Dairy farming is a dirty business — literally. Between managing waste, keeping cows healthy, and maintaining sanitary environments for milk until it reaches grocery store shelves, Old MacDonald has his work cut out for him.
In an effort to boost milk production, dairy farmers focus on what makes it all go round — the cows. These workers, looking to increase productivity, are continually exploring new crossbreeding methods, anti-parasitics, and antibiotics for the health of their herds.
Aside from the obvious concerns about animal welfare, the trouble comes in when these agro-chemicals aren’t properly disposed. These chemicals seep into soil, remove oxygen from natural bodies of water, and dwell in the milk and meat consumed by the public.
Without some major changes, those who haven’t “got milk” may actually be better off.
Milk: Does It Really Do the Body Good?
Both the milk industry and mainstream media have been touting the health benefits of dairy for years. And these campaigns haven’t been entirely off base — both protein and certain nutrients like calcium and vitamin D are in high supply.
However, pro-milk campaigns often dance around the fact that an average glass of milk contains up to 20 different chemicals — including antibiotics and growth hormones — that humans weren’t meant to consume.
But even more concerning than the effect on our bodies is the potential effect on local environments. The dry manure and fertilizers produced by dairy farms can create some serious problems if they make it into nearby rivers and streams. Specifically, the nitrate and phosphorus in these sources can create algae that pull the oxygen out of the water.
In Wisconsin, roughly 10 percent of private wells exceed state nitrate water quality standards — in agricultural areas, this can rise as high as 30 percent. These chemicals are leaching into the ground surface water, affecting the cleanliness of the water we consume and use to grow crops.
If the waste gets into water streams, it can have devastating effects on fish and wildlife. For example, in 1995, as many as 10 million fish were immediately killed in a North Carolina river after a waste lagoon breach at a hog factory spilled 25 million gallons of decomposing hog waste.
Facts like these tend to sully the iconic images of celebrities with milk mustaches. With all of these negative factors, is there any way to produce a beverage that truly does the body good?
Taking the Danger Out of Dairy
Here’s the good news: While these issues do exist, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few powerful alternatives to consuming standard dairy that allow us to get all the nutrients we need without fear of harmful chemicals. So consider reaching for a different bottle the next time you’re at the store.
Plant-based dairy products are a great place to start. With 25 percent of the American population reportedly lactose-intolerant, dairy-free options are readily available at most stores.
Milk made from peas or other legumes are high in protein and made without antibiotics, anti-parasitics, hormones, or other biologically active drugs. They also have a smaller footprint on the environment, using less water and producing far fewer carbon emissions than dairy. Legume-based milks (like those made from peas) do not require fertilizers, as they fix their own nitrogen.
For those unwilling to give up traditional dairy, organic options may be the way to go. In order to earn an “organic” title, farmers are required to let cattle graze and feed on organically certified fodder or compound feed — with a strong restriction on most drug use.
Look for organic certification labels from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on milk cartons. It is the only system of labeling in the U.S. that is contingent upon independent public review. This reassures customers that soil biology, biodiversity, and plant health are core focuses and that harmful pesticides don’t go anywhere near the pasture.
Rethinking the Pro-Milk Message
While advertisers attempt to marry health and dairy, an important part of heart health is cholesterol. Produced in the liver, cholesterol can build up in the blood and stick to arteries if not managed properly. Cholesterol is already produced from your diet, so an increase in saturated fats increases the chance of heart-related illnesses.
If you’re seeking longevity, consider a plant-based diet, now touted as the best diet to eat for overall heart health. Plant-based foods can improve liver function, boost immunity, and increase good cholesterol. They provide healthy fats and fiber, both essential for maintaining a healthy weight and digestive tract. Plant proteins are also typically leaner and have fewer calories.
As a consumer, we have options. With so many healthy possibilities to choose from, pesticide-infused milk should never be on the table.