'Milk is deadly. For 150,000 calves a year': That's what appeared on posters on trams in Antwerp and Ghent in Belgium early October - part of an initiative of the Belgian organization BE Vegan, who bought advertising space from transportation company De Lijn.
After two days, however, De Lijn canceled the campaign (having talked it through with BE Vegan), because the pressure by farmers and farmer lobby groups had become 'unbearable'.
Farmers branded the milk-is-deadly message is 'factually incorrect', and claimed that it 'harms and stigmatizes' them. Both reactions are unfounded.
First, the content. In a press statement, the General Farmers' Syndicate (Algemeen Boerensyndicaat) called the message 'fake news', 'misleading' and even 'criminal'.
Criminal, really? The BE Vegan campaign aims to shine a light on one of the lesser-known animal welfare aspects of dairy: milk production requires calves. Cows – like humans – don't give milk without having young.
This is why they are (artificially) inseminated every year. The female calves will become dairy cows themselves. The male cows are moved into the meat-industry and are slaughtered after a maximum of eight months to produce veal.
Hence: milk is deadly for calves. The campaign tagline might sound a little bit like a slogan, and it is tongue-in-cheek, but it does make sense. No-one is saying that the farmers themselves are killing their calves or are animal abusers. Whoever wants to read it like that, shows, I think, their bias.
After the transportation company reported it would cancel the campaign if and when too many people complained or felt offended, the complaints started flooding in. That a group of people is offended by correct information shouldn’t be in itself enough reason to censor said message. Certainly not when we’re talking about information that is largely unknown to the public, but that they have a right to know.
And let's be serious: at least some pushback is welcome again the information that the general public has been fed about dairy by the dairy industry in the last decades. Their campaigns have not always been correct or truthful.
First, the sector isn't very keen on mentioning that calves are an integral part of milk production and that the newborn animals are generally taken away from their mothers within the first 24 hours, to eventually end up a slab of meat.
The average consumer needs to be kept under the illusion that the production of milk does not cause animal suffering or killing. Sadly, the animal suffering caused by the consumption of milk and other animal products is not fake news but is a daily and often shocking reality.
Second: if the popularity of milk has soared over the past decades, that is first and foremost the result of good marketing with millions of dollars and euros in advertising money.
Milk has often been – and still is – presented as nothing short of a miracle food. However, many or most of the health claims made for dairy products - from weight loss and PMS relief to better athletic performance – have been refuted.
Even the scientific evidence for milk protecting against bone fracture is not as clear-cut as the dairy industry would have us believe. Professor Walter Willett of Harvard, pointing out the importance of exercise for stronger bones, has said that better leave the milk for the calves and take the cow on a walk.
Whatever the truth about the beneficial qualities of dairy (and vegans should make sure not to throw out the baby with the bathwater), what is certain is that milk is not an essential part of a healthy diet. Which is a good thing, given that approximately 65 percent of the world's population is lactose-intolerant.
Meanwhile, global dairy sales have fallen with more than twenty percent in the last decade, while sales of plant-based dairy alternatives have risen by a good sixty percent in the last six years. Plant-based milk now has a global market share of no less than thirteen percent.
And by the way, in Europe, you can’t call these products 'milk' anymore - another result of dairy industry lobbying efforts.
It is understandable that this evolution does not sit well with dairy farmers, and that they take offense at campaigns like the one organized by BE Vegan.
Moreover, farmers are often scapegoats for all kinds of environmental issues and have to work hard for often little pay. But the challenges they face, I fear, are only the beginning. Most of the biggest multinational meat and dairy companies, from Tyson and JBS to Cargill and Danone, have invested in plant-based alternatives. They are aware of the societal changes that influence the market and have adjusted accordingly.
Farmer, open thine eyes.
Maybe the individual farmers are not aware of these changes, but certainly, the farmers' organizations are... They should be searching for new opportunities with the help of science, technology, entrepreneurship and government support. But most of all: with an open mind.
Farmers produce food. And we should be thankful for it. Farmers can keep producing food, preferably for an honest price. But for that, they need to keep track of the changing consumer habits and values and evolve with them.