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Comparing her experience of waking up to illusion and disillusionment to that of the main character played by Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Desaulniers systematically dismantles all the reasons we give ourselves on why we have to drink milk and eat dairy products.
She argues that our attachment to milk is not even cultural, but has been created by the dairy industry, which spends millions in advertising and funding research to convince us it’s normal and necessary to consume milk based products.
What inspired you to write Cash Cow?
My first book was on food ethics. Since its publication, I’ve been talking a lot about the treatment of animals, marine life, and the environmental consequences of raising livestock. More often than not, people have agreed with me. Several readers have written to tell me that I have inspired them to eat less meat. But I soon realized that when it comes to cheese and yoghurt, it’s different. Dairy products are held very dear. I wanted to understand this emotional attachment to dairy. It’s fine to be vegetarian but adopting a vegan diet seems a little extreme to most. We all know milk comes from cows and these cows are often raised in horrible conditions and slaughtered after a few years. Reality is not different than animals raised for meat but our perception is different. I wanted to understand where it comes from and why are we so scared to challenge our relationship to dairy?
I started studying the topic and discovered how powerful the myths our perception of milk are built on. Contrary to everything everyone ever told us, drinking milk is not natural, necessary, or normal. In the introduction to Cash Cow, I write that I feel as if I used to live in The Truman Show. After researching dairy for months, I ended up completely disillusioned. Like Truman, I too felt like I’d been duped. I felt like I’d been misled. In a sense, we are the cash cows of the dairy industry. After many high-profile advertising campaigns and much strategic political lobbying, the industry managed to reach and retain its share of regular, satisfied customers.
Contrary to widespread belief, milk is not essential for good health, but rather that certain nutrients are and they can be found elsewhere. And if drinking milk is not essential, then raising hundreds of thousands of suffering cows to produce it isn’t either. Producing cheese, a process that emits as much CO2 as producing meat, is just as unnecessary. After having personally learned so much about milk, I needed to offer a counter-argument to the myths perpetuated by the industry.
When did humans start to drink milk from other species?
It’s very recent. Milk consumption became possible with the advent of agriculture and animal domestication a little over ten thousand years ago. Back in those days, our Homo sapiens ancestors had already shared our physiology for thousands of generations. The history of milk as a food is linked to the history of taming mammals who can potentially be milked: cows, sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, and even horses. As for cows, their ancestors are aurochs, enormous wild cattle that were domesticated some ten and a half thousand years ago. These aurochs were first used for ploughing and meat. Only gradually did we begin consuming their milk. It is thought that we first used milk to make cheese and butter, which are easier to digest than fresh milk.
It is believed that the persistence of the enzyme lactase, which allows adults to digest milk, appeared about seven thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent (now occupied by Lebanon, Cyprus, Kuwait, Palestine, parts of Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and southeastern Turkey). This genetic mutation is believed to have then spread elsewhere around the world. Today, it is primarily populations whose ancestors hail from Europe or from nomadic African peoples who can digest milk in adulthood; a mere 25 percent of the global population.
Most experts agree that the ability to digest milk in adulthood has probably increased over time: that’s because this change is an adaptive advantage. In Africa, there is a fairly strong correlation between having ancestors who were livestock breeders and exhibiting lactase persistence. For these breeders, the ability to digest lactase brought nutritional benefits: milk is indeed a source of protein and fat that is available year-round. This new ability is also thought to have contributed to the successful transition from a lifestyle based on hunting to an agrarian one: indeed, by consuming both the milk and meat of an animal, you get far more calories than by consuming the meat alone. It is therefore more advantageous to breed animals than to hunt them.
But we have to keep in mind that dairy consumption appeared very recently in human history and only a small percentage of population is able to digest milk during adulthood.
What are the worst effects milk has on the body?
When I began my research for this book, I was pretty sceptical. I knew that not everybody drinks milk and that it’s not necessary, but I never thought it could pose a threat to our health. There are a lot of crappy websites that demonize milk but there are also serious sources that support the idea that milk consumption may be harmful. The Harvard School of Public Health, for example argue that consumption of milk may increase the risk of some chronic diseases.
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with milk is that it contains a significant amount of hormones: pregnancy hormones produced by cows and growth hormones to help their calves grow. For a cow to give milk, she must first give birth to a calf.
The gestation period lasts nine months. Nowadays, cows are milked three hundred and five days per year, which means they are also milked during most of their pregnancy. Eighty percent of the milk produced therefore comes from pregnant cows. And that’s why it contains a significant concentration of oestrogen and progesterone, two pregnancy hormones. Cows’ milk also contains natural growth hormones, IGF-1 the role of which is to promote growth in calves (Editor’s note: funny how the agricultural industry tries to tell us that soya based products are dangerous because they contain traces of phytoestrogens; meanwhile, milk is packed with actual estrogen!)
It is difficult to determine the true effects of cow hormones on human health. But more and more researchers are convinced that our system cannot handle this invasion of cow hormones. They are thought to be partly responsible for the development of acne and certain cancers such as ovarian, uterine, testicular, and prostate cancers.
There is a long list of health problems are associated with milk consumption but I think that one of the most frequent is allergic reactions. Recent epidemiological studies suggest that nearly four percent of Americans are afflicted with food allergies. The allergy to cow’s milk is one of the most common: cow’s milk contains at least thirty proteins that can cause allergic reactions. Headaches and asthma seem to be two common symptoms. Similarly, arthritis and joint pain often come from a milk allergy. Baby’s allergic reactions to cow’s milk are also frequent and symptoms include type 1 diabetes, ear infections, iron deficiency, and colics.
What do you think the future of the dairy industry looks like?
I started working on the topic early 2010 and I’ve already started seeing changes, at least in North American’s relationship to dairy. In Canada for instance, capita consumption of milk has fallen by 18 per cent to 74 litres a year between 1995 and 2014. Taking into account population growth, Canadians consumed approximately 20 million litres less milk in just one year, between 2013 and 2014. Demographics are generally working against the sector: older people tend to reduce their milk consumption while immigrants come to Canada bringing culinary traditions that often don’t include dairy.
Analysts also mention the rise of veganism as a threat to the dairy industry. A recent survey conducted for the Dairy Farmers of Canada shows that significant portion of the drop is due to consumers who believe that industrial farming practices are unethical (I can only agree with them). Meanwhile, in North America just like in Europe, alternatives to dairy products are more and more available.
But because markets for dairy products in developed countries have reached a virtual saturation point, the dairy industry is seeking to expand into other markets, most notably in Asia. Like Mia Mia MacDonald, the executive director and founder of Brighter Green mentions in the foreword of Cash Cow, China, India, and several countries in Southeast Asia are receiving attention and investment from international and domestic dairy producers. For instance, in China, domestic production of milk is expected to triple by 2030. I recently had a chat with a group of young Chinese who told me that they’ve been told all their life to drink milk to grow tall. Being tall is an obsession for Chinese since there is a lot of discrimination against shorter people.
I’m afraid that emerging countries will become the new Cash Cow of the dairy industry, just like the tobacco industry turned to those new markets when the western world started to turn its back on cigarettes.
Is dairy really a food group?
Dairy is “really” a food group in countries like Canada, US or UK. Canada’s food guide was created in 1942. Despite some adjustments, today’s guide structure remains essentially unchanged, with its four groups: milk products, meat, grains, and fruits and vegetables. However, although we clearly do not live as our grandparents did, and science has taught us a lot about nutrition since 1940, recommendations on milk consumption haven’t changed much. It was probably easier for governments to advise people on what to eat during the war, a time when a large part of the population suffered from deficiencies. Today, the trend has reversed and the guide must now tell us to consume less of certain foods, but without offending anyone… There’s a lot at stake! To address the various shortcomings of government recommendations, the Harvard School of Public Health researchers decided to develop their own healthy eating plate. First and foremost, daily exercise. Then, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Great importance is also placed on legumes. And dairy products? They suggest one to two servings a day, or vitamin D and calcium supplements.
Is it really safe to cut dairy out of our diets?
The position of the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada on Vegetarian diets is clear: “is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” Milk contains no nutrients that are not found anywhere else; the vitamins and minerals in milk are also found in many plants that are neither white or in liquid form. Most adult humans and all other mammals live a healthy life without dairy!
What about calcium?
Although it is not necessary to drink milk to have healthy bones, we do need calcium. Vegan sources of calcium include soy yoghurt, fortified soy beverages and other fortified non-dairy beverages like rice and almond beverage, soybeans, navy beans, white beans and tofu prepared with calcium sulphates, almonds, sesame butter (tahini), blackstrap molasses, some vegetables such as bok choy, okra, collard greens and turnip greens, and some fruit, like figs and fortified orange juice.