Emily Ulrich: Millennials and milk

Friday, May 15, 2020 - 12:18am

Imagine coming home from the grocery store, twisting open the seal on a gallon of milk that you just bought and pouring that milk straight down the drain. It seems unnatural — maybe even cynical — to waste perfectly good nutrients like this. However, many farmers in the United States are now left with no other choice. Instead of turning a seal on a carton of milk, they are turning the hatch on a 12-wheeler steel tank and dumping an estimated 3.7 million gallons of milk daily. 

Due to COVID-19, many restaurants, hotels and schools have closed and as a result, the food system has been severely impacted. When all of the customers vanish, farmers are left with few options. Many have tried donating their produce to charities, however, these charities cannot accept large quantities of perishable food with limited refrigerator space and a shortage of volunteers. As a last resort, farmers have buried 1 million onions in ditches, plowed fields of fresh vegetables back into the ground and smashed eggs that they could not sell. Additionally, many dairy farmers have begun dumping milk. 

Milk processing plants have decreased how much milk they accept from farmers, and unfortunately, you cannot stop milking a cow abruptly. Cows fall into a routine based on how many times a day they are normally milked and if they are milked less than that, it causes pressure to build up which can lead to serious medical conditions for the cow. This leaves dairy farmers with no other option except to milk their cows and dump the milk. However, for the dairy industry, their customer base began decreasing years before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Since 1975, milk consumption per capita has dropped by 40 percent. Recently, plant and nut-based milks have become a millennial trend. There are a plethora of options now available: soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, coconut milk, oat milk, etc. Many of these types of milk still carry high nutritional value minus the fat and calories found in dairy milk. For example, unsweetened soy milk has almost the same amount of protein found in dairy milk and 11 grams less sugar. In 2018 alone, cow milk sales decreased 6 percent whereas plant-based milk sales increased 9 percent. That same year, 2,700 dairy farms in the U.S. shut down. In addition to non-dairy alternatives, these farms were also run out of business by environmental awareness, animal rights and industrial dairy competition. 

About 3.6 percent of planet-warming emissions each year are due to the production of dairy products. Carbon dioxide and other harmful gases are released from dairy cows, manure and wastewater on farms where manure and fertilizers are not handled properly. According to the Institute of the Environment & Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, if one person chooses oat milk instead of dairy milk, they can decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 71.8 kilograms in a year, assuming they drink two gallons per month. However, some of the nut-based dairy alternatives have large impacts on the environment as well. For example, it is estimated that it takes 15.3 gallons of water to produce only 16 almonds.

The abuse of dairy cows surfaced in the news last June, when a viral video was released that exposed the mistreatment of animals on Fairlife Dairy farms. Fairlife claims that they strive to provide a quality of life for their cows that minimizes mental stress and avoids pain, however, the graphic video of employees kicking and throwing calves suggests otherwise. This company is likely not the only one in the dairy industry lying on their labels. The practice of dairy farming in itself seems far from ethical. Cows are intentionally impregnated and then their calves are taken away from them at birth. The milk from the mother is bottled for humans, instead of used as nutrients for her calf. Furthermore, if the calf is male, farmers either kill the calf themselves or hire a knackerman to perform the job.

Large-scale dairy farming has taken over and forced many family businesses to close their farms. Post-COVID-19 pandemic, it is doubtful that any small dairy businesses will survive. For example, in Wisconsin, the number of industrial dairy farms increased by 55 percent within the last decade. Other states that are top manufacturers of milk have seen similar trends. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on these family-run farms, forcing many small businesses to close.

Millennials might have some logic in their choice to abandon dairy. Shutting the door on the dairy industry could contribute to the fight against climate change, as well as animal abuse. The intensified milk market crash due to the COVID-19 pandemic could be the final step in closing many dairy processing plants as well as dairy farms. 

Emily Ulrich can be reached at emulrich@umich.edu.