'There is no ethical way to consume dairy milk': the big problem with cow's milk

“Yeah, just regular milk, please.” I couldn't believe my ears. Sat in a cafe with a friend who must be one of the first vegans I had ever met, leading the charge 10 years ago back before it was cool, she had just ordered a latte with cow's milk. “Oh did I not tell you,” she said. “I recently switched back to dairy.”

While I was particularly surprised at this once diehard vegan’s Damascene conversion, she is not alone in returning to old-fashioned cow’s milk. After reaching peak popularity a few years ago, it seems that plant-based milks are falling out of favour, particularly among Gen Z. As one friend summed it up: “Dairy is the new hot girl milk”.

And it’s not just dairy milk, but specifically whole fat dairy milk that is making a comeback amongst younger generations. In the three months to February, sales of whole milk in the UK were up two per cent compared with the same time period last year – a seemingly modest increase, but one which equates to millions more litres consumed. According to a survey conducted by Waitrose, a third of respondents made the switch from low-fat to full-fat dairy products in 2023, with those under 35 being the most inclined to do so.

As part of a broader cultural shift towards whole foods, an emphasis on gut health has relegated plant-based milks to the sidelines. Social media platforms like TikTok, once hotbeds of veganism, now feature a proliferation of influencers fervently advocating for the benefits of old-fashioned, full-fat dairy. Among the motivations cited in Waitrose's survey, concerns regarding hidden sugars in processed alternatives emerged as one of the most prevalent factors.

Part of this has been fuelled by growing concerns about the nutritional profile of plant-based milks, particularly oat milk, as part of the wider boom of wellness culture and awareness about ultra-processed foods. Over the last year a flurry of reports and viral social media posts have cast a shadow over oat milk’s role as the darling of the alt-milk scene. Once the milk that could do no wrong, it has now variously been slammed by nutritionists and TikTokers as causing blood glucose spikes, bloating, skin issues, being protein-deficient and bearing the nutritional equivalence to a glass of sugary water. While there are varying degrees of truth to the claims, it seems they have cut through – while Oatly, the leading retailer, managed a 0.3 per cent growth in volume last year in the UK, this is miniscule compared to its 2019-20 sales.

So is a return to cow’s milk the solution and why did we all fall out of love with it in the first place?

While dairy milk is less processed than plant alternatives, it too can contain some rather unsavoury ingredients, such as antibiotics and hormones. Because cows are milked when they are pregnant, their oestrogen levels increase 20-fold, which has caused concern over potential links to cancer. While one study established a connection between these elevated estrogen levels and breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers, a subsequent review of research investigating the potential harm from estrogen consumption via milk found no grounds for alarm.

However, it is true that many of us are actually intolerant to dairy milk. While you might not currently be officially diagnosed as lactose intolerant, 65 per cent of the world’s population actually has difficulty digesting milk, according to the US National library of Medicine.

“Eczema can be a sign of cow's milk allergy in babies, occurring even in breastfed babies if the mother is drinking milk,” says Dr Clare Day, an NHS doctor. “There are also plenty of studies linking increased incidence and severity of acne and cow's milk. Conditions such as psoriasis may also respond well to a plant-based diet which excludes dairy.”

Dairy milk is less processed than plant alternatives, but it can contain unsavoury ingredients, such as antibiotics and hormones

In terms of nutritional profile, cow’s milk contains more protein and calcium per gram than all plant-based alternatives. Calcium is needed for healthy bones, but studies have found that significantly increasing dairy and calcium intake had no impact on children’s bone mineral density. A number of studies have found no significant decrease in fracture risk from drinking milk, while some research suggests that milk could actually contribute to fracture risk. “With the exception of some organic products, plant milks can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D to the same level as dairy,” adds Dr Clare.

Your milk choice is not simply a question of health, however. Much of the consumer swing towards all plant-based alternatives a few years ago was influenced by environmental and ethical concerns about the dairy industry – neither of which have gone away.

“There is no ethical way to consume dairy milk,” says Abigail Penny from Animal Equality. “Just like humans, cows must give birth in order to produce milk. So it means that whether or not they're on an intensive, a free range, organic, certified or an accredited farm, every single one will have that same process. It involves a cruel cycle of suffering where they will have to be repeatedly impregnated, year after year.”

Britain is, in theory, a land of animal lovers. Most of us abhor animal cruelty and support legislation preventing it – in fact, almost one in ten rank “whether or not a party will protect animals from cruelty” as one of the top three most important policies that will influence which party they vote for. Yet the overwhelming majority of British consumers are unwilling to give up dairy.

“It’s been ingrained into us that it’s normal and natural to drink dairy milk,” says Lex Rigby, head of investigations at vegan charity Viva. “It’s seen as the default option.”

Last year, Viva published an investigation into some of the UK’s biggest food firms, accusing them of misleading consumers by using images to promote their products that show cows grazing in green fields, despite buying their milk from intensive industrial dairy units. “The industry does a very very good job of hiding its cruelty, they have this idyllic picture of cows out in fields living an amazing life which is so far from the truth.”

Penny agrees that a lack of exposure about the reality of the dairy industry is behind cow’s milk’s rising popularity. “Consumers are paying for that cruelty and they often have no idea what suffering is in every drop of milk.”

The dairy industry does a very very good job of hiding its cruelty

Animal welfare charities like Animal Equality have been raising the alarm bells around the plight of cows in dairy farms for decades. Many of their claims are beyond dispute: dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated by artificial insemination and have their newborns taken away at birth, sometimes hours after they are born. In England, tens of thousands of dairy cattle endure life in hangar-style sheds, deprived of sufficient access to pasture. They’ll typically be milked three times a day, often using electronic rotating milk parlours, resulting in a daily yield of up to 32 litres of milk per cow.

“[A female cow] will give birth over and over until her body just becomes incredibly weak, especially because the milk yields are so unnaturally high, so it takes a real toll on their bodies,” Penny continues. “Once her milk production begins to decline, then she will have to eventually be sent to slaughter and sold for cheap beef.”

Animal Equality has investigated over 800 farms and slaughterhouses around the world. “On every single one, we've discovered abuse, neglect and or substandard practises,” Penny says. A 2022 BBC Panorama documentary about one of their investigations at a dairy farm in Wales found workers who were kicking cows in the stomach, and hitting them with sharp shovels in the face. The majority of the cows were hobbling or were unable to stand or walk.

“We know that these industries are not being properly regulated,” Penny says. “There is very little oversight and few penalties are issued when wrongdoing is found. Not every single farm will be deliberately abusing or neglecting their animals, but every single dairy farm will, without a doubt, be causing extreme suffering to the animals who are in their confines.”

When it comes to the environment, research shows that a glass of dairy milk produces almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy alternative. Plant milks also have an environmental footprint – almond production in particular is water-intensive, which can be harmful in water-scarce areas – but it doesn’t come close to the impact of the dairy industry.

“On any measure, plant based milks have a lower environmental impact than dairy,” says Dr Clare. “It requires ten times as much land, and two to twenty times as much freshwater.”

A herd of cattle
A herd of cattle

Of course, not everyone agrees with this sentiment.

“What we eat is a personal choice and it’s important we all make informed decisions,” says Paul Tompkins, dairy board chair of the National Farmers’ Union. “I’m lucky enough to visit dairy farms in every corner of the country and meet farmers who are really serious about producing nutritious food with a low environmental footprint. Dairy farmers are proud to be able to offer affordable, nutritious whole foods for us all to enjoy.”

Some farmers are actively trying to combat the malpractice that often occurs within the industry.

“All forms of food production involve compromise, so whether something is considered ethical really depends on how you define your personal ethics,” says David Finlay, a farmer at The Ethical Dairy in south west Scotland. Finlay’s farm is what’s known as “cow with calf” dairy, an approach which sees calves staying with their mothers, being suckled and reared by them.

“It might sound like a small change, but that one thing changes the whole system,” he says. “In traditional dairy farms calves are removed from their mothers within a few hours of their birth. We wanted to find a way to keep calves with the cows and still have a financially viable farm. Put simply, we don’t want to have to choose between doing what we think is right and staying in business.”

Finlay recognises though, that the ethical questions about dairy farming extend beyond keeping calves with cows. “It’s about the whole farm system – the soil, increasing biodiversity, minimising climate impact and creating good quality, low-stress jobs. It’s about respect and compassion for all living things.”

“I’d encourage anyone switching back to dairy from plant-based to consider what prompted the move away from dairy in the first place. I’d invite them to actively seek out milk from farms that centre animal welfare and the environment.”

Advertisement