Is cruelty-free lacto-octo-vegetarianism viable?

Hindu vegetarians are almost always lacto-vegetarian, but it doesn’t reflect an apathy towards cows. If anything, Hindus have cared more about cows than anyone else for centuries. They see cows as a sacred and selfless figure, willing to give so much, expecting so little in return. One of the reasons for this is cow’s milk, which Hindus see as a symbol of a cow’s caring and motherly nature. That’s why the slaughter of cows is seen to be so sacrilegious in Hinduism.

Sadly, the reality is that cows are being treated as anything but sacred animals today, even in India. P.E.T.A has documented cases of overcrowding, dehydration and deliberate injury on cow farms.1 Cows probably haven’t always been treated this badly. Considering the fact that human-animal interaction has been going on for hundreds and thousands of years, industrialisation and the rise of the corporation are relatively new phenomena. For a long time, animals were probably owned by individual families and roamed on an open farm. Ruthless cost-cutting, severe overcrowding and the injection of hormones only came about in the last 200 years thanks to ‘advances’ in business and science. The bigger corporations get, the more impersonal human-cow interaction becomes, and the more cows are treated as commodities and not living creatures.

If you were to ask whether humane meat is possible, the answer is a resounding no. Animals want to live just as much as humans do. The only remotely humane form of ‘killing’ humans is passive euthanasia, and even that is extremely controversial. Why should it be any different for animals? The only other option is to restrict ourselves to eating animals who have died natural deaths, which simply cannot support an entire industry (not even counting the legislative nightmare it would cause).

What about lacto-octo-vegetarianism? Yes, it is undignified to see animals purely in terms of their capital value. But we do that with many human beings too. A lot of companies hire people based on how good they are at their jobs (aka their capital value). Even if we demand for animals to be accorded the same rights as human beings, it does not immediately become apparent why this should preclude milk and eggs, provided they have been farmed the right way.

A common rebuttal to this is that the animal farm business is practically slavery. Human beings are free to choose their jobs; animals aren’t. Human beings are free to decide how many children they want to have or when they want to retire; animals aren’t. Human beings own themselves instead of being owned by their companies; animals aren’t. Even the most humane animal farm business gives its animals less freedom than the worst human job (assuming it isn’t guilty of human rights abuses).

Yet, by this logic, the ownership of pets is inherently cruel. Even the adoption of a pet from an animal shelter is simply the transference of power from one party to another. You still have authority over your pet’s life, you still infringe upon your pet’s freedom, and in this sense your pet is ‘enslaved’ to you. Far less vegetarians and vegans have qualms with the ownership of pets, provided they have been obtained by ethical means.

Even then, when people adopt pets from animal shelters, they know that regardless of the philosophical and ethical issues behind it, the immediately reality is that their pets receive a better life. This is very different from an industry where animals are bred for the express purpose of being put to work. There is no immediate promise of a better life, no ‘before’ and ‘after’ to support your claim that you’re treating the animals properly. The alternative to this is usually the animals not even being born at all.

But let’s take a step back. Recently, the promise of ethically-sourced milk, eggs and wool has become just a little bit more real with the existence of two companies: Ahimsa Milk and Good Food Nation.

Ahimsa is a term meaning to do no harm. Ahimsa Milk prides itself on selling slaughter-free milk that ‘guarantees no cow, calf or bull is ever slaughtered as part of its production’. It ‘aspires to the highest possible standards of cow welfare’ and the cows are ‘[retired] to a sanctuary when their productive days are over’. They are also ‘exploring innovative ways to work with bulls to ensure their economic viability.’2

Good Food Nation, on the other hand, is a parent company that sells milk, eggs and wool under the respective companies Cow Nation, Hen Nation and Izzy Lane. Cow Nation claims to use ‘a dairy model which allows each cow to live out its full, natural life along with all their off-spring’ and ‘[m]oney from the sale of their milk goes into a pension fund from which each animal will benefit in retirement.’ They try to reduce the number of male calves born using ‘sex-selected semen’, but guarantee that ‘each calf, male or female can look forward to living out its whole life in the herd.’3 Hen Nation takes it one step further, and prides on using ‘1680 rescued hens’ with ‘a further 18,000 hoping to become part of the scheme.’ The hens live ‘happy, traditional free-range lives – free to graze grass and forage’. Each hen is also able to ‘live out its full natural life.’4 Lastly, Izzy Lane creates fashion products from wool, obtained from its ‘500 rare breed sheep which have been rescued from slaughter’, and are guaranteed to ‘live out their whole natural lives’.5

So, the standard for ethically-sourced milk, eggs and wool appears to be that (1) the animals are not slaughtered and are be allowed to live their full, natural lives, and (2) they are allowed to roam in an open field during the day. This, at least, addresses some of the most pressing concerns that vegans have of the animal industry.

Now, regardless of whether lacto-octo-vegetarianism can truly be cruelty-free or not, I wholeheartedly applaud the efforts of Ahimsa Milk and Good Food Nation. The main aim of these companies is not to convince vegans to consume animal products once more, or to weaken the force of their arguments. These companies exist because they know that a majority of lacto-octo vegetarians and non-vegetarians still spend money on an industry that doesn’t care about the welfare of its animals, and they want to provide an cruelty-free alternative that vegan substitutes cannot quite provide. Furthermore, Good Food Nation even rescues animals that would have otherwise been sent for slaughter. This is very similar to the spirit of adopting a pet from an animal shelter. Sending the animals to a sanctuary might be better, but it is more costly and cannot be done on such a large scale. To me, the question of whether animal farms like these are right or wrong only really becomes relevant when a majority of animal farms are already slaughter-free.

But that doesn’t mean that this issue shouldn’t be explored. From a philosophical standpoint, we must know about the various arguments that can be made on even the most abstract level. It’s only when we are familiar with the guiding principles that we can then fine-tune them to what the present circumstances demand.

Already vegans are doubting the viability the slaughter-free model. Vegan writer Erik Marcus has this to say about Ahimsa Milk: ‘Start thinking about the feed, veterinary costs, and housing costs involved and it’s clear that the future financial obligations entailed by a glass of slaughter-free milk dwarf its production costs. And that goes double if the cows are receiving high-quality veterinary care, and are given spacious accommodations during their productive lives and their retirements. Now also consider that at four calves per cow, two of those calves will be males. Are they really going to give these two males accommodations and veterinary care for their natural twenty year lives? And can they really do all this for anything close to $3.65 a liter?’ and ‘I admire the sentiments behind this effort, and the desire to give milk drinkers a way to enjoy their dairy without contributing to animal abuse. But I don’t see how, at these prices, it’s anywhere near possible. Sure, they can do it today, tomorrow, and next week. But for every year they’re in business, they’re accruing substantial new obligations for the next two decades.’6

£3.65 is the price Ahimsa Milk sells a litre of milk for. I don’t know a lot about the operating costs of the milk industry and how realistic this is, but I don’t suspect that Ahimsa Milk is cheating us and secretly abusing its cows to cut costs, because then there’d be no reason for them to get into the business in the first place. According to the prices of fresh milk in Tesco, a litre of milk can be sold as cheaply as £0.44, and the most expensive organic premium milk goes up to £1.76. Based on that, I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question that cruelty-free milk can go for as little as £3.65.

However, this only works because Ahimsa Milk operates on such a small scale. Already many milk companies are squeezed for space, and the average cow stall is barely bigger than the cow itself. A field that gives cows enough space to roam should be at least 10 times bigger than the total space the cows take, and that’s not even counting the shelters for them to return to at night and when it rains, or the sanctuaries for them to retire to when they get old. This would make it impossible for a cruelty-free company to operate in many areas that its cruelty-guaranteed counterparts presently operate in. If even a hundredth of the current world demand for milk went to cruelty-free milk, it would cause a huge supply bottleneck and prices would skyrocket.

In addition to that, we must also consider the environmental impact. The bulls are not slaughtered for meat, and all of them are allowed to live their natural lifespans. This would mean that the companies are producing almost twice the amount of methane, and requiring twice the amount of water and food for each litre of milk they provide. On a global scale, the environmental impact would be disastrous.

For that reason, it seems as though cruelty-free animal products can only exist if their cruelty-guaranteed counterparts are already attracting most of the demand. The presence of a happy cow roaming on an open farm necessitates that a hundred other cows elsewhere are in pain and suffering. When you think about it this way, the case for humane lacto-octo vegetarianism as a whole becomes a lot less appealing. It cannot be a global phenomenon. Yes, if we were to direct more funds towards the research and development on the sustainability and viability of cruelty-free models we might see it becoming just a little bit more viable, but it’s foolish to proceed down this path in the blind hope that science will one day save us.

However, for all the flak that cruelty-free animal products get, vegan products share the same dilemma. Even if vegans abstain from the presence of even the tiniest animal product in their food, the number of vegans that care about the means by which their vegetables are fertilised is far smaller. Animal manure and bonemeal is by far the cheapest and most readily-obtainable form of fertilizer, thanks to the many meat and dairy industries that continue to perpetuate animal cruelty. In this sense, most vegan products still have a hand in making animal cruelty profitable by providing an extra source of income to these animal farms. (An interesting point to note is that humane animal farms provide yet another source of manure for the agriculture industry. It’s not vegan, but neither is it tainted by the blood of slaughtered animals.)

Vegan alternatives do exist. The Vegan Organic Network is one of the few organisations that tries to increase the awareness of cruelty-free plant fertilizers and farming methods. According to its website, it claims that its vegan method of cultivation is ‘sustainable’ and ‘ecologically viable’.7 It probably works out on the current scale that the Vegan Organic Network operates on, but just like the cruelty-free milk, eggs and wool models that Ahimsa Milk and Good Food Nation pursue, it’s not entirely clear if vegan fertilizers can hold up to the demand of a fully vegan world.

I don’t know the science behind this. I don’t know how much vegan fertilizer an acre of soil requires, and how much land and water is further required to grow that fertilizer. I don’t know how its efficiency compares to manure and bone-meal. The point of this article is not to reach a definitive conclusion on this debate (which requires far more extensive research than I am capable of), but highlight the various arguments that currently exist.

Whatever it is, cruelty-free animal products have a niche in the cruel world we live in. Lacto-octo vegetarianism is viable, but only on a very small scale, and for the people willing to pay a high price to protect the rights of the animals they get their products from. For the rest of us who don’t want to put too much strain on this small business model, going vegan is probably the better choice.