Mandy Carter: Change desperately needed in dairy industry


A slaughterhouse worker, who was caught on hidden camera brutally kicking, punching and throwing baby dairy calves has admitted his guilt in court.

Whilst I was very glad to hear he will be held to account for his actions exposed in our investigation with Farmwatch eight months ago, the problem of systematic cruel treatment of animals absolutely remains unresolved.

There has been a lot of emphasis and talk about prosecuting those who committed these atrocious acts against animals, but not enough on preventing this happening again in the future.

Why on earth is it left up to volunteer investigators to expose abuse and force it to be acted upon? A report showed that the government knew about issues with bobby calf welfare as far back as 2011, but nothing was done. This whole situation is an embarrassment and highlights how low our standards of animal welfare really are.

And, if the public reaction to this animal welfare scandal in the dairy industry is anything to go by, the golden era of New Zealand dairy could be over.

Years ago New Zealand was known for its sheep. Now it is all about cows in the dairy industry. We have excelled into turning something of low value (grass) into something that is sought-after (milk). But with that comes a terrible price.

The fact is there is inherent cruelty in the dairy industry, which cannot be changed through prosecuting individuals. The dairy industry does not want the cheese-eating world-wide public to know about its disposal of unwanted bobby calves.

These young, vulnerable calves suffer not only because of illegal cruelty - but, crucially, because they are not wanted by the commercial dairy industry. Even when no laws are broken, these babies will have little chance at life.

Around five million calves are born each year. Some of these calves, mainly the males, will be raised for beef or veal, while some of the female calves will be retained as replacement dairy cows. More than two million other calves will be surplus to requirements and will be killed shortly after birth. They are essentially waste products of the dairy industry, and are treated as such.

They, like most calves, in dairy industries the world over, are removed from their mothers after birth. Cows are pregnant for nine months and bond strongly with their babies, so this causes great distress for both the calf and the cow. As seen in the 2015 investigation, cows will follow their calves when they are taken away and become agitated when they can no longer see them. Cows can call for their missing babies for days, or weeks, on end.

The dairy industry also shoulders blame for environmental degradation of a country that prides itself on its 100 per cent pure image. There are now real fears that dairy could damage New Zealand's biggest industry - tourism.

As the industry expands and ever more cows are producing milk and waste, this problem will only worsen. In just one publication Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy said it would take $15 billion to clean up the environment damaged by dairy farming - more than the industry is worth to the economy.

We are now seeing a rapid intensification of the dairy industry. Large numbers of euphemistically called 'herd homes' are being built. Some will confine hundreds of dairy cows inside for their entire lives.

With many consumers concerned about the cruelty of factory farming, it takes a brave (or really dumb) industry to start up another indoor confinement system.

The dairy industry justifies many of the environmental and animal welfare problems by claiming it produces food for the hungry masses and that it is essential for our economy.

But how desirable is the consumption of dairy anyway? An increasing number of medical experts point out that cow's milk is good for fast-growing calves but not for humans.

Slowly we are seeing myths about the correlation of strong bones and calcium in dairy being debunked and hearing more about the negative health consequences of consuming dairy.

READ MORE: Waikato man pleads guilty to mistreatment of bobby calves

Even economists are voicing concerns that New Zealand needs to diversify away from the dairy industry, and that we should not put all our eggs in one basket. Dairy is a low-value, high-impact commodity. It is one of the most environmentally unfriendly food production systems in existence, and is not a sustainable model for our economy.

However, if there is one thing we know about dairy, it's this: don't touch the sacred cow. I'm sure some people reading this will cry 'treason' to even dare to criticise.

But enough with their attempts to shut down reasoned arguments and discussion. The inherent problems with dairy are not over because one guy has pleaded guilty. Do we really want to rely for our economic wellbeing on an industry that has inherent environmental and animal welfare problems, and that produces a product that in the future may well be viewed as undesirable, even detrimental to our health? I believe that the animals alone are a good enough reason to ditch dairy.

Mandy Carter is head of campaigns for New Zealand animal advocacy organisation SAFE.

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