By Dr. Mercola
Vermont dairy is synonymous with two things: cows grazing on green pastures and Ben & Jerry’s. The iconic ice cream brand was started in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978 and to this day claims to be as devoted to stewardship to the environment as it is to creating new ice cream flavors.
Their environmentally friendly image has helped propel the brand into one of Unilever’s, their corporate owner, rising stars.
With revenues close to $600 million a year and growing,1 they’re perfectly poised to become a champion to the environment, and easily hold enough weight to prompt real change with the “value-led decisions” they say drive their business.
Unfortunately, like so many other corporate giants, Ben & Jerry’s is actively supporting industrial dairy, an industry so damaging to the environment, the cows and the farmers that the system is destined to collapse, sooner or later.
What’s unknown is how much suffering and environmental destruction will occur before that day comes — and whether Ben & Jerry’s will decide to continue its greedy corporate crusade or turn the tide for positive change.
Ben & Jerry’s Supports Sweatshop Dairy
While Ben & Jerry’s has clung fast to its Vermont heritage, the state is no longer home to an abundance of happily grazing cows producing rich, creamy milk with which to make their premium ice cream — although this is by design, not circumstance. Regeneration Vermont reported:2
“ … [A] vast majority of Vermont’s agriculture — more than 70 percent — is all about commodity-driven, nonorganic dairy production, where GMO crops dominate, cows are on concrete, gorged and fully dosed with an array of pharmaceuticals, fields are bathed in toxic pesticides, and our waterways are declared impaired as a result of the nitrogen and phosphorus-rich farm runoff.
… [T]hese aren’t the quaint little family farms of yesteryear, the ones still dancing in your head when you imagine Vermont agriculture.
It’s not that these farms don’t exist, it’s that they’re getting pinched out by the dominant industrial model, a model that is coddled by Vermont’s political and regulatory elite and subservient to Vermont’s two giant nonorganic-dairy corporations: Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery.”
As concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) became the norm, farmers were forced to grow their herds and increase milk production using artificial (drug and hormone-based) methods, among others (like feeding cows an unnatural amount of grain-based food, 24-hour confinement and increased number of milkings per day).
The price of milk is now so low that an average-sized dairy farm in Vermont (about 125 cows) is operating at a loss of $100,000 a year.
It’s gotten so bad that farmers in Vermont only get about $14 for 11.6 gallons of milk, which cost about $22 to produce. So, they’re essentially paying about $8 to sell 11.6 gallons of milk.3 It’s economic exploitation, Regeneration Vermont noted:4
“If sweatshop laws were in play for Vermont’s dairy economy, the kingpins and benefactors of the exploitation, Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery, would be summarily convicted. They are choosing to economically strangle their suppliers, the farmers, by paying only the lowest of commodity prices.
And, worse, they are refusing to take the lead in transitioning their farmers — representing 80 percent of Vermont’s dairy farms — toward the obvious organic, regenerative solution.”
The Organic Consumers Association has created a petition to encourage Ben & Jerry’s to stop defrauding consumers and convert to organic. Please join your support with this important initiative by signing the petition below. After you sign the petition, please call Ben & Jerry’s (802-846-1500) and ask the company to go organic.
Record Milk Glut of 2016
In 2016, the industrial dairy industry dumped 43 million gallons of milk due to a massive milk glut. The glut was the result of a 2014 spike in milk prices, which encouraged many dairy farmers to add more milk cows to their farms.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data showed that dairy cows increased by 40,000 in 2016, with a 1.4 percent increase in production per cow.
With too much milk and nowhere to sell it, prices tanked. Milk prices declined 22 percent in recent months to $16.39 per 100 pounds — a price so low some farmers could no longer afford to even transport it to the market.5
The milk glut isn’t only affecting the U.S., either. It’s been felt globally, which means milk producers can’t export their surplus milk. What’s a dairy farmer to do with a surplus of milk? Dump it — on fields, into animal feed or added to manure lagoons.
Dairy Cows Dying at an Alarming Rate, Suffering From Burnout, Disease
The cows tasked with producing this excessive amount of cheap milk bear the brunt of all that is wrong with the industry.
Mortality rates in U.S. dairy herds are more than 10 percent a year, up from 3.8 percent in 2002, according to a Cornell University study.6 It’s the cost of producing milk in a system that values maximizing production above all else, even the health of its producers, the cows themselves.
Average milk production per dairy cow has increased more than 300 percent since 1970, to 22,000 pounds of milk a year, per cow.
“The industrial dairy cow has suffered greatly from this dramatically increased production. Dairy cow health is becoming a major issue for the industry, giving rise to extra costs associated with replacing the burned-out cows and concerns about meat containing residues of the increased medications being used,” Regeneration Vermont noted.7
Unbeknownst to many, “retired” dairy cows end up slaughtered in the food supply (around the age of 6 years, compared to a 20-year average life expectancy for a healthy dairy cow).
In 2015, such cows made up more than half (57 percent) of the meat supply. Ethical questions aside, this is problematic because dairy cows are often treated with drugs not allowed in the cattle industry.
In 2011, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reviewed drug-testing reports at slaughter plants, they found that dairy farms accounted for 67 percent of drug-residue violations.
In all, 17 different drugs were found in more than 735 drug-positive tissue samples. This included drugs that are banned for use in cattle, such as the antibiotic gentamicin.8 Ceftiofur, another antibiotic, has also prompted concern.
Often misused by dairy farmers for purposes of keeping cows upright long enough to make it to slaughter, the drug can promote the development of superbugs and poses a high public health risk because it belongs to a class of antibiotics that are critically important in human medicine.9
Harmful Drug Residues in Meat and Milk
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority to require milk be tested if evidence exists that drug residues may be in the milk supply. However, although the FDA has stopped some dairy farms from selling their cattle for meat after drug residue violations, this prohibition doesn’t typically extend to the milk.
Even farms that have received warning letters for drug-residue violations in milk can continue to produce milk, and commit further violations, without being shut down.
While the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have defined waiting periods and other rules to keep drug residues out of milk and meat, farmers are not following them. Here again, the CAFO system encourages this dangerous practice, Regeneration Vermont explained:10
“When farmers are being crushed economically, cutting corners on waiting periods or using unapproved drugs are the most common reasons for the pharmaceutical residues remaining in the food supply.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Overproduction is the problem, driven by a commodity-based pricing system that is obscenely rigged against the dairy farmer.
Organic and regenerative dairying immediately addresses all of the concerns of the commodity fiasco — economics, animal welfare, water quality — all within a changed mindset, from quantity to quality. It’s not perfect, but it’s the obvious step forward.”
Will Ben & Jerry’s Support Farming the Natural Way?
Returning to grass-fed dairy is a solution to the problems created by industrial dairy. As it stands, however, only about 22 percent of U.S. dairy cows have access to pasture, and even this tends to be limited.11 New-York-based grass-fed dairy producer Maple Hills Creamery shared reasons why grass-fed dairy is a viable solution to the problems of industrial dairy:12
- When a cow eats corn and grain, the pH of the rumen (the first chamber of the cow’s stomach) becomes acidic; this destroys some flora and increases systemic inflammation, shortening the cow’s lifespan and increasing her risk of infection
- Raising grass-fed cows requires fewer resources than growing grain crops to feed CAFO cows, along with fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides
- On a 100 percent grass-fed farm, manure is spread over pastures naturally as the cows roam; there is no need for environmentally destructive manure lagoons
- Grass-fed dairy farming works best with small herds, which in turn helps support local economies and small farmers, who are able to claim a premium price for their premium dairy products
In Vermont, more than 200 dairy farms have transitioned to organic and returned their cows to a grass-based diet. Regeneration Vermont, a non-profit educational and advocacy organization, is dedicated to bringing sustainable, regenerative agriculture back to Vermont, and that includes bringing Ben & Jerry’s into the discussion.
Regeneration Vermont is urging the ice-cream maker to source milk from organic/regenerative farmers, which would signal to desperate dairy farmers that there’s another, viable option, another way to farm. Until that time, I urge you to support dairy farmers who are producing raw, grass-fed milk products, and food manufacturers sourcing grass-fed milk, not those perpetuating the CAFO model.
Getting your raw grass-fed milk and other food from a local organic farm or co-op is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting high-quality food, and if you’re in the mood for a treat, you can make your own grass-fed milk ice cream at home. You can locate a raw, grass-fed milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk website. California residents can find raw grass-fed milk retailers by using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.
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