What would happen if we would switch the current dairy system into an animal-centred system?

The first time we met with my group mates, Louise and Yarden, we agreed to sit down around a cup of tea and discussed about personal research each of us made on the dairy industry. I showed them PETA’s awareness campaign “100% pure woman’s milk”. Made in Singapore in 2017 this spot is critically describing the cows’ condition through a human perspective. We can see a cow speaking like humans. It interchanges the script and questions how a woman would feel if we would treat her like we treat cows. This is that particular switch of point of view, which I would like to explore.What would happen if we would switch the current dairy system into an animal-centred system? In a broader sense, I would like to question through this essay the systemic dilemma, which often occurs in various industries involving animals. First, I will question how much today’s dairy industry takes into consideration the cows condition. Then I will explore and question why we only focus on human-centred systems when it also involves other beings. Finally, I will ask myself how we could involve ethics in the dairy industry.

In the Netherlands, and in most European countries, cows get pregnant mainly by being inseminated. They lactate during 10 months and are then inseminated again. After they have given birth, farmers take the calves away almost instantly. If the baby is a male, then he will become meat. If it is a female then she will probably be used for its milk. When being too tired and unproductive she will become meat like its mother. I am a lambda consumer, I didn’t know about this. It is by researching that I allowed myself to know. How much today’s European industry takes into consideration the cows’ condition?

Late September, Louise, Yarden and myself, visited a high tech Dutch dairy farm called Nescio. A fully automated farm operated by machines. In the train, I was apprehensive regarding what I was about to see. How open-minded should I be when I was about to see the latest Dutch cow factory run by robots? With some assumptions, some doubts but also very curious, we met the two owners. Starting by calling themselves “lazy farmers”, the Bergen family invited us for breakfast. Immediately, I could observe some paintings of cows hung up on the walls, as well as some little statues in the kitchen. In opposition to it, I could see a medium screen showing live filming of the cows in the farm. This unexpected “decoration” guided my curiosity. It raised some questions to me. What type of relationship do those farmers have with their own cows? I understood from our breakfast conversation that they never touch their cows and never directly take care of them. Then, how are these farmers emotionally attached to them? To what extent does this automation interfere with their relationship?

Proudly, the Bergen family gave us a guided tour of the farm. They first showed us the robots from the Leli Company, which provides food for cows and milk them. Meanwhile, we could see some farmers in the field taking care of the food for cows. Later, we observed the Leli machines feeding those animals in a very symmetric, circular, almost mathematic choreography. I could quickly understand Mrs Bergen is not the type of farmers we usually picture: she is a data analyst. Surprisingly, she knew a lot about her cows, she could tell each of their names. Mrs Bergen could also explain us the percentage of illness of each cow. “Marguerite is 23 % ill” she said.  Then came the most interesting moment of the tour: the milking of the cows. I could see this precise red laser figuring out the exact location of the cow’s four teats. The milking machine could then fix itself on the teats in an impressive smooth way. We could observe this same smoothness in the way cows were treated during the general milking process. When they feel like they need it, cows come to get milked. The machine pulls exactly the right amount the cow can give. In this way, cows don’t suffer from being pulled down excessively on the teat, which often happens when it is done by hand.

India produces more milk than any other country in the world. In organising our field trip to India, the questions that my group mates and myself could immediately raise were related to the holiness of the cows. How does India deal with its cows being holly? How can such a huge industry, not slaughter the cows? Even if I believe those questions were very relevant to our topic, a question stayed in the back of my mind during this 10 days of field trip: how does the holiness of the cows in India influence their condition?

Observing how free Indian cows can be was a real cultural shock to me. I was very surprised to see the contrast between this cow, peacefully walking in the middle of the road, and those overwhelming cars, autos, buses and motorbikes honking to each other in an incredibly joyful kind of harmony.  This cow was not the only one I saw in the middle of the street, there were plenty of them. She was neither lost, nor scared. I just saw her in her daily routine. Cows I saw in the streets, because they are holy, are given the freedom to live and be. If they decide to walk on the road, traffic will be dense because cars are avoiding them. They are free to go wherever they want. Moreover, in Western countries, cows are taken away their horns so that they don’t harm anyone. In India, I could for the first time see cows with horns. It felt very special to me, seeing cows back in their natural, original look, walking freely in the streets of Bangalore, deciding for their own path.

However, does this freedom described above means Indian cows are in better condition than Western cows? There was an important paradox I could observe. Sometimes I really had the impression cows were wild and free, that they belonged to nobody except themselves, that humans, because of cow’s holiness, never harmed them. On the contrary,
I could easily doubt about it when I observed how common it is for them to eat trash in the streets. When I saw so much injury and wounds on their skinny bodies. When I saw a lot of them walking with a limp. Human never harming them is also a very questionable fact. Obviously, it was hard for us as interviewers from abroad to get 100 % true information about this subject. Slaughtering cows is not forbidden in every state of India, we also learned that in some states next to Bangladesh for example, cows are exported to be slaughtered there in order to become meet. There is also this not negligible variety of religions in India in which the beliefs about the cows are very different. Which might have an influence of the way cows can be treated in different regions.

To finish with this first topic, I can say I observed a clear difference between cows‘ condition in India and in the rest of the world. Are cows healthier? Happier? There is a real duality in trying to answer these questions. Today, India is dealing with a serious challenge: find a balance between religious belief and the development of the Indian dairy industry. “There is a clash between traditional part and commercial part”, said Krishna Reddi, at the Bangalore Co.Op Milk Union Dairy Factory. This might have an influence on how cows are going to be treated in the future.

Researching about cows, I could read on Peta’s website (the largest animal rights organisation of the world): “Cows are gentle giants—curious, clever animals who have been known to go to extraordinary lengths to escape from slaughterhouses. They are gregarious, preferring to spend their time with other cows, and they form complex relationships, much like dogs in packs.” This quote helped me raise serious questions about cow’s level of sensitivity. How sensitive can a cow be?

In September, Yarden, Louise and myself visited an educational farm in Eindhoven called Genneper Hoeve. There, we met Age, the main farmer. We could film him in his daily routine. Afterwards, we sat together and discussed about various subjects. I remember very well his story about one of his cows. After giving birth to a vale, her two days old baby had been taken away from her. She managed to escape the farm and walked endlessly, kilometres by kilometres, trying to find back her baby. At that moment of the story,
I realised how maternal a cow can be regarding her new-born baby. How emotionally attached she was, as a woman can be after giving birth. Later on, I could read on Peta’s website that “like animals of all species, cows form strong maternal bonds with their calves, and on dairy farms, mother cows can be heard frantically crying out for their calves for several days after they have been separated.” I believe knowing this helps picture this animal in a very different perspective than we usually do.

There is another story I would like to share, which also helped me get a different picture of cow’s sensitivity. Going out of the hostel in Bangalore to reach a local restaurant, I was very lucky to see this cow, walking, as always, in the middle of the street. She stopped by at a specific house entrance. I was very surprised to hear her lambing in the direction of that house. I understood the lambing was specifically aimed at raising attention to the owner of the house. Then I could see the owner coming out and giving her food. After watching the happy belly cow going back in the direction of the shelter farm she belonged to, I presented myself to the house owner. She explained to me this cow is coming every day to her. She feels blessed about it. Proudly she told me that the mother and grandmother of that particular cow were also used to come to her to ask for food. There is a pattern in cow’s behaviour, an emotional connection with places, with people who cross her life. What I was lucky to see that day was something I would never imagine could happen.

Being well aware of cows’ strong emotional connections is very important to me.
I strongly believe this is something that every human being, closely linked to the dairy industry, or not, needs to know about. People have to be conscious of how sensitive a cow can be. People have to be conscious of animal’s sensitivity. This is something I was used to forget, this is something we are all used to forget. Through my interest in cows and some super valuable experiences I have realized the impact that this knowledge could have in the way we treat cows and animals in general.

One of the reasons why I am writing this essay is to understand, through my own perspective, why I didn’t push our teamwork to focus more on cow’s condition. I aim at understanding why today’s society is not taking that perspective into consideration. In parallel, I am wondering why I have not been able to put that in perspective myself either.

It has been 5 months now since I am researching about the dairy industry. I have never pushed our team project in the direction of the cow itself, as an animal, as a living being. A living being who has needs, emotions, sensitivity and pain. Why did we as a group, progress through a human point of view and didn’t empathically focus on the animal in itself?

There is a real detachment that is obvious to observe between the human and the animal. In philosophy, this question has been explored a lot. What makes us be so different from animals? What do we have that they don’t? Language, Arts, being smart …? These are the most common answers. I believe, starting from my knowledge and point of view, that to consider ourselves as humans we need to be and to feel different from animals. I also believe this detachment, this distance that occurs helps the human feel less guilty regarding his own way of treating the animal. Aristotle said “The man is a reasonable animal”, this is, I guess, already a different point of view, which would be very interesting to take into consideration. Indeed, this detachment the human gets regarding animals doesn’t make enough space for empathy. To me, all is about perspective, how the human places himself on earth regarding other beings.

From a consumer point of view, I could observe a real lack of proximity with food and how it is made in general. Indeed, our growing population lives more and more in the cities. The farms are often situated in the countryside, which makes our food production less and less visible and accessible for a majority of consumers. A recent survey conducted by the Innovation Centre for U.S. Dairy revealed that 7 % of American adults (roughly 16 million people) think that brown cows produce chocolate milk. The same survey reported that 48 % of American adults don’t know how chocolate milk is made. To me, the result of that particular survey is as funny as alarming and proves the lack of knowledge, which I think is dangerous. A lack of knowledge results on a lack of empathy. This lack of empathy affects the way we consider animals and, as a matter of fact, the way we treat them.

During our research, we met quite a lot of people working for the dairy industry at different scales. One of them was Justin Zegers, the laboratory head of De Vreughdenhil’s factory. Specialized in transforming milk into powder, this factory was interesting to visit regarding some questions we were asking ourselves at that time about milk excess. Indeed, today there are 840 000 000 tons of excess milk each year. We knew before seeing Justin that most of it is turned into powder. Naturally we gave that number to Justin and asked him how the industry is dealing with milk excess. I was very surprised to hear he couldn’t really answer in a clear way to our question. I could observe at that particular moment a man, who obviously has quite an important job in the dairy industry, only knows about his own activity. The problem here, to me, is that when workers only focus on their job, they forget sometimes to question their place in the industry they are working for. Every person being involved in any kind of way in the dairy system has an impact on it. I believe people need to be critical about what they do and also have, at least, a bigger picture about the industry in their mind. How aware people working in that industry are regarding the animal condition?

A lack of empathy and knowledge, which we are all, in different scales, touched by, affects the way we perceive how the world functions. If I had been more empathic, if I had thought through an animal perspective, I would have pushed our group to focus on flipping points of view about the industry. From a system only focused on humans, to a more empathic system regarding animals.

As a designer, I am supposed to focus on questioning the world, to think through its future evolution. The Design Academy Eindhoven, a school, which, to me, has a futuristic approach towards design, has decided to centre all the construction of its departments on man. Does it mean everything has to evolve towards a human perspective, for the humans only? How natural human egocentricity affected and affects the way we construct and make the world evolve?

"Man is only a reed, the weakest of nature; but it's a thinking reed." Blaise Pascal was arguing. In that quote, Pascal is questioning the place of humanity in nature, highlighting its biggest strength. We are smart, we are able to think through our own condition and question it, which makes us the smartest beings living on earth. This being said I believe we didn’t and still don’t use this smartness for another purpose than serving ourselves.  The whole society is built for human beings and by human beings only. We tend to forget we are not the only ones living on this earth. I believe we are smart enough to build a society which would involve other beings too, even if they don’t have the same needs. The foundation of our society only lays on Man, excluding others, not because we are not smart enough, only because of our darkest pitfall: egocentricity.

Our relationship with the cow is always a one-way relationship. Cows are serving the purpose of Man. They are used by human beings to feed human beings. Even if I have watched farmers having an emotional link to their cows, even if some people want to treat them better, the purpose is always the same: feed humans. This is a feeling I get from all my research. On the contrary, in Japan, you can find one of the best beef meat in the world called the Kobe Beef. As Shuji Noriko of the Kobe Beef Promotion Association explains, "the quality of the meat depends on the good practices in the farm.” There, breeders raise their animals without stress, without exercise, without temperature difference, so they produce maximum fat and burn a minimum. It is very clear to understand that there is a real correlation between treatment of animals and quality. This meat is as rare as this particular treatment of the animal. Then the natural question that comes to my mind is: why not doing it at a larger scale? If we would treat animals differently, it would serve the purpose of man only. However, I guess that countries adopting that way of producing would be less competitive than others, it would cost money and there would be less productivity.

I am a human, so by definition, I am egocentric. Yet, I am able to question my own condition. This is maybe why, I am able to be aware of my lack of empathy, my lack of knowledge regarding the food I am eating every day and moreover my natural egocentricity.  These are probably some of the reasons why I didn’t push my group to care about the animal perspective. I am a designer who thinks through the future of the society, a society which has been built in a human-centred way.

“Sometimes a new perspective can provide the push that people need to make kinder choices that spare animals a lifetime of suffering (…)” writes PETA’s senior international media director, Ben Williamson. I believe a real switch in humanity’s mind towards the animal should happen. However, a strong change in people’s mentality towards the image of the food and its foundation is really happening.  

There is a huge gap between what the consumers want and how the dairy industry meets those expectations. There is indeed, a real need for change regarding moral aspects which have been forgotten in building up the food industry. What are the keys to think differently and make the system evolve? To what extent consumers can impact this industry? 

Since there are revelations almost every day on either contaminated infant milk (Lactalis’s latest scandal), animal abuse or contradictory information about milk regarding health, for many consumers and users, a more ethically concerned industry is needed. Yet, in the context of a growing distrust of food, consumers are paying more and more attention to what they buy and especially how it is made. Transparency is to me a fundamental aspect which is the starting point of both forcing the system to be more morally concerned and rebuilding trust between consumers and industry. Brands are well aware of their consumers’ need and use them as a marketing tool. However, we can criticise in which context this transparency is taking place. Indeed, I could take Nestlé as an example to question the context in which between April and July 2017, the French brand opened some of its factories to the public. People - randomly selected - could enter at a specific day the factories, observe the whole production process, ask questions to the workers and even be part of the making of some products. Here, there is obviously a step through more transparency, on the initiative of the brand. However, I am still wondering how set up in advance this event took place, if the brand prepared the workers to answer in the right way some questions, if some changes have been made beforehand in the factory to welcome people in a specific setting. There is still a long way to go towards a true transparency but I strongly believe this is one of the most powerful tools to bring ethics back into the system. The dairy system, as well as our whole society has to be leaded by transparency.

What kind of solution could the consumer employ to make the industry evolve? From the premise that what you buy impacts food production, what people choose to purchase becomes a political choice. Indeed, if consumers drastically change their way of consuming, then the industry has no choice but adapting itself. In order to have an impact, boycotting has become one of the solution people take gradually into consideration. This boycott initiated by consumers becomes a marketing tool. For a few years already, dairy- free, animal-free, gluten-free products never stopped to rise. However, we can question whether those products, which are everyday more present in our supermarkets, have a positive impact on our health, our food daily routine and the environment. The Feed. start-up is to me the most meaningful examples I can relate to.  Launched in 2016, Feed. presents itself as a new form of nutrition, healthy and practical, which simplifies life of busy people. It proposes vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free, GMO-free, nut-free, and made in France products. They come in the form of nutritious bars, drinks or shaker preparation. What about the conviviality of cooking food? What about taste? What about chewing? Moreover, Feed. promises a complete balanced meal that brings today's consumer 100% of the necessary nutritional intake. Interested by this start-up’s point of view on tomorrow’s new ways of consumerism, Louise, Yarden and myself tried to contact them. We never succeed. This two years old start-up represents exactly what I am afraid food is going to become. Is it the only solution we found to bring back ethics in our way of consuming? The food as we know it today might become a totally different concept. We might not need any aliment anymore and end up « feeding » ourselves with only cocktails of components. Regarding the trend of taking a step back into traditional way of eating, into non-transformed products, into eating the essence of what nature can provide, I wonder if this is the right way towards a more morally concerned attitude.

On the other hand, I am a bit sceptical about how far the dairy industry is willing to evolve regarding people’s needs. I believe the new generation, especially Millennials, are already well aware of the challenges the industry will face in the coming years. In the context of a developed continent which I am living in, I see a real effort in creating a new collaborative economy. I see a lot of new initiatives aiming at bringing back more and more the food production locally.  I see associations that reuse, upcycle and create new alternatives. However, when I take the same perspective on a larger scale, I don’t see a real change on how the industries work. Built on cooperation between producers and suppliers, today’s dairy sector has lost its own basic values which would actually fit with today’s world’s challenges. Indeed, diving into these so-called “cooperative” societies, which have been in the first place created by farmers for farmers, opened my eyes on how far the system is from its initial beliefs. Cash investigation, a French documentary of approximately two hours was broadcast on the 18th of January and made transparency on the French dairy cooperative system. I have understood how SODIAAL, the biggest French cooperative, instead of giving money back to the producers, keeps it for the heads of the cooperative. Because of that, farmers are selling their milk at lost, they commit suicide crushed by their own depts, some choose to produce more and forget quality and animal’s needs … The industry hides its accounts, this lack of transparency shows how distant the industry is regarding how people are willing to change the system. Instead of keeping its initial values of cooperation, equality and transparency, the dairy sector generated a real paradox between today’s society needs and its own actions.  

To conclude with, I would say I believe consumers are increasingly aware of their impact on the industry. That is why they are called “consumactors” by the marketing industry. This generates a lot of beautiful initiatives, which are part of this general trend towards a more ethical, responsible, sustainable alternative society. However, even if the industry has to meet consumers’ needs to exist and make profits, even if sometimes people can make the industry evolve, a real step has to be initiated by the industry itself in order, for sure, to recreate a more ethical society

Diving into the European dairy industry in general appeared to me as a stuck, full of flaws and consequences system. Every little element seems to trigger a group of other ones as soon as you try to isolate it. If one changes, the rest follows and is impacted. To what extent can we involve animal’s perspective in such a human-centred capitalistic industry?

At first glance, you seem to face a wall. Nothing can touch the industry. Its power seems beyond control. Companies and lobbyists try to improve the production as much as possible in order to be economically working and bring more competitiveness. In the end 840 million tonnes of excess milk each year are left that won’t be bought or consumed. We are told that the demand is growing because we are more and more human beings on this planet. But what grows is not the consumers’ demand, but the business one. In this context, I am wondering if there is still space for incorporating animal’s needs. The dairy industry represents 27 billiards of Euros each year. This is an incredible market based on a traditional, basic, natural, food that we have been consuming since we are born and thus is used a stable « currency » for markets to make money. As said above, I am not convinced about the commitment of the distributors in the dairy field regarding a more ethical system. I am also not convinced animal’s perspective is today considered as one of the main challenges to be discussed about in the next few years. I am quite pessimistic regarding the hierarchy of industry’s goals. What I came to realise is that in such an industry, money doesn’t make enough space yet for other concerns. If we don’t deeply rethink the system, I unfortunately come to the conclusion that taking into consideration animal’s condition would make the industry lose money, end that is what matters today. There is a true systemic dilemma here which resides in a profound distance between ethics and competitiveness. What would happen if we would erase competitiveness, which is the real burden of everything? What would happen if instead, countries would produce for themselves and not export for others? What if we would re-localise the production and at least produce only the amount needed? Regarding the amount of lands and cows, or even the difference of climate, all countries are not equals. It is not possible for every country to become self-sufficient. What for sure is a reality, is that the industry is not ready yet for a profound change in order to incorporate animal needs.

In contrast to Europe, I understood that competitiveness is not the main challenge India is facing today. Cows are found all around the world, however the greatest percentage of cattle live in India, as it is home to over 330 million cows. The reason why India is the country that produces the bigger amount of milk per year in the world only lies in the number of cows. However, most of Indian’s farmers are still milking by hand. I could easily observe how less productive this system is compared to the Dutch system. During our field trip, we got the chance to dive into the cooperative societies also present in India. We visited the Co-op Milk Union of the Karnataka region and observed it is based on the same principles than Europeans’. However, Indian farmers are always getting paid the same price for their milk. This is the major difference compared to the European system. To me, the reason why the price never changes is because competitiveness does not exist in India. In other words, the price of Indian milk doesn’t have to be in competition with other countries because they export almost nothing. Not being on the outside market, the Indian’s cooperative guarantee transparency and security to the farmers. There is, more trust between producers and suppliers. However, even if competitiveness is not the challenge making the system more transparent than in Europe, there is also a real systemic dilemma between traditions and productivity. It was fascinating to see how different European and Indian goals are, thus, the strongest common point I could find laid again in a dilemma between ethics and money.

In October, Yarden, Louise and myself thought of four different crazy scenarios for the future of the dairy industry. We split those scenarios between us. Some were more pragmatic than others.  In order to question to what extent, the animal condition could be taken in consideration in the dairy industry in general, I would like to go back to the scenario I proposed. What if we would fully respect cow’s normal circle of life? What if PETA’s association, fighting since several years for animal rights, had much more power? What if it would really trigger a change? In that scenario, PETA would kidnap 1 000 recently pregnant women from all over the world and send images of them being milked in the same way as cows. Women being treated like animals resulted in huge riots all over the world. To release them PETA would ask for one thing: every government would have to sign PETA’s agreement. On this official paper would be written, among other things, that we should never inseminate a cow, we should never slaughter a cow, we should never take away a cow’s new-born baby. Because of those huge riots, governments would be forced to agree and would sign. In that specific scenario which would probably never happen, I questioned myself on how quickly the whole industry could collapse. There would be first a climax of consumption of milk, however the meat would become immediately super expensive as we would have to wait for cows to die naturally and eat them. Some years later, there would be no dairy industry anymore.

To conclude with, if we would respect the normal cows’ circle of life, the whole industry would collapse. There comes a crucial question: are there here the boarders of animal’s ethics? Do we have the right as human beings, to decide?

If we want to respect animal’s right, then, the majority of the food the world is consuming now would not be there anymore. Yet, alternatives are developed to feed the world differently. Are the consumers ready to make a real switch in their own way of consuming? Are industries ready to make a profound change in order to survive? The European dairy industry hardly ever takes cow’s condition into consideration. Cows in India are treated better; however, I am very sceptical about their future as the next challenge is about productivity. After questioning myself on whydid we as a group, progress through a human point of view and didn’t empathically focus on the animal in itself, I understood human’s natural egocentricity is the reason why we never took into consideration animal’s condition in building up our society.  In switching my human-centred perspective into thinking through an animal-centred system I quickly realise, in the context of today, the capitalistic society in which we are living in can’t make space for ethics and doesn’t want to. All is about money anyway.

To finish with, I could ask myself the same question through the sustainability perspective. Can we involve sustainability in a money centred system?

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