Sivarama Swami pressed on with his interminable list of excuses for exploiting cows for what he wrongly calls “ahimsa milk.” In this essay I will address those.
“Bulls are like our fathers.”
What can be said in response to this fatuousness other than that we don’t usually press our fathers into slavery by forcing them to do hard labour? Their “permission” to be allowed to live is not dependent on their cooperation with slavery for life. Our fathers are not the inconvenient by-products of a breeding program to exploit their mothers for their mammary secretions.
“Cows produce more milk than their calves require.”
This is true, but only because cows have been selectively bred to produce abnormal amounts of milk—up to 12 times more milk than their bodies were designed to produce. This is evident by the fact that modern dairy cows have abnormally enlarged udders so as to produce a maximum amount of milk. Compare the size of a wild bovine’s udders that are barely visible even when producing milk for an infant with that of a Holstein whose udders are enormous. In a natural situation—free from human interference—lactating mothers will produce milk in a quantity exactly in accordance with the amount needed by her suckling infant. A cow might produce excess milk when the calf is first born, but her body will adjust to the demand and she will produce less to meet the needs of her calf. To quote a perceptive Facebook comment from Yamini Naryanan:
Indian native breeds for instance are considered to be “poor milkers” by the dairy sector––that’s why they breed Jersey crossbreeds by the thousands. And the Indian breeds don’t milk much for the simple reason that they are way “closer”‘ to their original ancestors than the crossbreeds––they produce enough milk to sustain the calf, and no more.
I’m seriously amazed that such incredibly modern breeds like the Jerseys etc. have been effortlessly co-opted into an old religious tradition. Jerseys/Holsteins do milk excessively because they have been exactly interbred to do so… It’s a mammoth strain on their system as any lactating woman will tell you…It’s extremely irresponsible for [Sivarama Swami] to be even talking of all this as though the entire world can or should (!) subsist off a Hare Krishna farm, without acknowledging that these farms are no less fundamentally entrenched in global industrial violence. Their animals and genetic material come from the same sources that also supply to ugly industrial farms where the animals live in less than abject conditions.
“Is it true that cows produce milk due to being milked against their will? No! Cows produce milk because that’s what cows do. And they’ll do it even after a cow is born, sometimes for years if they’re happy and unstressed.”
This statement from Sivarama is untrue. Cows do not produce milk because “that’s what cows do.” Lactation is a physiological response that follows giving birth. This statement again invisibilizes the mother-child bond, as well as the reproductive violence towards female animals required to extract their milk.
The melding of an ideal of nurturing motherhood with exploitation of females is symptomatic of a larger system of patriarchal oppression, in which women’s sexual exploitability and reproductive function is utilized to keep them subjugated. While this is by no means confined to ISKCON, or India, it’s worth noting here that currently, as a very visible expression of this oppression, there are no women gurus in ISKCON. All 77 are men. There has never been a single female appointed as a guru in this organisation in the more than fifty years of its existence. The very concept of women as spiritual leaders is considered unacceptable by the male power hierarchy in ISKCON, based entirely on a sexist bias. And this is only one manifestation of the virulent sexism that pervades ISKCON. I discussed sexism and misogyny in ISKCON at some length in Part 8 and Part 9 of this series.
In ISKCON, as elsewhere, oppression of females is not confined to humans; it’s interspecies. And the false notion that producing milk is just “what cows do” is part of the mythology used to keep cows enslaved. It defines these animals exclusively in terms of their extrinsic value and ignores their inherent, or intrinsic, value as nonhuman persons whose lives and family bonds matter to them. It reinforces the common misconception of cows as milk machines, obscuring the real reason why they produce milk—to nourish their own calves—and elides the fact that it’s not our milk to take.
Declaring that producing milk is just “what cows do” also denies the tremendous energy expenditure involved in milk production for cows. Pregnancy, labour and lactation are taxing work for female mammals. Sivarama blithely ignores this, implying that milk production is an effortless, automatic process. According to John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University, “the amount of work done by the dairy cow in peak lactation is immense. To achieve a comparable high work rate, a human would have to jog for about 6 hours a day, every day.” Cows do this work to nurture their own offspring, not to have their milk stolen by grasping, greedy humans who have absolutely no need for milk. The fact that cows are forced to undertake this demanding, draining work to serve the frivolous appetites of humans is grotesque. It’s just another example of the cost to female bovines that’s kept hidden by the fiction, irresponsibly repeated by Sivarama, that this is merely “what cows do.” This is like claiming that hard labour is just “what slaves do.”
Cows in commercial dairies are unhappy and stressed. Yet they still produce milk, as long as they’re milked. It has nothing to do with their emotional state. It’s an unavoidable physiological function as a result of impregnation and giving birth. The only reason that cows would produce milk years after the birth of a calf—albeit in a reduced quantity and of reduced “quality” for consumption, and to their own detriment—is because they continue to be stimulated to do so by being milked.
The romanticising of milk as an expression of a cow’s contentment in being exploited by humans; of cows as willing, happy participants in their own exploitation, is entirely pernicious and self-serving. It’s akin to portraying the antebellum plantation system in the United States as an ideal pastoral world of contented slaves and chivalrous owners.
“But a cow with a full udder that’s not milked is in great discomfort, is in stress.”
According to the Holstein Association, this is true: “In general, if a milking animal is not milked for an extended period of time (more than one or two days for a cow giving a normal volume of milk – dairy cows are typically milked two or three times per day), they are likely to become ill and may develop mastitis, which is an inflammation and infection in the udder.”
But the fact that this statement is true doesn’t mean it works as a justification for using cows for milk because the “problem” is one that’s entirely human-created. The claim that we’re benevolently “helping” the cow by relieving her of her milk when we bred her in the first place for the sole purpose of extracting milk is one that reeks of opportunism. It’s a transparently disingenuous rationalisation. Sivarama is posturing as saving the cow from the detrimental effects of not being milked when the entire practice of exploiting cows for milk is detrimental to them. It’s rather like tying up a captive prisoner and then claiming to “help” them by loosening the ropes a little.
We created the problem by creating an animal, through selective breeding, who produces grossly abnormal quantities of milk, to our imagined benefit and to their disadvantage. Then we try to fraudulently claim that we’re being kind by relieving her of her excess milk. If we really care about the welfare, or the rights, of cows, we stop consuming milk, period. We stop fuelling the demand that keeps the cycle of breeding in place. In other words, we go vegan. Wild species of bovines, such as wild water buffalo, gaur, wild yak, banteng, bison and antelope have survived perfectly well, and thrived, without such human “help.”
I have no experience with bovine lactation, but I do have experience with human lactation, both as a mother and as a former neonatal intensive care nurse. If a woman stops breastfeeding suddenly, then yes, there is a lot of discomfort due to engorgement of the breasts. This could lead to mastitis. But in the normal course of events, in which an infant transitions to solid food and breastfeeding gradually decreases, due to no longer the main source of sustenance, this is unlikely to occur. It’s a perfectly natural process that works for both mother and baby. Why would it be any different with bovines in relation to their calves? What I have read confirms that there is a parallel. And all of this highlights the obvious fact that cows produce milk for their own young and it’s human interference and exploitation that creates problems. We don’t solve those problems by doing more of that which created them in the first place, and then pat ourselves on the back for our supposed kindness.
In any case, the idea that females, whether human or nonhuman, cannot manage their own bodies and natural functions, but need men to control and manipulate them “for their own good,” is offensive, sexist, paternalistic bunk. As an attempted justification for exploiting cows for their milk it’s just another speciesist excuse.
“Milk has so many medically beneficial properties.”
This is an untrue statement that flies in the face of current, copious evidence that milk is detrimental to health (see here, here here, here and here). As Michael Klaper MD says:
The purpose of cow’s milk is to turn a 65-pound calf into a 700-pound cow as rapidly as possible. Cow’s milk IS baby calf growth fluid. No matter what you do to it, that is what the stuff is… Its purpose is to increase weight and promote growth in tissues throughout the mammalian body. It’s great stuff if you are a baby calf, but if you are a human trying to create a lean, healthy body, it will NOT “do a body good.”
How does it make sense for an adult man like Sivarama to want to consume the breast milk of another species, intended to turn calves into cows and bulls, let alone think that he has an entitlement to it? It makes no sense at all.
Yet, Sivarama maintains that humans should continue to consume this unhealthy (for humans) substance for life; that we should never “wean off the stuff.” Even calves “wean off the stuff” when they no longer need it! Only if you want to make yourself sick does consuming cows’ milk makes sense. It’s not something any informed and rational person would do, and it’s not something any responsible person who cares about the health of others would recommend.
Whether or not anyone is willing to acknowledge the mountain of evidence showing that milk is harmful to health, it’s indisputable that no one needs to consume milk to maintain good health. This is the official position of the conservative American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics along with a host of other nutritional and health organisations, based on the accumulated scientific evidence to date. Since there is no nutritional requirement for milk, the entire edifice of excuses for consuming it is without foundation.
It’s notable that Sivarama does not say that milk is necessary for health. This indicates that he is not ignorant of this fact. Indeed, the fact that he says he abstains from consuming dairy products when he doesn’t have access to “ahimsa milk,” and that many other Hare Krishna devotees, who rarely, if ever, have access to it, survive perfectly well consuming no dairy, demonstrates that he is fully aware that humans can be perfectly healthy without consuming dairy products.
Lacking a nutritional justification, he resorts to touting milk as some kind of medicine. But even if milk had “so many medically beneficial properties,” which is nothing but an out-dated belief and can now only be considered a pseudoscientific fallacy, this would not constitute a moral justification for consuming it. Animals are not medicinal resources and we can all enjoy optimum health without using them as such.
Consuming milk as “medicine,” especially considering that milk inarguably harms health, is on the same level of superstition as consuming tiger penis to enhance virility, rhino horn to “cool the blood,” bear bile to treat the liver, and other completely bogus “remedies” employing animal substances. Promoting milk as a medicine is also reminiscent of the advertisements in the first part of the 20th century promoting smoking tobacco as a health aid. But ISKCON is notorious for peddling pseudoscience, and particularly in service of oppression.
Aside from this, those who refrain from ruining their health by consuming animal products are less likely to need “medicine” of any kind.
“Humans have a right to maintain and utilise dairy cows and working bulls.”
What a statement of arrogant, humanocentric entitlement! No moral justification is needed for this, apparently, according to Sivarama. It’s true because he declares it to be so. Once again we see the authoritarian, dogmatic approach that I have previously criticised—morality (or rather, immorality) by arbitrary, autocratic fiat! No consideration is given here to the legitimate right of animals to not be property and not be used as resources. It’s the human supposed “right” to exploit that matters.
This is nothing more than a naked assertion of might over right—the “entitlement” to exploit the vulnerable, just because we can. The fact that Sivarama wears orange robes, quotes Sanskrit verses and attaches “Swami” to his name doesn’t change the reality that his is a thuggish “morality” of the powerful preying on the powerless. He apparently lacks the impulse to even pretend to morally or rationally defend his claim of a “right” to exploit, despite the complete absence of any necessity to do so. This bullying ethos constitutes a repudiation of the very concept of morality. This is what is fraudulently being passed off as “ahimsa.”
You might be forgiven for thinking that by this stage, Sivarama Swami has run out of excuses for trying to promote the false notion of “ahimsa milk.” But there was more to come of him trying desperately to justify the unjustifiable. If your tolerance for this foolishness isn’t yet completely exhausted, you can read more in a subsequent essay.
Respect the fundamental rights of animals: Go vegan.
Learn about abolitionist animal rights here.
By Linda McKenzie
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