The Ethical Dilemma of Dairy Consumption – why buying organic is important


There are two main issues. The first is animal welfare and the second is environmental sustainability.

1) Animal Welfare

Let’s start with animal welfare, as there’s no question that the dairy industry, under the current system of mostly intensive factory farming, is cruel. There is one statistic that tells this story better than any other. Cows, if left to their own devices are said to live, on average, to be 20 years old, but industrial dairy cows live a mere 4 or 5 years.  Ethical Consumer explains why:

“To enable a constant supply of milk cows are usually artificially inseminated two to three months after they have given birth and are required to nurture a growing calf inside while simultaneously producing milk. This routine inevitably takes its toll, and many cows are slaughtered in the UK, physically exhausted, before their fifth birthdays.”

Is organic certified any better?

The Soil Association, which is responsible for organic certification in the UK, provides a guarantee of the highest levels of animal welfare standards available. Josh Stride from the Soil Association explains:

“As well as requiring that animals are genuinely free range, organic standards cover living conditions, food quality, the routine use of antibiotics and hormones, as well as transport and slaughter…”

The Soil Association say that in general all organic farm animals must:

  • have access to fields (when weather and ground conditions permit);
  • have plenty of space (indoors and outdoors);
  • be fed on a diet as natural as possible and free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs);
  • not be routinely given antibiotics to treat illness;
  • not be given hormones to encourage growth or productivity.

When looking at dairy cows in particular, there are several specific standards of note:

  • dairy cows must spend the majority of their lives outdoors and when they are brought indoors during bad weather they must have appropriate bedding and space
  • they must be fed a minimum of 60 per cent forage at all times and whatever the balance of forage or concentrate (soya or corn) it must be 100 per cent organic.

However, Juliet Gellatley from the vegetarian and vegan campaign group Viva! explains how problems inherent in the dairy industry still exist under organic and other certification schemes:

“Cows on organic farms may still be impregnated every year to provide a continuous supply of milk and may endure the trauma of having their calves taken away within 24-72 hours of birth. They may also carry the dual load of pregnancy and lactation for seven months of every year, just like those on conventional farms. These two welfare insults are inherent in dairy production and cannot be eliminated.”

Josh Stride from the Soil Association continues:

“A key difference between organic and non-organic dairy systems is in how calves are treated. Under organic standards, the feeding of calves must be based on natural milk, preferably maternal milk, for a minimum of three months. A calf may only be weaned when it is taking adequate solid food to cater for its full nutritional requirements…

Because the typical high milk-yielding breed of black and white cows (Holstein-Fresian) cannot be reared for high quality meat production, it is common practice for male dairy calves to be killed at birth or exported to the continent for veal production. Soil Association standards have never allowed the sale of calves to continental-style veal systems, and since 2010 our standards have specified that farmers must have a plan to avoid the culling of newborn calves. Options for organic farmers include raising native breeds such as a Red Poll or Shorthorn that have been bred for both milk and meat, or raising male calves for organic ‘rose’ veal – a robust, mature meat, pink in colour and aged for flavour. Male calves raised for this veal enjoy plenty of space and light inside suitable buildings over winter and outside at pasture for the rest of the year, a varied diet, and the care of a foster cow when available.”

Still confused?

I think we have to accept that there are still some animal welfare issues even with organic animal agriculture, but as long as I’m buying organic milk, I can live with myself in terms of the animal welfare issues – just. OK the animals may still suffer a hard life, but it’s debatable whether the animal knows this. A cow is not a particularly sentient being (like a primate, whale or dolphin) and has nothing to compare it to. Under the organic certified system, I think animal welfare is pretty good.

Where I struggle is when cruelty to animals can be avoided. That’s where non-organic milk to my mind is unacceptable. Quite simply, I think the soil association minimum standards should be the legal minimum standards.

2) Environmental Impacts of Dairy Production

A report by The Organic Center in 2010 summarised how dairy farm operations impact the environment as follows:

  1. Through the management and disposal of manure;
  2. The emission and sequestration of greenhouse gases – especially methane and nitrous oxide; and
  3. Through the impacts of feed crop production including soil erosion and energy, fertilizer, and pesticide use.

Organic farming can negate the issues caused by fertilizer and pesticide use and minimize soil erosion.

“In general, dairy farming, and especially organic and other forage-based dairy operations, is not a significant contributor to national or regional soil loss because of reliance on pasture and forage crops that dramatically reduce average erosion rates in most farming systems. ” – The Organic Center, Critical Issue Report: A Dairy Farm’s Footprint, 2010

However,  the management and disposal of manure, GHG emissions and energy use are still concerns, along with land use as a whole.

Management and Disposal of Manure

Where there are animals, there is animal waste, and as the growth of industrial farming concentrates thousands of animals on increasingly fewer farms, it produces massive amounts of animal waste on relatively small plots of land. When too much waste is produced in one place, there’s no safe, cost-effective way to either use it productively or dispose of it. Government regulation and better waste management practices can make a difference and should be encouraged for existing farms, but the problem of livestock waste will never end so long as we rely on concentrated industrial farms to produce our food.

What is the answer? If you want to continue adding milk to your hot drinks and breakfast cereal, then use your consumer power wisely. Try and buy from small, local, organic certified farms so that too much waste is not produced in one place.

GHG Emissions

Dairy production has a considerable effect on climate change due to emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide, but there are ways to reduce emissions as outlined in this government paper.

Ultimately, it’s unrealistic to expect the world’s population to adopt a vegan diet and so the best way to tackle this issue is to reduce our dairy consumption as much as we can, reduce emissions on farms as much as possible through gradually increasing and improving regulation over the coming decades and then finally, offset the remainder through planned land use to create sufficient carbon sinks on farm land to ensure all farms are net zero emissions by some time in the second half of the century.

Land Use

Back in 2007, Cornell University researchers determined that a diet for a small planet may be most efficient if it includes dairy and a little meat.

The reason is that fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality agricultural land, whereas meat and dairy products from ruminant animals are supported by lower quality, but more widely available, land that can support pasture and hay. A large pool of such land is available because for sustainable use, most farmland requires a crop rotation with such perennial crops as pasture and hay.

Thus, although vegetarian diets may require less land per person, they use more high-valued land.

“It appears that while meat increases land-use requirements, diets including modest amounts of meat can feed more people than some higher fat vegetarian diets,” said Peters, lead author of the study.


Whilst those who adopt an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet should be applauded and encouraged, it’s unrealistic to expect everybody to go down this route. Furthermore, we wouldn’t necessarily want that to happen if we are to make the best use of the world’s available land.

What is clear though is that meat and dairy consumption needs to be reduced significantly. I enjoy meat and dairy and don’t want to give them up completely, but I’ve got used to and now enjoy a largely vegetarian diet. I eat meat less than once a week (closer to once a month) and when I do I avoid beef and lamb altogether given the high level of GHG emissions associated with them. I keep my dairy consumption as low as I can, but I still use a little milk and I can’t give up quality eggs, cheese and butter – I enjoy them too much! But, and this is important, I will only buy organic dairy produce. In fact, I’ve got to the point now where I would rather do without if it’s not organic. When I do occasionally buy meat, I also look for organic and occasionally even wild meant like venison.

The mantra is simple: Cut down on meat and dairy where you can, buy organic, locally produced where possible and with minimum packaging. The overall cost of buying organic can be offset by the reduced cost of buying much less meat just as the cost of organic fruit and veg can be cheaper than buying processed foods.

And I’m sure, the quality and healthiness of food you consume will be far better.