I’m a big fan of Ode Magazine, which provides great food for thought and ideas for creating a better world, but in the September 2010 issue I was dismayed to read what seemed to me to be a simplistic and inaccurate ode to modern food, entitled “The Miracle of Milk.”
I agree with the author, Roland Duong, that “in our modern era, which tends to emphasize drama and complaint, the miracle of the supermarket goes unnoticed.” This is undoubtedly true. Many of us take the incredible quantity and variety of food in our supermarkets for granted, and few of us would want to return to the days in which every family had to grind their own wheat or corn and rely solely on what was available locally and in season, or pickled and stored, in harsh climates. Few of us would want to spend almost our entire day procuring food, often feeling insecure about our ability to do so and to feed our children, and often at risk of foodborne infection from, for example, unpasteurized milk. But Duong is just wrong when he says that these days “it is nearly impossible to get old-fashioned food poisoning.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 76 million cases of food poisoning every year in the U.S. alone. For Campylobacter and Salmonella the estimates (assumed to be significantly underestimated because people with food poisoning often think they have the “stomach flu”) are 2.5 million and 1.4 million cases, respectively. Why so much food poisoning? Because of our modern agricultural systems, which cram billions of animals into tightly confined, excrement-covered spaces for the duration of their lives.
Duong writes: “Take the miracle of milk, a perfectly ordinary beverage we guzzle down without care or thought,” as an example of our great bounty. Let’s deconstruct this sentence for a minute. First, as suggested, let’s take “the miracle of milk.” Milk is indeed rather miraculous. That mammals evolved to produce food from our own bodies to feed our young is truly amazing. Most of what comes out of our body is waste, so it is incredible that we evolved to also produce the nutritionally perfect food for our babies for the perfect amount of time.
Moving on to Duong’s phrase “perfectly ordinary beverage” we might pause for a moment to reflect upon the ordinariness of dairy consumption. If we give it some thought we might wonder why many of us humans (actually a very small global percentage) have chosen to continue nursing long after weaning, and have chosen to nurse on another species. No other mammal does this (unless we feed them dairy products). There is nothing ordinary about nursing beyond weaning or nursing on another species. In fact, it is quite strange. It only seems ordinary to us because in modern times we’ve made a habit of it.
As for guzzling it down “without care or thought,” on this point I agree with Duong, but for different reasons. Few people think about the impact of their choice to consume dairy products. There have been books written on the problems associated with cow’s milk from a health perspective, from an environmental perspective, and from an animal protection perspective. Dr. Spock, the famous pediatrician, discouraged people from giving their children cow’s milk and avoided it himself for health reasons.
But the inherent cruelty to animals in the dairy industry goes almost entirely unnoticed. The only way that we are able to get cow’s milk is by impregnating cows and taking their young away so that we may drink the milk ourselves. Although those cows produce milk for the sole purpose of feeding their own offspring, we remove those calves – usually at a day old – and hook their mothers to milking machines. We force them to produce 5-12 times the amount of milk they would normally produce for their calf, often resulting in mastitis, a painful udder infection requiring antibiotic treatment and resulting in pus in their milk. These mothers bellow out for days when their young are, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped from them. If their calves are male (and therefore of no use to the dairy industry), they will likely be sold for veal. Many are aware of the horrors of the specialty veal industry, in which calves are chained at the neck in tiny stalls, unable to walk (to keep their flesh tender) and fed an iron-deficient diet (to keep their flesh pale) until they are forced to climb onto the slaughter trucks on their atrophied legs. Few realize that the dairy and veal industries are inextricably linked.
We ought to be grateful for the bounty of food available to us, but we ought not to laud it as an unqualified miracle. Our food choices have a profound and enormous impact not only on ourselves, but on other people across the globe, on the environment, and on animals. I believe that instead of giving “our full attention to enjoying this incredible opulence” as Duong suggests at the end of the article, we should give instead our full attention to assessing the impact of our food choices and trying to eat foods that do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, animals and the environment.
Zoe Weil, author of Most Good, Least Harm and Above All, Be Kind
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Filed under: animal protection, consumerism, critical thinking, food and diet, MOGO (Most Good) | Tagged: animal cruelty, critical thinking, dairy industry, factory farming, food, food poisoning, food systems, foodborne illness, industrial agriculture, milk, MOGO choices, veal | Comments Off