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Cows do not want ‘free range’ milk

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“In a world where supermarkets sell us faux brands from non-existent farms, Pasture Promise is indeed genuine. Its logo is a clenched hand holding a bunch of grass and clover, an encouraging symbol of hope for citizens who share the view that cows belong in field”

And so a Guardian article, titled ‘If you believe cows belong in fields, ‘free range’ milk will give you hope’, is concluded. The article follows the news that the British supermarket giant, ASDA, will begin to stock ‘free range’ milk. In this case, ‘free range’ means that dairy cows will be able to graze in a field for six months a year. The supposedly ‘ethical’ milk has been endorsed by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver- so what’s not to like?

The ‘free range’ movement is viewed as a significant achievement by welfarists, who aim to improve the conditions under which non-human animals are used and slaughtered. As the chairman of the NFU (National Farmers Union) dairy board said, “No matter what system farmers choose, it’s about happy, healthy cows which are vital to producing high quality dairy products.” Do these claims stand up to any degree of scrutiny? Every cow reared under the Pasture Promise program will be subject to the same process as non-free-range dairy cows. This involves forcibly impregnating the female, on a device that the dairy industry calls the ‘rape rack’. Once she has given birth, she may or may not spend a day with her baby, before the child is taken away. If the baby is male, he will be shot immediately or led into veal crates. If the baby is female, she will undergo the same process as her mother. Anyone who has ever heard the mother crying out for her stolen baby will be haunted by such sounds. The process is repeated and the mother loses her babies until she starts producing less milk. She is then sent to a slaughterhouse and killed, sometimes still carrying a calf. This process is necessary for the dairy industry to exist and therefore, even on a farm that has the best welfare provisions, cows will be subject to such use. The distinction between the happiness of cows on a free range and on an intensive farm is superficial. The cows’ ability to graze for half a year does not affect the fundamental rights violations that occur every time a cow is used. Even if a dairy cow had a life of cuddles and massages, in order to produce milk, she would still be subject the same use. It is clear that welfare provisions make no fundamental difference to the animals’ lives, and any moral distinctions drawn are superficial.

In fact, the welfare of dairy cows is not ASDA’s, nor the NFU’s, primary concern. Instead we find ourselves in a situation where ‘ethical’ sells. As we see across the market, people are willing to buy and pay more when they believe the products have been ethically sourced. The trend is not confined to animal agriculture, evidenced in Starbucks’ recent pledge to employ 10,000 refugees, which is likely a clever marketing ploy that hides their unethical business practices. In the UK, as across the USA, the price of cow’s milk has plummeted. This is partly due to the rise in plant-based milks, which represent a more nutritious and moral alternative to animal milk. By introducing ‘free range’ milk, the dairy industry is able to capitalise upon people’s moral questioning. They assume that the consumer will start returning to milk, now that it appears to be ethical.

It is our job as vegans to ensure that such welfarism does not corrupt our movement. If we compromise upon fundamental justice, in order to gain superficial steps towards a vegan world, we support the popular narrative of animal agriculture industries. The sentimentality of the Guardian article, quoted at the beginning of this post, demonstrates where the dangers of welfarism lead. If we accept that cows belong in a field, rather than in a barn, we accept that cows should be used in the first place. Instead, we must undermine the welfarist narrative at every step of the way. We must let the ‘citizens’ who believe that ‘cows belong in fields’ know that they are being deceived. We have to tell them that veganism is the only method that actually addresses animal exploitation.

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