If you’re a young-ish person with your finger on the pulse (which you probably are if you're reading this), the trend towards vegan or so-called “plant based” diets won’t have escaped you. Veganism is the “fastest growing lifestyle movement” in the UK, according to The Vegan Society, and over half a million people now identify as vegan – a colossal rise of 360% in just ten years.
The ethical case for veganism was bolstered this week when shocking photos from inside a UK dairy farm were released. An investigation revealed that a dairy farm used by Marks and Spencer has been keeping around 1,000 calves, some as old as six months, in solitary pens, despite this being illegal for calves older than eight weeks because of their larger size.
The footage from inside Grange Dairy, East Chaldon in Dorset, taken by animal rights organisation Animal Equality UK, shows many of the calves barely able to move and with large open sores on their backs. (It’s worth noting that Marks and Spencer will continue to sell milk from the farm as it said trading standard officers had found no evidence it was breaching animal welfare requirements.)
“Seeing row after row of baby calves alone in tiny pens – when they should naturally still be with their mothers – is truly heartbreaking,” said Dr Toni Shephard, Executive Director of Animal Equality UK. “But realising that many of these are actually older female calves who, contrary to UK animal welfare law, have been confined like this for many months is shocking.”
Then, yesterday, a Guardian comment piece condemning the scandal and the dairy industry more widely, went viral, suggesting it’s an issue on many people’s minds. Journalist Chas Newkey-Burden writes of the dairy industry’s “systematic cruelty” and says, “the daily practices of most dairy farms are more distressing than those of meat production.” He goes on to outline – in distressing detail – the process by which large-scale dairy farms produce cow’s milk. (Read the piece yourself if you fancy a wake-up call and haven’t already.)
The hard-hitting article has been shared nearly 30,000 times, suggesting the uncomfortable message is really hitting home. “The public is steadily waking up to the fact that the reality of milk production is not a matter of trivial imperfections, of concern only to idealist vegans, but in fact the most dark and wicked part of all farming,” Newkey-Burden writes.
Indeed, the popularity of dairy-free milk, cheese, yoghurt and desserts has skyrocketed in recent years and continues to climb. Sales of Sainsbury’s vegan cheese were 300% greater than expected, and sales of vegan food as a whole increased by 1500% from 2015-16. Brands such as Ben and Jerry’s now sell vegan versions of their products and supermarkets’ own dairy-free ranges are flying off the shelves – and sales are forecast to grow further. Vegan cafes and restaurants are becoming an increasingly familiar sight across the UK, and existing businesses, such as The Fields Beneath in north London and Manchester’s Ice Shack, are ditching dairy completely.
As with most things, however, the issue isn't black and white – there are nuances that you'll want to consider if you're thinking about ditching dairy yourself. Some claim Newkey-Burden’s article completely misrepresents the dairy industry, while others suggested he makes many valid points but fails to take into account some of the smaller-scale dairy farms which don’t utilise the practices used by industrial farms.
While you may still question the ethics of artificially inseminating cows to produce milk in the first place, many smaller-scale farms do treat their animals with care. Often, they are kept in groups in large pens, are given enough space to roam fields and somewhere warm to sleep at night. Sweeping statements about "dairy farming" in the UK are arguably unhelpful when it's mass-scale farms, which many supermarket giants rely on, that deserve the most scorn.