I was born in the 1980’s and was breastfed for about 3 months before being transitioned to cow milk based formula. As far as I know this was recommended by doctors and midwives at the time, at least in Switzerland.
It took me 32 years to question, why formula could possibly be a better option than a mother’s own milk? Making sure a baby gets enough milk is always priority, so in that sense formula is a real gift, sometimes even a lifesaver. I had my twin boys aged 32 and after breastfeeding them for 6 months I started struggling to keep up the supply. We weren’t vegan at the time, I didn’t know a fraction of what I know now about milk and the dairy industry, but even so I felt uncomfortable with all the formula they were getting. I chose a more natural, organic brand, but it still didn’t feel quite right.
Fast forward 8 years, we have been plant-based as a family for about 4 years and we live in an area of London where vegan options are readily available in every corner shop. Even so I still hear people being asked if they’d like ‘normal’ milk in their cappuccino and it always makes me wonder how we ended up defining cow milk as ‘normal’ milk. Does this make plant-milk ‘abnormal’ and what about human milk? It would be considered bizarre, probably even disgusting if people had human milk in their coffees wouldn’t it? Yet the milk from another lactating mammal seems to be not only acceptable, but the most normal thing in the world.
After the war, British schools introduced free cow milk in order to help nutrify children properly. These children were often hungry and simply didn’t get enough calories at home, so giving them a high calorie drink with plenty of calcium was likely something many children benefitted from. Nowadays we live in a very different world, what used to be considered luxury foods has become so cheap, that it’s often children from deprived families who have the most animal products in their diet – think McDonalds and milk shakes. Yet they are still handing out free dairy milk in primary schools, when really what most kids need is more good quality fruit and veg, which is often more expensive than a whole meal at KFC. Of course the dairy board has its own motivations to keep this system going, giving children a healthy start in life is definitely no longer part of it.
It’s been a steep learning curve for me, growing up in Switzerland means you live on milk, cheese and yogurt and – like most children – I absolutely loved it. There is this image of cows grazing freely in the mountains, calves running around and farmers milking their cows by hand, taking only as much as they need. I had no idea how cruel the dairy industry is, how much torture dairy cows suffer from the first to the last day of their lives. How calves are taken away from their mothers minutes after birth, weak and scared to death they are not allowed to ‘steal’ the milk that is meant for humans instead. It’s a factory process just like it is with beef cattle and there is hardly any room for compassion or animal welfare.
Then there is of course the question, if milk from a bovine animal with the sole purpose to grow a calve into a cow or steer weighing up to 1’500kg in a matter of a few months is particularly healthy for us? I think it’s enough to look at the epidemic of chronic disease and obesity in our western societies to know the answer. Surely there are lots of other elements playing into it, though given that in 2020 the UK alone produced some 15 billion litres of milk for a population of just under 68 million means we’re definitely having too much of it.
I could write so much more on this topic, from land and water use in animal agriculture, to how children learn all about climate change, but hardly anything about the impact our diet choices have and how cows don’t actually make calcium, they just deliver it (in the same way fortified plant milk does, while being cruelty free and using a fraction of the land and water needed to feed a cow). And then there is of course the ethical aspect, all the suffering we cause simply because we like the taste of dairy products. So much has gone wrong with our food system and the dairy industry accounts for a lot of it.
When I post this, we will likely be on holiday in the Swiss mountains and I will see some of the very few lucky cows who get to graze outside, looking healthy and happy just like a Swiss tourism ad.