Brendan Dunleavy’s far-fetched claims about Elsie the cow and the merits of dairy, in a letter to the editor published on Agriland, are just another attempt to prolong the delusion and folly of the livestock-based meat and dairy industry.

Given all the praise, admiration and accolades bestowed on this wonderful herbivore, one wonders why this kind, sentient animal is so implicated in the global climate and biodiversity emergencies?

Why its impacts are the subject of the many international climate and environmental summits for the past decades? And why there are so many calls from world leaders for major transformational change in the way we live on this finite planet?

‘It’s not the cow’s fault’

It is not the cow’s fault that has brought about these planetary emergencies, but the way in which humans have exploited and organised their domestication over millennia.

As well as climate and biodiversity emergencies, the farm animal production sector is now the single largest anthropogenic user of land in the world, contributing to extensive deforestation soil degradation, dwindling water supplies, and air pollution. 

According to scientists, avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. Meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein; it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland; and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions. 

Seven out of 10 of the world’s biggest killers are diet-related. Given that meat and dairy are the main sources of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, it is easy to see why coronary artery disease, cancer and obesity make up the top three.

The biggest pharmaceuticals sold globally are statins, with cancer and other metabolic drugs close behind.

How can dairy be beneficial?

This begs the question, how can such a system of food production, that is causing so many health problems – ever increasing storms; droughts; famine; mass migration; floods; desertification; rising sea levels; mass extinction of wildlife – be promoted as beneficial or environmentally sustainable? 

Getting back to Elsie the cow and her short and exploited life. Elsie will be sexually and emotionally exploited, from the get-go.

She will be impregnated every year of her lactating life, have her calf taken away from her after a few hours and when she is finally exhausted physically, she is sent to for slaughter to make hamburgers. Her short life lasts about five years, if she’s lucky. Of course, if she doesn’t go in-calf, develops mastitis or becomes a ‘downer’, she gets a quick shift much earlier.  

Elsie’s sad fate is the fate of all bovines on ‘planet dairy’. It is even worse for chickens, pigs and beef cattle; their bleak, exploited life is only a few months to a couple of years at the maximum.

Right now, there are around 200 million animals in cages or stalls awaiting death. 130 million animals are slaughtered every second globally, with fish slaughter being the largest of all.

World viruses

The Covid-19 pandemic, and most of the previous pandemics, have all been zoonotic or of animal origin. Of the last 10 coronaviruses, seven have been avian and three have been swine. The next pandemic is already on the way, scientists predict.

We pay a high price for meat and dairy. Our climate and health are at breaking point. Biodiversity and wildlife are near collapse. Our oceans are depleted and polluted with plastics. The children are on the streets trying to save their future. 

Elsie the cow must reclaim her identity as a cow with a quiet past and an even quieter future.

From John Fitzgerald, Co. Kilkenny