Earlier this year, after watching a horrific video about the abuse of bobby calves at a New Zealand dairy farm (warning before you click: it’s very graphic), I started thinking more seriously about commercial farming practices, from both ethical and health perspectives.

Is cruelty-free dairy farming possible? It’s a question I’ve been pondering over. My vegan friends think not, obviously.

And, where does the dairy milk in Singapore come from?

Over the past months, I have been a) trying to reduce our household’s consumption of dairy milk, b) looking for affordable cruelty-free alternatives, and c) as a result, trying different brands of milk.

(Btw The Husband is an ang mo who loves his milk in all its forms, especially fil, a fermented dairy product that’s popular in Northern Sweden. His go-to breakfast since childhood is cereal with milk or fil, so I’m not pushing him to suddenly quit milk.)

I remember meeting an Australian dairy farmer, Wendy Wallace, back in 2010. At that time, I was senior health and food writer for Shape Singapore, and Wendy was speaking at the media launch of True Organic, an Australian organic brand. She represented an organic cooperative in Victoria.

During her presentation, Wendy talked about the realities of commercial dairy farming. A particularly hard-to-forget anecdote she shared was about an unnamed conventional farm that fed its cows sugary by-products from a nearby candy factory. This probably helped the farm to save costs and fatten the cows quickly, she said, but it probably wasn’t good for the animals. There was no way to check the veracity of her account, but it seemed (and still seems) plausible.

Wendy then went on to explain some challenges of organic farming, and how they (her family farm and others in the cooperative) had to rely on crop rotation among other sustainable farming methods to ensure that the land was not overgrazed and remained fertile. She also talked about their treatment of ailing cows using natural remedies as opposed to antibiotics and other drugs. It was fascinating for me, someone who has always lived in urban Singapore.

I did not convert to eating organic foods or drinking organic milk from then on, but this planted seeds of consciousness in me. (As did a separate media tour to an organic vegetable farm in Malaysia, a story which I’ll leave for another day.)

cows_riverkwai
Skinny cows and calf at a village by River Kwai, Thailand. Photo: Yuling Li

So where was I? Right – my search for affordable cruelty-free alternatives to conventionally farmed milk. So far, “affordable cruelty-free” seems to be an oxymoron.

Organic products in Singapore are generally expensive and easily cost thrice as much as regular products. I’m well aware that organic doesn’t necessarily mean cruelty-free, although organic brands tend to market themselves as ethical businesses with a commitment to anti-animal cruelty and Fair Trade practices.

But. How do we (consumers) know if these claims are indeed true — or are just clever marketing?

There are accreditation bodies like IFOAMNASAA and USDA, which hold organic brands to certain standards, some stricter than others. Certifications are a way to trace accountability, at least in relation to the slew of organic product claims such as free-range, non-GM (non-genetically modified), antibiotic-free, pesticide-free and chemical-free.

What about non-organic / conventionally farmed milk? I don’t have the answers just yet.

When it comes to agriculture in general, it seems anti-cruelty laws have limited reach. According to the US-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, “there are no federal laws governing the conditions in which farmed animals are raised, and the majority of farmed animal suffering is exempt from state criminal anti-cruelty laws.”

Likewise in Australia, another major source of agricultural produce for Singapore, states and territories regulate animal welfare in their jurisdiction. Animal rights activists there are also lobbying for stronger anti-cruelty law enforcement. This is something to watch as activist voices ring louder.

As mentioned, we have been trying different milk brands — and studying labels like they were exam notes. Choosing in Singapore can get quite complex, as most of the milk in our stores is imported and rebranded. Recently, I did some research on a particular milk brand sold in Singapore, and in the process learnt a little more about food regulations here. (I’ll post my findings soon, and also include additional links to related articles that are worth a read.)

Friends suggest considering non-dairy milk, like grain (rice and oat) and nut milk. These are of course good alternatives, even if rather different in taste, although many still cost more than regular dairy milk. One exception is soya bean milk, which is a fairly cheap Asian staple. (And then there is the ongoing debate about GM and non-GM soya beans and non-GM soya beans, a can of worms I shan’t open here.)

So, what about you? Do you drink a lot of milk? Are you concerned about the ethical and health impact of milk production and consumption too?

PS. I’ll be writing about the healthfulness of drinking milk in a later post. Hit Follow at the bottom of this web page to be notified of updates!

Oh, and I just discovered that Singapore actually has a dairy farm! I’m going to check out Dairy Folks one of these days.

Photo of milk in glass: Pezibear

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