Is Dairy The New Red Meat?

by Dave Steele

For years we have understood that abstaining from red meat is an important way to avoid disease, and tread lighter on the planet. Growing research now shows that avoiding dairy products may be just as key. After all, it does come from the same cow, and it certainly isn't natural.

Got the facts on milk? Read on...

On July 1st, the  Journal of the American Medical Association – Pediatrics published an editorial that might surprise you. The authors, Dr. David Ludwig and Dr. Walter Willett - both of whom are physicians and professors at the Harvard Medical School - strongly question the consumption of cows' milk, even by children.

Quoting their article, “Dairy milk evolved to promote the growth of grazing animals at high risk for predation when small. The consequences of lifetime human exposure to the growth factors in milk have not been well studied. Milk consumption increases serum concentrations of insulin-like growth factor 1, an anabolic hormone linked to prostate and other cancers. In addition, modern industrial methods maintain dairy cows in active milk production throughout successive pregnancies, resulting in a milk supply with high levels of reproductive hormones.”

They cite a large body of research to support their claims. Adequate calcium, they point out, is easily obtained from other sources. They note that dairy consumption is not protective against bone fractures and that it is strongly correlated with prostate cancer. As Drs. Ludwig and Willett say, we'd do much better getting our nutrients from diets that include green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and adequate protein.

None of this is news. That this advice is appearing in one of the world's preeminent pediatrics  journals highlights its importance.

A powerful industry's success story is coming to an end thanks to informed consumers and a changing population.

earthsave-consumersDespite law suits and multiple studies to the contrary, the dairy industry continues to use weight loss as a lure (magic yogurt anyone?). Meanwhile, the daily and ever-growing onslaught of dairy advertising, promoting everything from cheese to Greek yogurt to chocolate milk, highlights a desperate industry fighting against the turning tide of informed consumers. While our population swells with cultures who can't tolerate milk products (almost anyone who isn't northern european) serving meals that almost always contain dairy products becomes less and less equitable. But how can we make informed decisions if even the Canada Food Guide is on the milk man's side?

More on that here.

Safeguarding personal health, of course, is not the only good reason to avoid dairy products. Dairy cattle, like all cattle, are surprisingly heavy polluters.

Cows belch a lot of methane ¨C by most estimates 100 to 200 liters per day. Because methane is some 34 to 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (depending mostly on whether one counts its effects over 100 or 20 years, respectively) [1], this adds up to a huge impact on the climate. In fact, when one does the arithmetic, this amounts to about the same global warming effect, per cow, as a car. [2]

Cows also produce a lot of manure. According to the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food, better than 2 cubic feet of the stuff a day. [3] Besides polluting our waterways and sometimes our drinking water, this manure is responsible for enormous amounts of ammonia pollution. Indeed, the majority of all ammonia pollution comes from cows. [4] Much of this becomes nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, a gas which, at 300 times the effect of CO2, dwarfs even methane in its global warming potential molecule for molecule. [5]

earthsace-how-to-get-calciumThere is also indirect pollution involved in dairy production. Most important among those is the effects of corn and soy production. The great majority of corn and soy in North America and elsewhere is grown to feed animals. This is incredibly inefficient all around and cows are just about as inefficient as inefficient can be. According to Vaclav Smil's careful analysis, some 95% of the protein taken in by cattle is lost to humans. [6] We get only 5% of what we fed them back. This is made all the worse since it requires enormous amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to produce all of that corn and soy. Much of the fertilizer runs off into water ways and creates dead zones in lakes and bays and even the Gulf of Mexico.

All in all, dairy, like other animal agriculture, is highly polluting and highly wasteful. The fact is that dairy, like beef, is among the worst polluters, animal per animal, on earth.

Humans are the only known species that drinks the breast milk of another species, and the only one that continues to drink breast milk after being weaned.

And then, there's the plight of the cattle themselves. Like humans, cows have to give birth in order to produce milk. So, the cows are artificially inseminated once each year. Nine months later, a calf is born. Almost always, 24 to 48 hours after that, the calf is taken away. This causes great emotional pain both for the mother and for her offspring. Former cattle rancher Helen Weston describes how the mothers react: “The cow is an exceptionally loving and gentle creature. She cries for days when her calf is taken from her. It is a pitiful sound, a pitiful sound.”

'But I hardly ever drink milk...'

earthsave-cheese-milkWhile many will say that they 'hardly ever drink milk' these days, most eat other dairy products like coffee cream, cheese pizza, sauces, and yogurt, several times a day. Ice cream too. This adds up to a shocking amount of milk in the average person's diet. It's a wonder anyone has room left for fruit and vegetables with a belly full of 'the perfect food' (but only for baby cows).

Try this experiment: for one week check the ingredients of every food item you eat, and/or every meal served at your children's school (don't forget ingredients like whey and casein). How many items don't include a dairy product of some kind? You might be surprised to find that very few meals are dairy-free without modification of some kind. That is VERY profitable for the dairy industry (and those subsidized by them), but not for anyone else.

Female calves are usually allowed to live. She'll be raised to be another dairy cow. If the calf is male, however, he may well be quickly killed. Or he may be raised for beef. More likely, though, he'll be sent to a veal farm instead. At the veal farm, he'll probably be fed an iron-deficient gruel so that the meat will be pale.  He'll likely be chained by the neck in a tiny stall – with no room to walk or even turn. At 16 weeks of age, he will be sent to slaughter. According to the Humane Society of the USA, the veal industry would not exist were it not for the 'surplus' (i. e., male) dairy calves.

earthsave-dairycowsDairy cows are bred to produce unnatural amounts of milk. Annual milk production per cow has more than doubled since the 1940s. The cows routinely suffer calcium deficiencies and painful mastitis. And, while their natural lives would span some 25 years, they are sent to slaughter before their fifth birthday. They become hamburger and "processed" beef.

We don't need dairy. It does a great deal more harm than good. So, eat like the doctors from Harvard suggest. Adopt a high quality diet filled with beans and grains and leafy greens and nuts and seeds. Your body will be better off. The world will be better off.  And fewer cows will suffer so.

David Steele is a recently retired Research Scientist in the faculty of medicine at UBC. He holds a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology from Emory University, in Atlanta.  Dave is also the current president of Earthsave Canada.
  1. Working Group 1 Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Final Draft Undelying Scientific-Technical Basis. Geneva: IPCC Sectretariat, September 13, 2013
  2. An average car, driven 18,000 km per year, produces 4.8 metric tons of CO2 per year, which works out to 2,670,000 liters of CO2.  Cows produce between 36,500 and 73,000 liters of methane each year. When corrected using the multiplier for the 100 year average for methane (34X), this works out to the same effect as 1,241,000 to 2,481,000 liters of CO2. This is in the same league as the average car. If methane's effects are estimated over a 20 year period instead (a period more similar to the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere), the CO2-equivalent works out to 3,139,000 to 6,278,000 liters ¨C much worse than an average car.
  3. Farm Structures Fact Sheet: Sizing Dairy Manure Storage Facilities. BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Order No. 383.100-2. April 1990.
  4. Meisinger, J.J. and Jokela, W.E. Ammonia Volatilization from Dairy and Poultry Manure. In: Managing Nutrients and Pathogens from Animal Agriculture. Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Service, Ithaca, NY, 2000.
  5. Nitrous Oxide Emissions. US EPA. Accessed November 19, 2013
  6. Smil, V. Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Page 299.