal food for calves.” Milk supplies us most importantly with calcium, which we need to keep our bones strong. But there are other ways to get calcium, better ways: leafy greens, kale, certain kinds of beans, broccoli and sesame seeds, for instance.

Humans weren’t always milk drinkers. Only Infants used to be able to digest lactose, the sugar contained in milk. But with the spread of agriculture and animal husbandry did the first Europeans grow accustomed to milk sugar. Dr. Karin Bürkert of Tübingen University explains that the human body reacts to changes in its environment and over time adapts to its respective way of living. According to this there cannot be a purely “natural” human diet. Diet is, rather, always culturally determined.

So we all know what milk is. But how does that whole cow thing work? According to a survey conducted by the Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung (Consumer Research Association, GfK), over 35% of the 1,000 participants thought that a cow gives generally milk. Approximately 23% had no answer.

Does a cow have to birth a calf in order to give milk? Yes. Cows are mammals and only give milk after birthing a calf. For contemporary agriculture with its intensive livestock farming, that means a cow has to calve every year in order to give milk. The milk doesn’t just go to the calf but to people. It’s all about maximum profit, causing the calf to be separated from its mother a few hours or days after its birth. On the way we get our milk and its effects on our health, which the nutritionist, Leitzman, explains as such: “Milk comes from permanently pregnant cows and contains growth hormones. Both pose health risks for adults. Milk leads to irritation of mucus membranes, such as acne, and dairy protein is expected to increase the risk of prostate cancer and diabetes.”

Our high-performance society also stops at nothing in the dairy industry. The animal rights organization, Animal Equality, supported last week’s actions against milk consumption with the motto, “Milk Consumption Hurts!” On Helmholzplatz in Berlin activists raised consciousness regarding dairy industry conditions while simultaneously promoting alternatives free of animal suffering. Passersby could taste their way through various plant-based milks, such as oat, rice and soy. They do exist. There are alternatives.

But back to cow’s milk. Are there really no animal-based alternatives free of suffering in intensive milk production? They do exist, but you don’t find them on supermarket shelves. And they won’t sustain the milk-drinking masses. At the Schwalbennest Farm near Brodowin, calves are not separated from but raised by their mothers. This produces less milk, of course, and the calves are allowed to drink from it. Five cows and 45 milk sheep live on the farm, which is one of few operations to practice mother-oriented dairy farming. Of course, this method isn’t providing big cities with all the milk they need. But it could be a niche for smaller-scale farmers that can no longer compete with their large-scale counterparts.

Image: Brigitte

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