29 September 2011

Agribusiness uncowed by suffering

Recently the researchers who astonished us by unveiling Dolly the sheep announced yet another remarkable conjuring trick.  Using genetic engineering, they will, they claim, be able to breed cows, which secrete blood products into their milk.

Human blood components in cows' milk is revolutionary.  Had they announced, on the other hand, that the cows were secreting their own blood products, no one who has had any contact with the dairy industry would have turned a hair.  The Ministry of Agriculture permits what it calls a "somatic cell count" of 400,000 per millilitre of milk.  This has yet to be reliably translated into volumes, but a rough estimate suggests that possibly 1 per cent, maybe more, of a legal pint of milk is not milk, but a "suspension of somatic cells" known to the lay public as pus.

Even the most determined meat-eater could scarcely remain oblivious to the hereof intensive pig and chicken farming in Britain, but dairy cattle tend to be presented as the most fortunate of farm animals, left to graze blithely in the fields, slaughtered only when they become too old.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The dairy farm is now the scene of the most monstrous of all the routine abominations perpetrated by modern intensive agriculture.

Blood and pus are significant components of the milk we drink because mastitis (a cripplingly painful inflammation of the udder) is rampaging through the dairy herd: between 30 and 35 cases per hundred cows are recorded every year.  About 30 per cent of the dairy cows in Britain are lame, partly as a result of laminitis. This would feel according to a leading cattle vet - like "crushing all your fingernails in the door then standing on your fingertips".  Agony is the resting state of the modern dairy cow.

Both mastitis and laminitis result from the extraordinary stresses placed on the cow by the pursuit of ever higher milk production.  The modern milker’s enormous udders are frequently crushed when the cow lies down in the concrete cubicles where they are kept for the winter; are damaged by milking machines; or are exposed to infection when the animals are processed too quickly.  Udders now get so big that they push the cows’ hind legs outwards, straining  the outside of the foot.  The damage is exacerbated by acidosis, caused by too much milk-stimulating food.

As a result of these and other torments, most dairy cows have to be culled at five or six years of age - about one-fifth of their natural life span.  Antibiotic use is irresponsible even by agricultural standards: the biochemist Dr Alan Long reports that antibiotics are now being substituted on some farms for antiseptic, massively increasing the chances that dangerous bacteria will become resistant to drugs.

All this is necessary, milk producers tell us, because they have to raise production levels in order to become more competitive.  Yet Britain suffers from an over-production crisis so severe that the European Union has established a quota system, limiting the amount of milk each farmer is allowed to produce (and, incidentally, forcing the poorest people in the land to subsidise some of the richest every time they buy a pint of milk).  So instead of increasing overall production, dairy farmers are now seeking to boost their voluptuous profits 'by reducing the number of cows required to meet their quota.  The latest monstrous object of desire is the "10 tonne" cow - an animal which can produce 10 tonnes of milk a year, or 80 litres every milking day, almost twice the current average yield.

British farmers might soon be able to do still better.  Bovine somatotropin (BST), an artificial hormone which stimulates milk production, has been banned by the EU.  Acting on behalf of Monsanto, the manufacturer, the United States has asked the World Trade Organisation to rule that the ban is an unfair barrier to trade.  Monsanto managed, at first, to disguise the results of the clinical trials it commissioned, but when independent researchers succeeded in getting hold of its data, they found that BST increases the rate of udder cell infection by 20 per cent.

Insulin Growth Factor in the milk of hormone-treated cows may also affect human health.

Incapable of resisting anything put in front of me, I've always regarded successful lacto-vegetarians as little short of holy.  But the demented business of modern farming now ensures that even they can no longer claim either to be avoiding animal tissues or reducing animal suffering.  In the wake of the BSE crisis, the intensive-live-stock industry shows little sign of responding to our concerns about animal welfare: it leaves us with no choice but to stop consuming its products.  Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.

George Monbiot