On September 2, 2017, Sivarama Swami, one of seventy-seven gurus—all men—in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement), posted a video on Facebook entitled, Can Vegans Consume Milk?, promoting something he calls “ahimsa milk.” That is, milk that is supposedly produced without violence. The video went viral. There’s nothing unusual about non-vegans (and sadly, even many vegans) promoting “happy” exploitation animal products, but in this case, Sivarama Swami suggested that “ahimsa milk” is suitable for vegans. Many vegans were quick to respond in the Facebook comments section to the video that demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of what veganism is, and ignores principles of justice for animals.
In a series of essays, I intend to debunk the concept of “ahimsa milk” from an abolitionist vegan perspective, and to respond to specific comments made by Sivarama Swami in defence of “ahimsa milk.” I will then examine some general issues concerning the morally problematic idea and practice, as promoted by ISKCON, of exploiting animals for “ahimsa milk.”
Abolitionist vegans are clear that veganism is a moral imperative and that vegans do not consume any animal products. All animal products involve exploitation and violence. “Ahimsa milk” is a pernicious lie.
Critics of this position might object: look at how wonderfully animals are treated on “ahimsa” farms. Take, for example, The Ahimsa Dairy Foundation (ADF), a not-for-profit company, inspired by the farm at Bhaktivedanta Manor, in Hertfordshire, owned and run by ISKCON and the centre of the Hare Krishna movement in the UK. It’s clear that the ADF farm is being run according to the ISKCON “cow protection” model. They claim that no animal is killed or will ever be killed and that their cows are living a wonderful life on their farm in Leicestershire. A Daily mail article about the farm run by ADF tells us that their cows
live on 48 acres of cow heaven, eating only the tenderest, tastiest organic grass available–plus the odd organic carrot or digestive biscuit as a treat…They are fussed over, sung to, stroked, groomed, massaged, respected and revered. They have names such as Buttercup, Violet, Jasmine, Rosie and Cowslip and, however old they get, will never, ever, find themselves looking a steel bolt or electric stun gun in the eye.
What could be wrong with this picture?
What’s wrong is that, as animal rights philosopher, Gary Francione argues, if animals are not just things, but sentient nonhuman persons who have moral value, as most people believe, then we cannot treat them as resources however supposedly “humanely” we treat them. We accept this idea when it comes to humans, which is why human slavery—even the most “humane” slavery—is universally condemned. Even though human slavery hasn’t been eradicated, no one any longer defends it. If we are not going to be speciesist, then unless we regard animals as just things, completely outside our sphere of moral concern, we are committed to rejecting all animal use, which means embracing veganism. As Francione states, “There is veganism and there is animal exploitation. There is no third choice. If you are not vegan you are participating directly in animal exploitation.”
There is no need to consume any animal products in order to be optimally healthy. Indeed, an increasing number of mainstream healthcare organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the British Dietetic Association, Dieticians of Canada, the British Nutrition Foundation, the Dietetic Association of Australia, the National Institutes of Health (US), the British National Health Service, and the American Heart Association, have stated that a healthy vegan diet can be just as nutritious as a diet that includes animal products. Some health authorities add to this by saying that a vegan diet confers certain health benefits compared to an omnivorous diet. In any case, no one can credibly maintain that we need to consume any animal products, including dairy, in order to maintain good health. In addition, it’s inarguable that animal agriculture is extremely destructive to the environment, including being the major contributor to greenhouse gases (at least 51% of the total) and therefore climate change. Animal agriculture is also a significant factor in unjust distribution of food resources contributing to human hunger and starvation.
As far as breeding and raising animals for their flesh or secretions is concerned, although less suffering is certainly better than more suffering, when there is no necessity whatsoever to consume animal products, including dairy, for health, what is the justification for causing any suffering at all? There is none, other than palate pleasure, tradition, and convenience. These do not suffice as justifications for enslaving animals and exploiting them for milk or any other product, however “humanely” it’s done.
In other words, it’s not the way animals are treated, but the fact that they’re used as resources, that is the issue. Exploiting other sentient beings exclusively as resources constitutes himsa—violence. “Reduced,” “humane,” “compassionate,” “spiritual,” or “ahimsic” animal exploitation is still exploitation. If we believe that animals matter morally, no animal exploitation can be justified. There is no way to acceptably violate the fundamental right of animals to not be owned as property and used as resources. So the supposedly (and I stress “supposedly”) idyllic conditions for cows on “ahimsa farms” do not in any way justify their exploitation. We would never defend human slavery because the slavemaster gives his slaves nice food and good bedding. We reject human slavery unequivocally. Any other approach to animal exploitation is an expression of speciesism, based in the belief that animals have less moral value than humans, simply as a reflection of their species. As Francione argues, it’s no more morally acceptable to discriminate on the basis of species than it is to do so on the basis of sex, gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexual preference or any other morally irrelevant criteria.
So it makes not one bit of difference how melodiously mantras are sung to Buttercup, Violet, Jasmine, and friends; how luscious and juicy the grass they eat; whether they get to sleep on waterbeds in a centrally heated barn with piped in music in a selection of six different genres; whether they are adorned with flower garlands, and lavished with daily relaxation massage, aromatherapy, and all the treats they can eat; and even if they are surrounded by well-wishers comforting them and praying for their souls when they pass gently from this world. All of that may mean less suffering compared to life in a standard, commercial dairy, but none of it could possibly justify owning nonhuman persons as property and exploiting them as resources. Non-speciesism requires that we reject all animal use, regardless of treatment. This means rejecting “ahimsa milk” and going vegan.
In fact, contrary to the picture that “happy” exploitation outfits and promoters, such as Sivarama Swami, like to paint, it’s not possible to use animals for milk or any other resource without violence. I will discuss this in subsequent essays. But even if we could, it would still be morally wrong.
By Linda McKenzie
You can learn about how to go vegan here.
This essay, and others that will follow, draws on the ethical theory of Professor Gary Francione, founder of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights.
Thanks to my dear abolitionist friend, Balint Balasa, for his feedback and suggestions.