Food and dairy ethics. How our choices affect the planet, people and animals.

So you’ve decided to be more ethical and environmentally aware when choosing your food. Where do you start? There are so many factors at play that it can be a confusing minefield. In this article we aim to help you better understand ethical food production and how you can make informed choices.

Approx read time: 22 mins


This article is about the environmental and ethical dilemmas we face when choosing between certain foods, such as milk, and their alternatives.

In fact, the original intention was simply to focus on dairy, but as we started to write we couldn’t help but talk about the ethics and environmental credentials of other foods, since these things are so interconnected.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but will give you some insight into a topic that is often bewildering and about as clear as mud.

To read about the nutritional aspects of milk and dairy and their substitutes see: ‘Milk and dairy — good or bad?’

From dietary staple to dietary demon

Dairy foods and milk have traditionally been staples in the Western diet. In fact humans in various parts of the world have been drinking milk and eating yoghurt, butter and cheese for over 10,000 years. The UK’s ‘Eatwell Guide’ advocates dairy and milk as part of a healthy diet, and in the years just after World War II milk was promoted heavily, since it was an easy and readily available form of good nutrition. Only in the past decade have milk and dairy have been demonised by the ‘clean eating’ world and some alternative food practitioners, as well as some environmentalists and animal rights supporters.

The media continues to bombard us with scare stories about health, nutrition and the impact of the food industry on the environment. There is a raft of climate change research happening and being reported on. Just last year the Eat Lancet Report was published along with its ‘Planetary Health Diet’ recommendations which advise reducing meat consumption to almost nil and increasing consumption of plant-based foods.

Another recent and major report from the IPCC, on land use and climate change, looks at food production and its effects on the environment. It asks how changing diets can help address the threat:

“Agricultural activities emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Food supply chains activities past the farm gate (e.g., transportation, storage, packaging) also emit GHGs, for instance due to consumption of energy. GHG emissions from food production vary across food types. Producing animal-sourced food (i.e., meat and dairy) emits larger amount of GHGs than growing crops, especially in intensive, industrial livestock systems. This is mainly true for commodities produced by ruminant livestock such as cattle, due to enteric fermentation processes that are large emitters of methane.

Changing diets towards a lower share of animal-sourced food, once implemented at scale, reduces the need to raise livestock and changes crop production from animal feed to human food. This reduces the need for agricultural land compared to present and thus generates changes in the current food system. From field to consumer this would reduce overall GHG emissions. Changes in consumer behaviour beyond dietary changes can also have, at scale, effects on overall GHG emissions from food systems. consuming regional and seasonal food can reduce GHG emissions, if they are grown efficiently.”

In particular, the milk and dairy industry often comes under scrutiny for its environmental and animal welfare impact. It’s hard to get reliable information and balanced reporting to make sense of it all. Good news doesn’t sell newspapers or get clicks, of course, but it is not all sensationalism. Some of our food choices do indeed have an impact on health, on our fellow human beings, on other species and the world in which we live.

The switch to plant-focused diets

While vegetarianism has been on the rise for a number of years, the popularity of vegan foods and vegan dairy substitutes continues to grow, as scrutiny of the dairy and livestock industries increases year-on-year and the clean eating movement exerts its grip via social media.

“Is dairy bad for you?” is one of the most popular internet searches for a reason, and that reason is nutrition hysteria. A VoucherCode survey predicted that over 2.66 million Brits are set to ditch meat and dairy in 2019. And this on veganism demographics, from the Veganuary blog:

“A record-breaking 250,310 people from 190 countries registered for the month-long vegan pledge. As in previous years, the majority of participants were women (87%), most were meat-eaters (44%) and were in the 25–34 age range (28%). For the first time ever, health became the major driver for people taking part (46%), with animals (34%) and then the environment (12%) cited as reasons for people wanting to eschew animal products for the month.”

But it’s not confined to ‘extremists’. Although cows’ milk is still a bigger market, worth more than £3bn, Britons buy fewer pints than their parents did. The average person’s milk consumption in the UK has fallen 50% since the 1950s as people turn towards what they think are more ethical and healthy dairy products, or substitutes.

One of the big winners from this shift in consumption is oat milk, with £36m-worth bought last year, seeing sales surge more than 70%. Sales of coconut milk rose 16% and almond milk increased 10% over the same period. The Swedish brand Oatly said its UK sales had increased by nearly 90% to £18m in 2018 and were expected to exceed £30m this year.

Almond tree. (Photo credit)

Sustainability of milk and dairy products

As we’ve seen, milk and dairy products have long been recognised as important foods by government nutrition advisers. But is that still the case, distant as we are from post-war eating and in light of the environmental and animal welfare impacts of more-intense farming practices?

The public’s attention is increasingly focused – at least in the developed world – on these impacts. The word ‘sustainability’ is now part of everyday conversation, but was virtually unuttered a decade or so ago by all but die-hard environmentalists. It wasn’t long ago that activities of environmental pressure groups were viewed with disdain.

Pollution, greenhouse gases, associated climate change, ‘food miles’, water use, agrochemical use, and loss of the natural environment to development now sit high in the mind of the responsible consumer.

Increasingly we hear that livestock farming has a detrimental impact on the environment when compared to plant-based alternatives. Not just that but cruelty to, and exploitation and displacement of, animals and humans used in food production are serious considerations for some.

But is all this worth worrying about or should we simply focus on eating whatever and however much we want, whenever and wherever we want?

Environmental impact

With a growing population, currently at 7.5 billion people and predicted to rise to almost 10 billion by the end of the 21st century, more food is needed and the natural environment is increasingly pressed into service for agriculture, with a large proportion used for livestock.

The natural balance is teetering. Land, water and air are overexploited and polluted, and climate is changing faster than its normal rhythms, due to the activities of humans.

When we’re food shopping now we don’t just need to think about nutrition. The list of considerations is ever-increasing and includes:

  • Organic or non-organic. Has the food or its ingredients been treated with agrochemicals that increase yields but may damage wildlife and human health. Agrochemicals threaten insects, contaminate water and can have ecosystem-wide effects.
  • Packaging. In particular plastic that pollutes the environment, uses non-renewable natural resources and is poisoning the food chain.
  • Water use. Over-extraction of freshwater to irrigate crops and provide for livestock. Take avocados, 100 litres of water is needed to grow just one.
  • Deforestation. Pressure on the natural environment for agricultural land use, causing deforestation, habitat destruction and the loss of carbon capture by trees in deforested areas on an epic scale.
  • Animal welfare. As the worldwide demand for meat and dairy grows so does intensive livestock production and all the cruelty that can come with it.
  • Pollution. Fuel-use from the machinery used to sow and harvest food as well as in the supply chain.
  • Human rights. It’s often the case that farmers and agricultural workers who produce and harvest food, such as coconuts for coconut milk, live in poverty and can’t afford to eat their own food produce.

Spare a thought for the workers

So you may have cracked the nutritional and environmental factors when food shopping and arrived home with milk/dairy substitutes, plant-based proteins and trendy grains in reusable containers and bags that you took yourself (no plastic waste); and even though it’s more expensive than the regular stuff, you’ve done your very best in a challenging environment.

If only that were the end of the story.

As mentioned in the earlier list, there are social and other factors to think about. You may have been persuaded that you need foods like almond, soy, rice, or coconut milk, produced elsewhere in the world. So now we must consider the food production systems elsewhere.

With virtual slavery in agriculture and food production not unheard of, including enforced labour and animal labour, can you be sure the food is ethically sound in sociological terms? And if you stop buying a product on the basis of human exploitation, can you be sure that withdrawing even the little income those breadline workers manage to secure won’t starve them?

Then what about use of natural resources in the growing area, water extraction, deforestation on a huge scale, soil degradation?

The following are just the tip of the iceberg when considering the environmental and human impacts of global food production:

  • Avocados: While full of ‘healthy’ fats you may be contributing to the plight of Mexican farmers who pay extortion money to drug cartels who ride on the back of the avocado craze. Not only that, but they take a cut of the associated agrochemical sales.
  • Quinoa: The rise in popularity of this clean eating grain means locals can no longer afford quinoa that was previously their dietary staple. The huge increase in production also means soils are being degraded for future use.
  • Coconut products like milk and oil: Coconut production has reached 62 million tonnes per year, driven by the trend for coconut milk, coconut water and coconut oil. Again a clean eating craze. But did you know that the fruits are often harvested by pig-tailed Macaque monkeys, who are made to work long hours and are allegedly beaten and mistreated if they don’t perform? Amy Fleming, writing for The Guardian, reported that coconut farmers are kept in abject poverty while coconut milk, water, cream and oil sells for inflated prices: “Contrary to the marketing images of coconuts being plucked from a Brazilian paradise, “95% of coconuts are harvested by small-scale farmers, rather than in industrial plantations, and 90% of those small-scale farmers are in Asia Pacific,” says Angie Crone, who manages Fair Trade USA’s coconut programme…“Around 40–60% of the 3.5 million coconut farmers in the Philippines are living in poverty, on less than a dollar a day,” says Crone.”
  • Cacao: When you buy a pack of cacao nibs to add to overnight oats spare a thought for the cacao farmers who earn as little as 2 dollars a day and have to use child labour to keep costs down on their de-forested farms. Not just that, but having pillaged the lands of Africa cacao producers have moved to South America to destroy rain forest in pursuit of production.
  • Soy products: Soya milk and soya as a food additive and animal feed, are playing a huge part in deforestation to clear land to grow the crop. This means not only loss of diverse habitat, but loss of homes for humans and wildlife.
  • Almond milk: Over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, currently in a long spell of severe drought. And yet it takes a bonkers 1.3 gallons of water to produce a litre of almond milk. Will humans and animals face a water shortage while the region focuses on production of a ‘luxury’ product?

Things are not always what they seem

Let’s also do some comparison, as it’s not as clear as you may think.

Cows’ milk requires 650 square metres (the equivalent of two tennis courts) in order to produce a 200ml glass every day for a year, whereas oat milk needs one tenth that of dairy. Also almond and rice milks need vastly more water to produce than soy or oat milk. 

But both almond and rice milk – seen as slightly less ‘environment friendly’ than soy or oat in terms of water usage – still use less water than the typical glass of dairy milk, and land-use differences are negligible compared to dairy milk.

Almond has a lesser ‘emissions’ impact, since the trees are capable of carbon capture, unlike many other annual crops.

Cows’ milk is just a single product, with little alteration apart from pasteurisation, homogenisation and skimming. But milk substitutes made from plant-based materials often include added ingredients to improve flavour, nutrition and consistency, such as gums, emulsifiers, flavourings, sugars, oils and manufactured vitamins and minerals, some of which have their own environmental and ethical (animal testing) impacts.

Ethics point: Several companies behind well-known plant milk brands are also massively involved in the dairy industry.

Soy milk. (Photo credit)

Impact on wildlife and the natural world

Every hour, the equivalent of 300 football fields area of rain forest is being destroyed across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations. The oil is found in over half all packaged items on our supermarket shelves including those made by companies who produce dairy alternatives, even if not included in the ingredients of the alternative. In the last twenty years, over 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil.

Almost 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years. We are losing over 6,000 orangutans a year through habitat destruction for food production, a lot of which is plant-based.

An orangutan. (Photo credit)

There is the added problem not just of loss of the trees being a ‘carbon sink’, but the creation of a monoculture where wildlife no longer thrives in a diverse landscape. To top it off, agrochemicals are used, and water run-off and soil erosion can increase, leading to species decline and further habitat destruction through flooding.

Impacts on human wellbeing

The widely reported-on Poore and Nemecek study in 2018 goes into some detail about environmental data, and draws on a wide evidence base. But it does not reflect extensively on how the produce is grown and produced in terms of the wellbeing and exploitation of the people harvesting it.

Unsurprisingly, the financial benefits from the increasing popularity of coconut products, including milk, tend not to reach growers. Amy Fleming again: “Many farmers only have one processor they can sell to, so it’s take or leave the fluctuating prices offered. Meanwhile, there’s talk of illegal, lucrative exports of precious coconut saplings to China.”

We’ve already spoken about the plight of coconut farmers and that of the native people of south America who can no longer afford their previous dietary staples, but what about closer to home or to what we know, here in the UK and the developed world?

It is widely reported that farmers in developed countries are continuing to face increasing pressure from markets to cut margins, subsidies are reduced and that financial pressure takes its toll on the wellbeing of farmers, particularly those with small farms. The leading cause of death for people aged between 20 and 34 is suicide, and approximately, more than one farmer a week in the UK dies by suicide.

By purchasing less home-produced milk, we may be inadvertently destroying traditional livelihoods. Some recommend retraining and repurposing land (it is a similar story to assisting increasingly pressured fishermen), but programmes are not yet fully in place and the demand for milk still makes a viable industry for producers, though not without its hardships.

Dairy farming and animal welfare

Dairy farming has been part of agriculture for many thousands of years. Dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk. The popular vision is of happy cows grazing in fields, only too happy to provide milk for humans, even singing and dancing at the prospect of their milk being made into butter. Sadly, the reality can be less idyllic.

Cows need to give birth to one calf a year in order to produce milk for ten months of the year, and can often only produce high milk yields for about three years. Essentially the cow gets two months off from producing milk each year but during that two months she is pregnant.

In order to get pregnant cows are either kept in herd with a bull or put into a ‘crush’, which is a device designed to trap them and keep them still, and are artificially inseminated. The gestation period is nine months and once the calves are born they’re removed from the mother before they’re 36 hours old. This causes mother and calf distress and the cow will call for her calf for a few days after separation; cows are very social creatures and in the wild would live in defined social groups.

Consider this information, from Viva, an animal welfare charity:

“Populations of semi-wild cattle still survive in several countries, including the white cattle which have roamed free in Chillingham Park in Northumberland for at least the past 700 years. Studies of this herd, and other semi-wild herds, have provided much insight into natural cattle behaviour.”

“Semi-wild cattle form small groups, averaging 15–20 animals, with a strict social hierarchy – the highest ranking individuals having priority to food, shelter and water, with offspring inheriting their mother’s status. The social structure within herds is based on matriarchal families, with mother cows and their daughters remaining grooming and grazing partners for their whole lives. These mother and daughter units are connected by lifelong friendships to other, unrelated cows to form a herd. Once the social structure is established in a herd it remains stable for many years and any disruption to the group, such as a new member or division of the herd, is very stressful and confusing for them. According to Rosamund Young, an expert on cattle behaviour, it is extremely common for calves to establish lifelong friendships when only a few days old. These social bonds are constantly reinforced through mutual grooming.”

So you can see that cattle are not the seemingly unthinking and disconnected creatures that people have them down as.

In contrast to the cows’ natural twenty-year lifespan, she will be killed, on average, at the age of six when she is no longer commercially useful. It can be earlier if the cow is lame, has recurring mastitis or fertility problems.

The plight of male calves is just as saddening. As they’re not useful for milk production and only a few bulls are required to keep pregnancies going, they are often killed at just a few days old or sent for veal production. It’s hard to know which is more cruel, keeping a cow for its milk and then killing it at an early age when it’s exhausted or allowing it hardly any life before it’s shot or sent for an early death to provide meat.

While much of the UK’s dairy herds are grazed on pasture for a lot of the year this is sadly not the case across the world. Countries like America run vast cattle ranches where the cows never go near a blade of grass. Unfortunately, in beef farming, this practise is now making its way to the UK. Thankfully no ‘mega dairies’ have found a footing over here yet but it’s only a matter of time.

Dairy farming is a drop in the ocean as far as animal welfare and food production goes, and it’s not surprising that people want to detach themselves from the cruelty. The problem is they can’t, because it seems that all food production, be it plant or animal, brings with it cruelty of some kind through loss of habitat, exploitation (remember the Macaque monkeys?), or direct mistreatment and lack of respect for life.

So it is at least important to buy milk and dairy products, and other animal produce, from sources with a good reputation for caring for the animals during their short working life. Look out for more humane brands such as The Ethical Dairy, where the cows are not intensively farmed, have freedom to roam outside, so that their quality of life – physical and mental – is optimised, and the animals are not distressed by unsympathetic living conditions or early separation from their calves.

Footnote: Sally researched this section carefully, including talking to, and fact checking with local livestock farmers.

Interesting facts

To what extent do food trends translate to actual numbers?

The Poore and Nemeck study concluded that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from production of plant-based milks are lower than for dairy milk. Similar trends in water- and land-use were also highlighted.

The study, compiled data from 570 published papers to cover about 38,700 commercial farms across 119 countries, received considerable media attention with science and environment correspondents.

Major conclusions included:

  • Two-fifths of the Earth’s ice- and desert-free land is used for agriculture, and the food/agriculture system is responsible for roughly a third of global GHGs.
  • Beef herds (without any dairy co-production) have by far the highest GHG and land use impact. Eliminating beef (globally) would reduce food GHGs by one third.
  • Even low-impact animal products – eggs, poultry meat, some farmed fish – have a much higher impact than vegetable sources of protein, such as soy, legumes, pulses or grains.
  • Animal products provide almost two fifths of protein and one fifth of calories in the global diet, but are responsible for four fifths of global farmland and over half of food-related GHG emissions.
  • A global dietary shift to a completely animal-free diet would reduce food-related GHGs by about half, and farmland by about three quarters.
  • A dietary shift away from all animal products in the US, where per-capita meat consumption is three times the world average, could reduce food emissions by two thirds.

A thought
Is a global shift to a plant-based diet realistic and effective, given the points we’ve discussed earlier? Perhaps not. Maybe it would be better to reduce population numbers, eat less and waste less food. Surely that would have a profoundly positive impact on the environment? Persuading die-hard meat eaters to switch to a diet of beans, lentils, tofu and nut milk seems pie-in-the-sky.

To sum up

Balancing environmental, nutritional, human and animal welfare costs when deciding about dairy and its alternatives is a highly complex problem. For now, consumers must make choices about their food by prioritising the matters that concern them the most.

It is impossible to guarantee that any product is wholly ethically sound, since everything we do has an impact on the world, and we just to have to face certain levels of hypocrisy in ourselves (knowingly or unknowingly).

For some, getting around the prickly ethics of dairy farming means switching to alternatives. For others it is to minimise negative impacts by sourcing milk and other foods as locally as possible, to ensure all packaging and transport have minimal impact. They might then seek to ‘offset’ some of the deeper ethics by taking steps unrelated to dairy farming.

It’s clear that we need to eat healthily, and source our food sustainably, and ethically, in a way that’s not going to upset the balance of nature or cause hardship for fellow travellers on this planet of ours. Sadly it’s not always as clear-cut as it appears. Extracting the statistics could make almost any standpoint defensible. After all there are “Three types of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics” which was purportedly said by Benjamin Disraeli, and popularised by Mark Twain. And the more we try to unravel the complexity, the more complications we uncover. It is hard to untangle the Gordian knot.

What we recommend – by no means a comprehensive list!

  • If you eat red meat, consider reducing your consumption of beef, to reduce GHGs.
  • If you eat poultry or eggs, seek free range, organic birds and eggs.
  • Source grass-fed meat. Check how grass-fed the animals actually are, because there is no legislation around it.
  • Seek FairTrade products in your milk substitutes and other foods, and consider the reputation of the supplier, and whether the supplier also handles less ethical products.
  • Remember your reading glasses for checking the small print about ingredients and sources of dairy and substitutes and other foods.
  • If the product has vegetable oil, look for brands that carry the orangutan symbol and avoid palm oil, even the supposedly ‘sustainable’ kind.
  • Boycott companies whose practices in food production or product marketing do not fit with your ethical standards.
  • Consider the nutrition and health benefits (or downsides) of the ingredients.
  • Recycle packaging, and consider ways of reducing environmental impact in all aspects of your life.
  • Only buy what you need – reduce waste.
  • Only eat as much as your body physically needs to survive healthily.
  • Seek local food sources where possible to reduce ‘food miles’ and support local suppliers. UK farmers have now started to produce ‘exotics’ such as lentils, quinoa and chickpeas!
  • Try growing your own produce. Seek out local allotments, build a raised bed in your garden or convert a border to a veg patch, get a portable greenhouse or even a patio planter or window box. There’s nothing quite like putting a meal on the table that came entirely from your own garden.

So there is no easy conclusion, only potential confusion. There are so many factors at play that there is no single ethical or environmentally-friendly solution, but we can all take steps to improve the wellbeing of our fellow human beings, and the planet, along with its cargo of amazing wildlife and the natural habitats on which it depends.

This article was jointly researched and written by Sally Pinnegar, Director of Nuush and Neil Ellis, freelance writer and editor. The views expressed are their own. Neil can be contacted for work via LinkedIn.

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.

Cover photo from Pixabay.