About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rumors, the Dairy Industry, and the Internet

Cass Sustein has a new book out that I want to read, "Rumors." From a little blurb I read in Time magazine, I learned that it's about the internet, and the well-known fact that rumors spread like wildfire here and that an alarming number of people think they can learn what they need to know from Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Twitter and MySpace. It's also about WHY we believe what we read. As a legal scholar, Sustein wants to toughen libel laws. I know NADA about that, but it sounds like a good idea.

I mention all of this because, as you all know, I'm rather fond of the internet (Facebook, The Huffington Post blog, the NYT website, a few friends' blogs, and even Twitter). I find myself inundated with "information," much of it contradictory, and I myself don't know WHAT to believe. If somebody with a couple of masters degrees and a Ph.D. is in this position, how much more likely will somebody with far less formal schooling be also?? I actually think, when it comes to all this information, that the gift my education gives me is the gift of doubt. But honestly, not much more.

One example: the dairy-is-so-bad-for-you-and-the-environment argument. As most of you know, I've been mulling over this one for about five months now.

This argument is usually supported by the following claims:

1) Dairy cows are mistreated, so buying dairy directly supports this animal abuse. This claim I by-and-large believe.

2) Dairy is linked to all sorts of human maladies, from cancer to diabetes to obesity. Actually, I've read some info that claims exactly the opposite -- that dairy may provide some protection against colon cancer, for instance. And of course, the well-publicized claim that milk "does a body good." For now, I'm on the fence as to whether I believe that milk definitely CAUSES things like cancer and diabetes and obesity. I'm also on the fence about whether milk definitely PROTECTS against any of those, too. My jury, for now, is OUT. I'm hedging my bets by consuming far less dairy than most Americans, but I still have a little every now and then. People have, after all, been consuming milk and cheese for a L-O-N-G time.

3) Factory farming contributes to environmental degradation. I believe this one. Lots of animal waste runs off into water supplies, for instance. ICK.

4) The world could feed more people by growing PLANTS for them to eat than by using land for animal grazing. I believe this claim, too.

5) Cows are repeatedly raped (with a mechanical device filled with sperm) in order to be kept pregnant. I also believe this one. In general, this procedure (and claim #1) falls into the well-known pattern of whenever-something-is-commercialized-the-dangers-of-abuses-rise. Dairy farmers want to produce a lot of milk, so they resort to "techniques" to ensure just that. If you had your own cow in your backyard, you probably wouldn't be doing this, and you'd probably just milk her until she didn't give milk anymore (I've read that the average cow can give milk, decreasing in quantity over time, for about 2-3 years). If you owned a cow, you'd probably milk her for 24 months, then let her go to pasture, get a younger cow and start the process all over again. But most of us don't have a cow conveniently located in our backyards. Pity.

6) Only pregnant and recently-birthed cows produce milk. Actually, there are some breeds that can produce milk WITHOUT being pregnant; they are actually known as "maiden milkers" and "virgin milkers." And some breeds of cow naturally are big milk-producers (they are usually the breeds on dairy farms -- Holstein and Jerseys). However, these two facts are conveniently left out of most anti-dairy writings, because telling the whole story would kind of mess up the conclusion the authors want to present. Bad science. But great for the rumor mill. This is what I teach my students in my methods class NOT to do.

7) Cows are given all sorts of medicines (steroids, antibiotics) to increase their milk production. This is true, plain and simple. And it SHOULD give us pause about what's in our milk, cheese, ice cream, butter, sour cream, cream and yogurt.

8) Not only do these meds make their way into milk products, potentially at the expense of human health, but being kept lactating is animal abuse. Yeah, I believe this, only because the sheer quantity of milk that dairy farms want to produce would, in and of itself, lead to animal abuse. There's not a easy way around this, short of stopping mass production of milk and dairy products.

9) People are the only species that a) drinks milk past, say, two years, and b) drinks another species' milk. Most anti-dairy writings then conclude with the following: why should people continue to do something that no other species does? The reasoning here is that it MUST be wrong because it's the exception, not the rule. While initially this line of reasoning made me pause, I have to say, it's not actually that great an argument. In many ways, people ARE exceptional, and it's unlikely that we're going to change our ways to be like other animals. For instance, people also tend to get rid of lice, whereas other species live with it. Should we stop doing that, because that makes us different from other species? People also keep other species as pets, but this isn't a common practice among other animal species. (The occasional story of the monkey with a pet cat does not prove the rule.) Should we stop that?

The dairy arguments leave me very aware of rhetoric, and how tempting it is to believe it (particularly if it's written in a OH-MY-GOD-YOU'D-BE-A-FOOL-TO-BELIEVE-IT way). The bottom line, from what I've read on both sides of this issue: farm animals are mistreated; there is an alarming cocktail of crap in our dairy products; consuming dairy *might* be bad for your health or it *might* have some benefits; you can definitely get calcium from other food sources; factory farming is bad for the environment. What makes sense is for people to consume far less dairy, to consume far more plant-based foods, and to put pressure on farmers to find more humane ways to raise animals (meaning less production of dairy and meat). Included in that last point is the following: maybe we should teach farmers how to raise plants instead.

In the meantime, be wary of rumors masquerading as science and at the same time, allow yourself to consider novel information. You can't always believe everything you read. You CAN sometimes learn something from the internet. You don't have to believe one and not the other. Both things are true; in methods class, that's what I call avoiding a false dilemma. And that's not a rumor.


  1. This is a nicely circumspect review of relevant information about dairy products. I have been trying to get the low-down on this, but it is hard to find a neutral source of the "facts." Your account has credibility simply because it is balanced (and intelligently written). However, if I were to apply the critical thinking you so rightly recommend, would I not want to see your sources for this information? The information continues to be of limited value for me in my own work for the “cause” if I cannot cite any source other than your blog. By the way, I think it would also be very helpful and relevant if you were able to tell us what percentage of milk comes from maiden milkers, and also what becomes of the male offspring of the nonmaiden milkers. My assumptions about those things makes me decisively vegan. Thanks.

  2. Absolutely right Joel -- this was an earlier blog when I didn't know how to link things and when I had few readers other than my personal friends. More recent blogs have more cites...

    I'll go back and find the references I used here and leave them in a comment. I *do* know the dairy industry basically uses Holsteins and Jerseys -- neither "maiden milkers". :)

  3. Thanks, Elaine! Looking forward to the sources if you can find them.

  4. Just to let you know I haven't forgotten, but am working on some other things right now. I *do* know that many of the facts here came from a post on the evils of dairy from girliegirlarmy.com, as well as the information found in the book, Skinny Bitch. I know that some of the facts about Holsteins and Jerseys came from a friend who grew up on a dairy farm. The maiden milkers thing was from a site on the internet and I have to find that again. I will.


Politeness is always appreciated.