AnimalsFoodProcessing & Food Preservation

House Cows, Golden Eggs, and the True Cost of Cheap Supermarket Food – Part 2 – Updated

Industrialised Food

Part 1 of this Series told the story of Pixie, the house cow who made too much milk, and why specialising in “too much” of anything (as happens in monoculture food production) is not a good idea.

This article, Part 2 in the Series, will look through the lenses of home-scale and industrial dairying to explore how the drive for more and more “golden eggs” in large scale industrial food production weakens the goose, whether the “goose” be a cow, a field or ecosystem, or a community.

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What about the cows in the big industrial diaries that produce the cheapest milk on the supermarket shelves? Do those cows suffer the same problems as Pixie?

Yes, they do.

The cheap milk in the supermarket is easy on the wallet at the check-out counter, but that’s because the true price of supermarket milk is not measured in dollars.

It’s measured in the suffering of cows and calves[1].  In the damage to ecosystems caused by intensive animal farming practices.

And in the sleepless nights of dairy farmers struggling to cope with crippling levels of debt and interest payments, enslaved to large supermarket chains that control the market, set the prices, and sell milk (in Australia) for less than the price of bottled water.

photo credit: outdoorPDK Cow Appreciation Day ! via photopin (license)

Dairying, in and of itself, is not evil. On a small scale and with a focus on ethical practices, dairying can be regenerative, dignified, and fulfilling for all concerned.

But ethical dairying on a small scale is not profitable in the supermarket food model – and that’s where it all goes wrong.

It goes wrong in the casting aside of other functions as industrial scale food producers try for more and more of one specific function, one kind of golden eggs, at the expense of the goose itself.

And it goes wrong in a food supply system that is itself a bit like a giant monoculture, choking out small, diverse farmers (highly functional geese that don’t lay enough of the same type of egg) in its insatiable appetite for economic growth at any cost.

We’ll talk more about that in Part 3, but first let’s look at the real costs of specialization and industrialization.

 

 

The Cost of Specialization

The more cows you squeeze together in a small space, the harder it is to keep their living conditions natural.

Imagen de Kevinsphotos en Pixabay

It becomes necessary to do unnatural things to keep them fed and housed, to deal with their manure, and to keep the pathogens that build up in crowded, unnatural conditions out of the milk.

Like any other monoculture, modern dairying calls for trying to kill off every living thing besides the one species you’re specializing in.

But life is meant to be teeming and thriving, jostling and mingling, diverse and interconnected.

When we kill off all but one kind of life, hordes of other kinds come crowding in, mutating to handle our assaults on them faster than we can modify the means of assault.

The price of such high-volume specialization in one specific kind of golden egg is that now, without a functioning ecosystem full of beneficial and complimentary species to support the goose, the goose must be supported with expensive, high tech interventions and inputs that continue to move it further and further away from being capable of sustaining its own health.

 

 

The Cost (To The Cows) Of More Milk

We’ve talked about the effect that excessively high milk production has on the health of an individual cow.

To imagine the reality for cows in industrial dairies, just extrapolate Pixie’s story out over hundreds of cows in one dairy, or hundreds of thousands of them across the industry.

Milking Cow
Photo by Liany Cavalaro from FreeImages.com

In home dairying, there is typically one person looking after one, or at the most, a few cows. In industrial dairying, there are a handful of people trying to look after hundreds of cows and calves.

There is no careful, one-on-one attention like Pixie receives. It’s a production line of cows who have no names, just numbers, on a revolving platform of high-tech management, spitting through the slaughter house door as soon as their health breaks down irreparably.

 

 

The Cost (To The Calves) Of More Calves

A school teacher once brought a group of school kids to tour a dairy where I was working. She asked, “How do you get the cows to start producing milk?”

Now. Before I go off on a long rant about how our culture got so far removed from nature that that question would need to be asked, let me quickly bring myself to the point about calves in the dairy industry.

The point is that to make milk, a cow has to give birth to a baby.

Photo by Sebastien on Unsplash

A cow (or any mammal) can continue to lactate for extended periods of time. Mothers of various species can lactate for years after just one birth, beautifully adjusting their milk production in response to the stimulus of their baby’s needs.

In home-dairying, it’s possible to juggle the needs of the cow, the calf, and the household using the milk, to manage extended lactations so that everybody stays healthy.

But this is not possible if the cow is milked by a machine and bred to make so much milk that her body literally strips the flesh from her bones to keep up the production.

So, dairy cows in modern dairies must be “dried off” each year to allow them to regain enough body weight to be able to do it all again next year.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Many—well over half—of the calves born in the dairy industry are superfluous[2].

 

 

Golden Eggs And A Whole Lot Of Waste And Mess

In a sane world, in a functioning, balanced, interconnected ecosystem where each piece of the puzzle interlocks seamlessly with the surrounding pieces, nothing is superfluous.

But industrial food production has come a long way from sane.

Instead of a diverse web of life in which the outputs from one life form meet the needs of another in an endless, elegant, interspecies dance, industrial farming is linear – it goes in a straight line from beginning, to middle, to end.

At the beginning of the production line you put inputs in. Fertilizers, fodder, fuel…

In the middle you apply technology, medications, chemicals, and fertilizers, to prop up this unnatural system and the vulnerable single species you are working with.

At the end of the production line you have a product which you ship to the supermarket. Golden eggs.

You also have a weak, vulnerable goose that’s difficult to maintain, and a whole lot of waste and mess, which you must try to hide from the consumers of your golden eggs.

 

 

Why Can’t We See The True Price Of Cheap Food?

The waste and mess created by industrialized and globalized food production systems is the true price we all pay for the cheap food at the supermarket.

We pay less at the checkout counter, but we pass the cost on.

We pass it on to our future selves in terms of our own health and wellbeing, to our children in terms of their health and the health of the planet we’re bequeathing them.

We pass it on to small farmers and farming communities who cannot compete with the industrialized monocultures without becoming just like them.

And we pass it on to industrial farmers who are trapped in a soul-destroying system in which the burden of debt grows heavier with each effort to increase production while reliance on synthetic inputs strips the fertility from their land, making a change back to regenerative farming more difficult with each passing season.

We’re increasingly aware of the consequences—the true price—of choosing cheap, industrially produced food.

We are increasingly aware that even when we feel we simply can’t afford expensive food this might be false economy. We can pay the farmer now or pay the piper later; either way we pay.

And yet we continue to compare prices and choose the cheapest versions of things rather than looking for a more ethically sound choice[3].

Why?

 

 

Food As A Commodity

We choose the cheap supermarket brand over the locally produced alternative not because we are bad people, and not because we don’t care.

Aside from affordability issues, it’s to do with how we see food – our underlying paradigm[4] around food.

We choose based on price because our culture has taught us to see food as a commodity.

“Whenever any product or service [including food] becomes a standardized commodity, price becomes the sole basis of differentiation.”

Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

 

Dairy
Image by Squirrel_photos from Pixabay

 

 

Mind-numbing Labels

Real food feeds more than just the stomach. It’s more than a list of ingredients on a label. Real food connects you in some way to your family or community, brings more wholeness into your life, or brings you closer to nature – to the origin of the food.

For example, if you have petted the cow and admired the calf and your kids play with the farmer’s kids while she milks the cow, then for you this milk is “real food.”

photo credit: janinetreetops Julia milking Jetty via photopin (license)

In contrast, if the milk is in a bottle on a shelf, you have very little understanding of where the bottle came from, and all the bottles on the shelf are labeled with the same tired old jargon, then the milk is just a commodity.

The only way you have of differentiating one of these mind-numbing labels from the other is price.

Milk Products
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

 

Anonymous Food

Once, food was something we shared. Now, it’s something we buy and sell, as a commodity.

In a pre-industrial culture, everyone is privy to the skills and knowledge associated with food.

Olive Greening Milking A Cow Near Atherton, Queensland.
Photo From The State Library of Queensland, Australia. Out of Copyright.

Food, and the work and knowledge involved with it, are freely shared and everybody, from the very young to the very old, participates.

No-body would refuse to help with procuring food, and nobody would ever consider withholding food, or demanding something in exchange for it.

When food becomes a commodity, all that changes. It’s no longer shared freely; it’s under lock and key at the supermarket. To get it, you have to hand over the money.

Food as a commodity is not something you know the history of. You don’t know the person who milked the cow, or the name of the cow. You couldn’t, because the cow had no name and was milked by a machine.

The food is anonymous. It doesn’t come from friends, neighbours (whom you’ve avoided getting to know in case they turn out to be psychopaths), or your own abundant backyard.

Food today for the industrialized world comes from supermarkets, which are supplied by factory production lines and vast, precarious monocultures focused on a single kind of golden egg.

 

 

Coming Up

In the next and final part of this Series, we’ll explore how industrialization of food has resulted in food becoming a commodity rather than “something we share,” and what the consequences are.

 

 

Byline

Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com about thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life. Check out her free eGuide, “Ditching the Supermarket,” or visit her free downloads page or her blog.

 

 

References

[1] The animal welfare atrocities in the dairy industry are well documented and it’s outside the scope of this eSeries to repeat all that here. If you want to know more, a quick internet search (use Ecosia.org rather than Google, because Ecosia plants trees and does not store your data) will yield plenty of information. It may also spoil your dinner and turn you off ​commercial dairy products for life.

[2] In some areas, bull calves born in the dairy industry are required by law to be kept alive until a certain age, before being slaughtered for meat. But given the conditions in which they’re kept and transported for slaughter, in my opinion the lucky bull calves are those born on farms that kill them soon after birth. As for heifers (female calves), not all of them are needed as replacements. That, unfortunately, allows for the high death rate in heifer calves raised by the lowest paid staff, on one or two feedings per day (calves left with their mothers nurse far more often than this), on concrete, often in small individual hutches that allow the calf just room to turn around, keeping them isolated in what amounts to a jail cell to contain the spread of disease.

In an article in July 2018, a leading retail analyst said that the closure of Dick Smith Foods was due to consumers basing their choices mainly on price. Dick Smith Foods focused on selling food that was grown in Australia and rejected cheaper imports. It donated 100% of its profits to charities. It closed in 2018 to avoid bankruptcy.

[4] Broadly, a paradigm is a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind. A paradigm shift is an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.

 

 

Kate Martignier

Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.

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