Dairy may be the last thing many current vegans gave up, but the ethical case against it is the easiest make. Many non-vegans don’t understand the boycotting of dairy because the objections are less obvious than those against meat. However, dairy cows are arguably in an even worse position than livestock cattle. In order to keep producing milk, they must be continually impregnated, through artificial insemination, and continually separated from their calves at birth. If the calves were left to stay with the mother, they would drink the milk. Instead they are placed on a milk replacer to fatten them up artificially. Mothers are known to bellow for their calves for days or weeks.
The chief crime of dairy farmers is not that they are stealing from calves. It is the separation between mother and calf and that is required in the commission of that theft
When I first heard the expression “not your mom, not your milk,” it struck me as a snarky or too cute. In truth, it does neatly sum up one ethical principle behind boycotting dairy. What the expression might belie is that ethical objections to dairy are not about ascribing property rights to calves. The chief crime of dairy farmers is not that they are stealing from calves. It is the separation between mother and calf and that is required in the commission of that theft. This is a traumatic event for both mother and calf that is repeated time and time again until the farmer decides the cow is no longer an efficient investment.
The violation of that sacred bond between mother and calf is one we should take seriously. I am reminded of Matthew Scully’s invocation of natural law in defense of veganism. “That which advances a being onward in its natural development is good. That which frustrates or perverts it is bad.” What could possibly be a more clear perversion of an animal’s natural development than separation of mother and child? It’s trivially easy to make an airtight ethical case against dairy. It’s an unfortunate and strange twist of fate that it is widely seen as the most innocuous of animal products. The cruelty is effectively invisible to the end user consuming milk or cheese. But just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t there.