In the autumn of 2018, I held three workshops about veganism as a political movement and as an ethical standpoint, at a popular event venue in LjubljanaAt some point we were talking about speciesism (a form of discrimination based on species membership) and political interconnectedness between speciesism and other forms of discrimination. It was an engaging and quite deeply reaching debate…interrupted by a far more ‘basic’ question that, frankly, took me by surprise a bit: Why veganism – what’s the issue with vegetarianism? More specifically, what is the ‘issue’ with milk? 

It seems so obvious to me now: I sometimes simply forget that I was asking the same question not so long ago. I now think that this is actually a great question through which we can address veganism in a context of intersectionality. 

By saying ‘what’s the issue with milk’? people often mean: ‘But no one dies for milk’. Well…that’s just not true. What we perceive as the ‘milk industry’ is actually just one of the aspects of a broader industry that also includes the meat (or rather veal) industry. Baby cows in the ‘milk industry’ are separated from their mothers shortly after birth (in some cases a few hours after birth) and raised to be slaughtered for veal after three weeks to six months, or for beef after six to twenty-four months of (often secluded and psychologically daunting) living. Keep in mind that the lifespan of cows is eighteen to twenty-two years. The separation process is psychologically traumatising for the cow and her calf, since cows form very strong mother-child bonds with their calves and cry for days, even weeks, after the separation. 

This alone should be enough to understand ‘what is wrong with (ethical) vegetarianism’ – milk and milk products can’t be made without deaths of innocent beings and the milk industry isn’t really separated from meat industry. It’s the same industry, we're just dealing with different stages of exploitation. 

But why would this be necessary? Don’t cows just ‘produce milk’, even without having a calf? Cows are just like any other mammal (at least in many ways) and the same general rules apply; lactation in cows is no different than in any other mammal – it is still a ‘secretion of milk from the mammary glands and the period of time that a mother lactates to feed her young’. Milk of every species is, in fact, ‘baby food’ and no other animal except the human drinks milk after infancy. In the time after birth, the production of milk in cows (and every other mammal) naturally slowly declines. This means lower profits for the milk industry, so cows are artificially impregnated, over and over again. Normally they are pregnant and lactating at the same time for a major part of a year. 

Artificial insemination is a process that interferes deeply with cows’ bodies and cows have zero control over what is happening to them. Constant re-impregnations often lead to infertility and severe infections (mastitis and laminitis). And even the act of milking the cows itself is often painful and – most importantly – constitutes major encroachment on cow bodies. When cows get older (six years old, that is) and their production of milk naturally declines, they are killed for cheap meat (so even more deaths). 

Can we now see the ‘hidden’ interconnectedness with other discriminations that I mentioned earlier? The milk industry is grounded on exploitation of the female reproductive system. Not only the reproductive freedom of women, but reproductive freedom (or better the lack of it) of other animals too, is linked to patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of oppression. First there is the objectification of a cow and the abuse of her body, appropriation of her body by the industry, and then there is the capitalistic striving for profit, that values her life just by the profit she makes. There is also a broader issue of ownership: Cows (and other ‘farm’ animals) have the status of property, just like (other) slaves have.

The notion that these practices are somehow ‘acceptable’ because they are not happening to a human, is called ‘speciesism’. Cows – and other animals that humans exploit – are sentient beings. To own them, to forcefully impregnate them, to encroach on their bodies, to separate mothers and their children means to use their bodies against their will, resulting in psychological and physiological damage and death. While different practices in dairy farming exist, each one of them is a type of exploitation per seand as such unacceptable, since it necessarily means denying the individual sentient being a possibility to freely decide what to do with their own body and their own being. Or in other words: It's not ‘only’ the act of taking a life, but rather the exploitation itself. It's not just the notion of abusing, but rather the fact of using someone.