As consultees in DEFRA’s round of discussions on a comprehensive animal health and welfare strategy, which John Humphrys applauds for its aim (November 9, 2003), we demur at some of his strictures on DEFRA’s approach to one of the worst exploitations in the live/deadstock trade: the rapine in the dairy industry that yields beef and veal as by-products in the extortion of “production” from short-lived cows kept for months of the year intensively gestating and lactating. DEFRA (and MAFF before it) and the costly BSE Inquiry unequivocally blamed the dairy industry as the source and driver of BSE. The industry is now in trouble over even feeble attempts by DEFRA and the CAP to reduce or redirect the subsidies, premiums, and quotas.
The blame must rest heavily on John Humphrys’ colleagues in the media and thus the ignorance of the public and the cruel indifference of vets and farmers. A couple of months ago a meeting of professionals and animal welfarists at Bristol University’s School of Veterinary Science addressed the question Welfare in Dairy Cattle: Do We Have a Problem? The answer was a resounding yes, taking all systems – including organic, RSPCA Freedom Food, and the Soil Association’s – into consideration.
“Dairy products” derived directly from plant sources – which may include Euro-crops, some nitrogen-fixing, organic, and non-GM – are now available widely in the UK. Palatable milks can be made by processing soya beans or peas in gleaming stainless steel vessels, rather than by stuffing them as concentrates into miserable, mucky, and mastitic cows. However, the deliberations on ill-treatment are sustained by copious draughts of the cows’ secretions unrelieved by the availability of the unexceptionable alternatives. At least, the alternatives are now offered at public meetings of the Food Standards Agency and of the government-appointed Farm Animal Welfare Council.
We enjoin John to practise what he preaches. Let vestiges of lactose intolerance prompt merciful gut feelings in the significance of weaning. There’s no need any more for the cow to wet-nurse him. Ask the BBC Canteen to lay in stocks of alternative dairy-frees, John, and impress your interviewees by deed and word. Cow milk is ideal for suckling calves for the months before natural weaning; it’s unnatural and unnecessary for adult cattle or grown-up politicians and commentators.