Eating & Drinking

Upset by animal suffering but don’t want to give up dairy? We visit an organic farm to see if this a ‘better’ option

When it comes to the history of grocery shopping, I imagine the 1950s as a golden age, a time of ignorant bliss when shopping was a simple matter of economics and convenience. The average shopper didn’t scrutinize packaging as we do today, deciphering such labels as Organic, Fair-trade, Certified Humane, Gluten-free, Free-run, Nest-laid, Sustainable, Local, etc.

Today’s grocery-shopping experience is a quagmire of ethical dilemmas. Go for the organic — but what about all that plastic packaging? Do I pay an extra dollar for bananas picked by workers who receive a fair wage? That package of beef is labelled Certified Humane — but it’s still the flesh of an animal.

While I’m having a panic attack negotiating these concerns, there’s always another kind of shopper. It’s with a mixture of resentment and envy that I watch as they take two seconds to find their item and, with a carefree twist of the wrist, toss it into the basket while humming along to a Muzak version of Lovefool piped in from overhead.

For years now, my family has been trying to navigate this new grocery-shopping world, with successes and failures. Among the various ethical considerations, dairy is a weight on our minds. We’ve tried alternatives — almond and soy milk — but our two girls simply haven’t developed a liking for them, no matter how hard we’ve pushed. They like cow’s milk. Initially, we started buying organic milk because we had heard about growth hormones in traditional cow’s milk. Turns out, this was never true. Our first daughter was born in 2010, almost nine years after Health Canada published a report affirming the ban of such hormones in Canada. In other words, since the 1990s, our milk has not had the growth hormones that exist in other countries such as the United States. (That’s changing, though — following new trade deals that allow U.S. milk to be sold in Canada, consumers wanting to avoid growth hormones need to look for the blue-and-white Dairy Farmers of Canada logo.)

Even so, we continued to buy organic because we were wary of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were introduced into Canadian food systems in the early ’90s. Though concerns about GMOs have made headlines for decades, studies have proven that they are not harmful to human health. One well-known anti-GMO activist — Britain’s Mark Lynas, co-founder of Corporate Watch magazine — recanted in 2013, publicly stating: “For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement …”

So why are we still buying organic milk? It definitely costs more.

Illustration: Remi Geoffroi
Illustration: Remi Geoffroi

Where Ethics of Dairy Enter the Debate

In the dairy section of the grocery store, several milk producers adorn their cartons with happy-looking cows, some grazing in Edenic settings. However, these pastoral depictions hide an ugly truth: large-scale milk production globally, but also in Canada, is more likely to take place in a factory setting than a green space. As more people see what really goes on, dairy practices are being described as cruel.

In 2015, an undercover video shot by a member of non-profit group Mercy for Animals showed animal abuse at a B.C. dairy farm that supplies milk for Montreal dairy giant Saputo. It was so horrific that it moved Lino Saptuto Jr., son of the corporation’s founder, into responding. “… It was something that I never want to see again,” he told the Globe and Mail. In recognition that this was a systemic problem, the company responded by announcing a new policy on animal welfare that it would expect its suppliers to adhere to. (Mercy for Animals celebrated the move but still urged people to avoid dairy altogether. Their press release noted that while the new policy “means millions of animals around the world will gain some relief from suffering, there is still much work to be done. Remember, the most important action we can take to help farmed animals is to choose healthy and humane vegan foods.”)

As more and more of these abuses within the large-scale dairy industry come to light, it’s not hard to understand why milk consumption is plummeting. According to Statistics Canada, national per capita milk consumption dropped by 18 per cent between 1995 and 2014. A 2018 study at Dalhousie University suggests that nearly three million Canadians — mostly under the age of 35 — identify as being vegetarian or vegan; animal welfare is cited as being a contributing factor in their decision.

At the same time, I’ve begun to see such labels as Certified Humane, Free-run, and Nest-laid affixed to meat packages and egg cartons. Now, I’m not naive enough to assume that there’s any real comparison between a nameless chicken from a factory farm where free-run (and/or nest-laid) eggs are produced and a chicken raised on a hobby farm. But compared with animals in the factory farm industry, these labels do suggest that they are being treated more humanely. And yet what does that really mean? And is it humane enough to justify the extra couple of bucks? If I’m honest with myself, it comes down to one question: how much suffering is justifiable for my dinner?

That same question can be posed to the dairy industry. For vegans, the answer is obvious: no amount of suffering is acceptable, thus dairy is not an option. But for those who don’t want to give up milk but do want to limit suffering, what are the options?

Illustration: Remi Geoffroi
Illustration: Remi Geoffroi

Two Options for Non-Vegans

The answer seems to be associated with two popular package labels: Organic and Local.

One of the organic dairy farms closest to Ottawa is Biemond Upper Canada Creamery, located near Iroquois, Ontario. I wanted to see their operation for myself, so I took a drive to the farm, where I was greeted by Josh Biemond, a second-generation organic farmer who’s carrying on where his parents left off.

He says he has chosen to continue running an organic dairy farm because, quite simply, “it is better.”

“We take care of our animals better, we don’t push our animals too hard, we don’t use chemicals,” he proudly said at the beginning of our farm-to-fridge tour.

Biemond has 400 acres of pasture and a herd of 100 cows that produce all manner of dairy products. Biemond toured me around his farm, where I saw cows grouped together in the shade of a tree. From a distance, and to my untrained eye, they appeared healthy, doing what domesticated cows do when in pasture: rest, chew, swish their tails.

The barns we walked through, excepting a large hay-strewn pen where six or so calves were resting, were empty. A nice day such as this one is ideal for organic farmers to fulfill their obligation to ensure that the herd has access to the outside throughout the year, as laid out in the guidelines for organic dairy farmers by Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. The ministry stipulates that 30 per cent of the cows’ feed must be from pasture. Biemond confirms this, noting the cows have to be outside 120 days a year — minimum. And that pasture needs to be over an acre per cow.

But where’s the accountability?

“We’re inspected twice a year — spring and fall — as well as random inspections,” he says, and in response to an unintentional look of skepticism that flashes across my face, he clarifies. Inspectors, he says, are trained — not just to see where the cows are or what they’re doing on any given visit but to look at the other details around the farm that indicate compliance: Is the grass being eaten (is it long and unused or short and trodden)? Are the animals muscular, from exercise? One claim made against organic standards is that the language is vague: phrasing like “animals should have access …” allow wiggle room. But Biemond supports the ministry’s approach.

“Ever seen a cow on ice? If the yard is full of ice, is the farmer doing a better job keeping them inside or letting them out? Or what if it’s minus 30 outside?” Biemond says that if there is vagueness in the wording, it’s there only to allow the farmer — the expert, as he points out — to make the best decision for the animal, given the outdoor environmental conditions.

As we toured the farm, I put more questions to Biemond.

— What’s the lifespan of your cows?

“Anywhere from three years, for an animal we’re raising for beef, to six to 18 years for [dairy] cows — it all depends on how productive and healthy they stay.”

— How often are the cows milked?

“Twice a day.” (Some non-organic farms milk three or more times a day, though it can be more, depending on the cow’s lactation cycle.)

— What would you say to activists who argue that the dairy industry supports the veal industry?

“Here on this farm, we have a number of hobby farms or families that come and buy them. They raise them up for their own beef. So none of our calves go to veal.”

Biemond leads me into the main barn, where I see several calves lying in a spacious, hay-strewn area that’s situated opposite to where the mothers are milked. (The mothers are out in the pasture.)

“These are our young calves — they’re still nursing. Do they look distressed to you?” he asks. “We let our calves stay with the mothers for a week. … They’re fed their mother’s milk, so they still get the nutrients from the mother, and the mothers are right here, twice a day, looking at their calves.”

Again, sensing my unintentional re-action — perhaps a look of C’mon, they only get to look at their calves? — he adds, “Calves recognize their moms for six months. After that, there’s no connection whatsoever.”

Indeed, according to a Swedish paper published in 2013 that studied the behaviours of semi-wild cattle, researchers found that the mother-and-young bond usually continues for about 120 days after birth. That’s the period when the cow’s flow of milk is at its highest; farmers don’t want all that precious milk going to the calves. Hence the decision to separate mother and calf.

However, recent studies have shown that animals such as cows have more complex emotions than once thought. According to a 2014 study, cows suffering from anxiety, possibly after separation from their calves, don’t perform as well on cognitive tests — something researchers have also found in humans suffering from anxiety.

And so, whether a cow and her calf are separated immediately after birth, as is the case with most non-organic farms, or separated one week after birth, as on Biemond’s organic farm, it would seem both go against the animals’ natural behaviour, which can lead to anxiety, a form of suffering.

But Biemond wonders if we don’t have to draw a line somewhere.

“We are not the same [as animals],” he says. “We still treat them with the utmost respect. But my belief is they don’t have souls. It’s not an easy thing to navigate.”

It’s this kind of thinking that allows him to treat animals differently than he would people. Separating human mothers from their children is obviously cruel, but Biemond wonders if that same human argument isn’t being unfairly applied to animals by vegans.

He repeats: “Where do we draw the line?”

Illustration: Remi Geoffroi
Illustration: Remi Geoffroi

Which is Better?

Leaving the farm, I reflected back on my original question: Is organic dairy better, from an ethical perspective?

His animals are still slaughtered for beef, they’re still artificially inseminated, milked by a machine, kept in a constant state of lactation, and the mothers are still separated from their calves — all valid claims made by those opposed to the dairy industry.

That said, Biemond’s farm does not resemble a factory, where hundreds of cows are sequestered in tiny pens, restricted from the outdoors, and milked three or four times a day. Rather, its pastures are dotted with groups of relaxed-looking cows, like one of those idyllic farms we see illustrated in children’s books.

Feeling adrift somewhere in the middle, I’m left with more questions than answers. I reached out to a long-time vegan who told me that she did not choose to become vegan overnight and, in fact, that she’d be skeptical of anyone who did. Her choice was the result of a well-thought-out decision, after careful consideration about the same questions I was asking myself. She described it as a journey.

It would seem that my family and I are somewhere in that process. At the very least, we’re having the conversation. And talking with my kids about my experience on the Biemond farm was a great way to talk to them about why I was there, what an organic farm is — and even what ethics are.