Recent news reports about the stalled Farm Bill in Congress warn that a failure to approve continued dairy industry subsidies could lead to a rise in milk prices. But would that be such a bad thing?
To start with, dairy foods aren’t natural human foods. They were invented when some starving people in the distant past were so desperate that they decided to steal the milk from another mammal. For some reason, maybe because it was easier for them to keep milk fresh yearlong, people in northern Europe evolved to be able to digest milk. But most of the rest of the human population didn’t. In fact, about 80% of the rest of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.
Milk is very nutritious, but there are plenty of people in the world who get adequate nutrition without drinking it. And there’s a lot of scientific controversy about whether or not the nutritional benefits of dairy foods are outweighed by their effects on our overall health. This includes suspicions that dairy foods elevate the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and joint pain. These claims aren’t difficult to believe, considering that cow milk wasn’t designed for human consumption. But I’m going to ignore all of that for now.
Instead, let’s take a closer look at the practice of large-scale dairy farming. If you’ve ever visited or driven by a large dairy farm you know they are nasty looking and smelling places. Dairy cows emit millions of metric tons of methane, a greenhouse gas, annually. In fact, a single dairy cow emits more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) annually than a car. The enormous piles of cow manure generated by dairy farms can also cause water pollution in nearby streams and the local groundwater. Dairy farms also require a lot of food for the cows. This results in large areas of land being converted to growing livestock feed crops like alfalfa and corn. Dairy farming can also be abusive to the cows. A dairy cow is usually artificially impregnated every year so that she continues to give milk. The calves are immediately removed from their mothers.
According to the Heritage Foundation, dairy industry subsidies paid through the USDA’s Dairy Product Price Support Program and Milk Income Loss Contract Program were estimated to be about $222 million in 2012. It doesn’t make any sense for taxpayers to continue to pay these subsidies. But the dairy industry’s advertising campaigns are very effective. (Got Milk?) So chances are good that when you think of dairy foods, you imagine a beautiful little blond girl running through a field of beautiful flowers to drink a gleaming glass of milk from her friendly old grandfather.
In the July 2018 the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to start enforcing a federal standard that says milk must come from cows. The National Milk Producers Federation said it wants “plant-based dairy imitators” to have to quit using terms like soy milk.
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