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January 2009

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Some very depressing food related news

I was watching Channel 4 news last night and they did quite an in depth piece on the organic dairy industry, focussing on the fact that despite the Soil Association not allowing the practice, a lot of farmers are culling unwanted day old male calves because they have no use for them, or in some cases, even shipping them to the continent for veal production.  The transporting of calves for veal is barbaric, and the way most of the calves are treated in Holland is even more barbaric and makes me feel sick - the practices are illegal in the UK, and things were tightened up a bit by EU legislation earlier in the year, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't come close to giving these animals a decent life.

This is partly because of different standards between organic bodies.  The Soil Association are anti culling/transportation, believing that the wastefulness of the former runs against the whole organic ethos.  I would go further and say that both practices do have an impact on the dairy herd.  However, some of the other bodies do not have the same standards, believing that it isn't fair to expect organic dairy farmers to discontinue these practices.

 The ideal solution is that organic farmers should have dual purpose herds, ie. both dairy and beef.  This means that any male calves can be weaned naturally, so there is no trauma on either side.  It also means that there isn't any senseless waste.  The other thing to do, and I've mentioned this before, is to start eating British organic veal.  People are emotionally put off eating rose veal in this country, because they think of little calves - but they actually live much longer than poultry, lambs, and pigs, too.  And the welfare standards of British organics are high.  Farmers have to be pragmatic - they are running businesses, and if they're to do this, they need a market for it.

However, in the meantime, I'm not sure what dairy I can safely buy.  The biggest independent organic dairy producers in this country, Yeo Valley and Rachel's have, to certain extent, been victims of their own success.  They used to be supplied by a small number of organic farmers, many of which were dual purpose (this in particular is the Yeo Valley ideal, and they discuss welfare of calves on their site), but they now get much of their milk from a centralised source under a group called OMSCo - The Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative.  Unfortunately, whilst most of these are Soil Association accredited, which means no culling, no transportation, others are certified under other bodies which don't have such strict criteria, and this milk is getting into general mix.  So, no Yeo Valley for the time being.  I'm only going to buy Soil Association accredited stuff, which is going to be very diffcult or some of the Waitrose products.

Now the problem has been highlighted again, the Soil Association are working on getting some agreement between its criteria and those of the other organic certification bodies.  According to the TV report, some of the supermarkets, in particular, Waitrose' s select farm products (both organic and non organic) are fully traceable and don't support these practices.  And apparently Tesco is following suit.  But it looks as though it's going to be a very long time before it's going to be possible to buy more than a very limited range of dairy where the welfare needs of  the calves are being taken into account. 

For anyone interested,  a precis  of the report can be found at the link below, along with a link to the actual report:



Thanks for this, Catherine. It helps to be informed or reminded of things like this when I'm feeling that I'm overreacting or that this is all such a faff that I should just go regular veggie. In fact by coincidence I was thinking about the issue earlier this morning (I didn't see the C4 report) and about how much harder what you do (attempting to eat an ethical omnivorous diet) is than what I do.

But then I know there are all sorts of issues surrounding soya etc which I haven't got to grips with.
It is getting harder and harder - but as you say, soya is pretty vital if you are going to be vegan, and the implications of soya are also dreadful - on a par with palm oil as far as environmental damage is concerned. I'm afraid it's on my list of things I try to avoid, unless it's organic. This pretty much rules out any non-organic chocolate as well, because most of them have soya lecithin in. There are also health implications - soya bean is thyroid inhibiting, so if you are prone to a sluggish thyroid, it's best avoided.

Are you managing the vegan thing OK now?
Well, I'm not calling myself a vegan because I don't do the whole lifestyle thing (I'm wearing a wool jacket as I write) and so I think it's disrespectful to those who do, ditto the fact that I compromise when eating out (the veggiest thing I could get last time was pasta and tomato sauce - I had them omit the Emmental - but of course it was egg pasta) but yes, the food thing's otherwise going OK. I have to think to take food out with me and I have to cook more. Ironically M is all in favour for that very reason! Yesterday I made a pretty good no-parmesan parmigiana from


though next time I'll put in more aubergine (and I used olive oil, because i'm not concerned with the fat free thing). It was the first really vegan sauce I'd made that wasn't just my own adaptation of a regular bechamel (with silken tofu, cornflour, tahini, stock, nutritional yeast etc.) and it was good and very easy (just blend it all and pour it on), though tasting more of tahini than cheese.

On Sunday we had my (vegan) tutor and his (veggie) famiy over for lunch which went OK I think. He was particularly pleased to be presented with a chocolate torte that he could actually eat (easiest thing ever, out of Rose Elliot's Vegan Feasts).

As far as the soya's concerned, I comfort myself with the view that the environmental problems caused by soya are (I hope - until you tell me otherwise!) because of its production for animal food. Alpro are supposed to use ethically produced soya, but I really don't like their products. There's a French make called Sojade who use their own domestic soya beans, but I haven't tried their milk yet. Actually I can order some with the veg box. I'll do that now. I've found a source for vegan "cheeses", egg replacer, etc., but I need to experiment more. I think the whole thing's like getting to know how to use an Aga - it's just a different way of cooking, although with a slightly different palette of tastes too.
It wasn't until I moved to Vermont and actually visited a dairy farm that I learned that getting milk from a cow is not a nice friendly act of human-cow symbiosis. The propaganda I heard all my life was "cows produce milk anyway, and there's plenty for the calves and the humans." I thought all mammals could keep producing milk indefinitely once they'd been pregnant, as long as they didn't stop nursing, an impression I guess I got from the phenomenon of wet nurses. Children's books don't explain that cows do run out of milk and need to be impregnated again and again, so that half the pregnancies result in "waste" calves that are destined to be meat (or dog food or whatever). Even once you begin to delve into how it all works, you have to get past the dairy industry's pleasant-sounding euphemism of "freshening."

So there I was, a vegetarian, eating foods that necessitate the slaughter of calves or grown male cattle. I still am. As far as I know, organic dairy standards in the US in no way require that the male calves be treated humanely. For that matter, they don't require that the cows be treated humanely. They have to be given access to pasture and can't be overcrowded, but the standards say nothing about how frequently they can be impregnated, so presumably it is "as fast as we can force it."

If there is no humane, healthful alternative to drinking milk, I'll drink it with a clear conscience. My reasons for being a vegetarian are ethical ones and so I don't extend them to the point of endangering my own health. But it would sure be nice to use the most humane practices possible. Once again I marvel at how far ahead of us you are in the UK.

Wool raises the same concerns, except that to the best of my knowledge there is no reason wool production has to be cruel (too-fast shearing, tail-docking without anesthetic, etc.). That is, the only reasons are economic, and since there's a world-wide glut of wool production, slowing down production might be a good economic move.