6: Milky Bar Kidology
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work was the school talks which I initiated. It was also the stick with which the National Farmers' Union (NFU) and the Meat & Livestock Commission (MLC) thought it possible to beat me. But no matter how much they huffed and puffed about indoctrinating "children", conveniently ignoring the age range of between 13 and 18, it had little or no impact.
They gave the impression that, somehow, we forced our way into schools - presumably disguised as dinner ladies - and held classes forcibly in their seats with Kalashnikovs while we perverted their minds. What really worried them, of course, and still does is the effect that discovery has on young people. Decades of cloaking barbarity with anodyne phrases has not prepared young people for the truth. It is astounding that they can grow to virtual adulthood and know almost nothing of how animals are reared and killed. That cannot be accidental.
When young people witness cruelty to animals they tend not to turn the other cheek. To them, cruelty is cruelty and they are not ashamed to show their feelings, their disgust and desire to stop it. Many adults appear to be frightened by emotion. Anything which challenges, disturbs or upsets them is pushed into the darker recesses of the mind and they pretend there is nothing that can be done about it. Part of the reason is that if they accept something is wrong and should be changed, it automatically requires something of them, some action, some change in their life style. And that is simply too demanding. Young people, on the other hand, believe they have the power to change things - to change the world.
The two things which motivate them most of all are cruelty to animals and destruction of the environment. Insultingly, their concerns are so often dismissed as a fad or fashion by adults with barely a shred of their knowledge. I say this after having given hundreds of talks in hundreds of schools and colleges to perhaps tens of thousands of young people. When they make the decision to become vegetarian they are frequently put under huge pressure by their parents and friends and yet many of them sustain their beliefs - hardly the stuff that fads are made of.
I remember one 15-year-old who came to me in tears. She had listened to me talk and had watched the video footage of factory farming and agreed with everything. She knew it to be true - her father was a pig farmer operating an intensive system. He had refused to allow her be vegetarian, saying he would have no such thing in his house. This kind of thing is always a dilemma and any advice or support that I offered might be interpreted as pitting child against parent. It is the kind of intervention that has earned me the insult of being like the "Hitler youth" on several occasions.
I honestly believe that if you start to back away from conflict there is no point in going on. In fact, it was precisely because I refused to back away from this type of dilemma which led me to launch the Convert-a-Parent campaign as Viva's opening shot. It provided all the information necessary for young people to reassure their parents that by giving up meat they wouldn't turn into a shrivelled little weeds or die from malnutrition.
In the case of the pig farmer's daughter, I provided her with what information and encouragement I could, suggesting tactful ways in which she might like to handle the situation. Some months later I received a letter from her saying that she was now vegetarian and, what's more, her father frequently ate the same meals as her. The determination and courage it takes to see something like that through to the end has my total admiration.
So often parents claim their opposition stems from concern for their children but unfortunately it is often more about control or inconvenience than it is about concern. Nevertheless, things are improving and these days the most frequent requests from parents are for nutritional information and the letters of abuse have become fairly rare. That marks a huge step forward.
One of the most common allegations made against me by the meat interests is that I fail to present a balanced picture when I talk to young people, concentrating on the horror and gore and ignoring the positive aspects of meat eating. They're right in one respect, I never speak of the positive aspect, largely because I can't find any but I never concentrate on the gore.
Shortly after the launch of Viva! I did something which I have never done before and conducted a three-way school talk with the NFU (not a union at all but the employers' body) and the MLC. Each of us put our case and at the end, those in the class who intended to go vegetarian were asked to put their hands up. About ninety per cent did so. The input of the farmers lobby made no difference whatsoever.
I conduct school talks in a standard way. I am normally invited as part of Food Technology or sometimes through PSE (personal and social education) classes. For the first 20 minutes I show a video, I then talk for a similar length of time and the take questions.
Over the years I think I have heard almost every possible question connected with vegetarianism and the main ones are predictable. What will happen to all the animals? How do you know vegetables don't feel pain? We're meant to eat meat, aren't we? Where will I get my protein? Some of them are endearing when they come from kids but when the same questions are put accusingly by a 50-year-old MLC spokesman, it verges on the pathetic.
One of the most enlightened and questioning schools I have ever spoken at was run by an order of nuns. At the end of the talk I asked the usual question about who intended becoming vegetarian and 45 out of 50 put their hands up. At the back of the class sat an extremely old and wrinkled little nun who had listened intently throughout the hour's talk, her eyes barely ever leaving me.
I had constantly been expecting some kind of intervention from her but it hadn't happened. As I looked at the forest of young arms held high in the air I was amazed to see this parched and wrinkled, almost transparent little arm suddenly begin to rise, hesitantly at first but then shooting aloft with total conviction. I was delighted.
Perhaps one reason I empathise so much with young people is because they remind me of my own past battles. I was inclined to court confrontation. I would sometimes wait until my parents were eating bacon and then unfold a poster in front of them showing factory-farmed pigs: "That's what you're eating, how do you feel about it?", I would demand - or make some other unsubtle comment.
I have a vision of thousands of children throughout the country carrying out similar guerrilla tactics. Their parents should be proud of them because it shows a degree of caring and selflessness that can only benefit the globe.
Every survey in recent years has consistently shown that the proportion of young people who are vegetarian is considerably higher than the adult population. I like to think I have played a part in what I would call their education and what the meat interests undoubtedly refer to as indoctrination.
Traditionally, the bulk of my energies have gone into explaining the vegetarian imperatives. It is important to provide people with attainable goals rather than presenting the entire picture and saying - this is it, it's all or nothing! Very few people turn from being meat eaters into vegans, bypassing vegetarianism. The culture shock is usually too great.
It is important that any step a person takes should be encouraged. If the first move is to give up battery eggs, that is a step forward; no longer eating red meat, that is a positive move; cutting out factory-farmed animals is also an important decision. I do believe passionately and with total conviction that veganism has to be the ultimate goal but I am convinced that all steps along that route are valid and help to save the suffering of animals. If the goal is presented as an absolute, veganism or nothing, few will bother to even try and attain it.
Having said that, the cruelty of the dairy industry has traditionally been ignored by some vegetarian interests but I feel it cannot be ignored any longer. My own realisation of its importance was sudden and very close to home - in fact, in the field which adjoins my house.
I had just been reading a report by the national tourist board which had carried out a survey amongst American tourists to find out their likes and dislikes of Britain. Topping their list of disappointments was the lack of cows in our fields. The survey was conducted in the early Spring, before most of the cattle had been released from the imprisonment of their winter sheds.
The tourists had arrived over here expecting to see the agricultural chequerboard of our countryside dotted with grazing black-and-white Friesian dairy cows. Had they been here in summer they would have barely been able to swing a camcorder for the density of cattle, particularly in Cheshire where I live - a county which is virtually one huge, intensive dairy farm.
Four pregnant heifers arrived in the field alongside my garden in mid May. Heavy with calf, they spent the early summer in idyllic surroundings - a lush meadow bordered by a wood and a meandering river. When one of them unexpectedly gave birth to a perfect little calf amidst the long grass one sunny evening, the idyll was complete. I stood and watched as the mother lovingly licked her offspring from head to foot, unhurriedly, calmly and with transparent contentment. Eventually she rose to her feet and gently nudged the little bull calf to his feet with her muzzle. Age-old instincts were prompting her to ensure that he was capable of flight if the need arose.
The next day, the farmer and the cowhand arrived in the field and the idyll was over. The cowhand carefully scooped the calf into his arms and walked away with him, the heifer following behind without any need of ropes or tethers, concerned for the welfare of her young. They disappeared up the lane towards the farmyard and the inevitable process which was to follow.
After another day of suckling on the colostrum which precedes the milk flow and which ensures his ability to resist disease, the calf and its mother were separated as they always are - she to begin her twice-daily sessions in the milking parlour, he to face life in a barren shed.
This particular cow, No 324, was unusual in that this was her eighth calf, making her probably ten years old. It was, I was told, her last and after she had finished this lactation she would be slaughtered. Perhaps you could consider her lucky - lucky to have borne eight calves and had each one removed from her at a day or two old - because most dairy cows produce no more than two or three calves and are killed at about five years old. Left to their own devices they would live for twenty years or more.
The whole business of the pregnancy is about producing milk and in many ways the calves are simply a by-product. The females are largely kept to replenish the dairy herd while most of the male calves are simply not wanted - too scrawny for beef, wrong sex for milk so good for nothing but veal. There is something particularly disgusting about a business which is based on such undeniable greed.
The poor old cow produces ten times more milk than her calf could ever drink but such are the marketing imperatives that all of it must be extracted for human use even though it may never be consumed because of the over production. Are we so lacking in compassion that we must deny even this, most basic of instincts to a creature which has paid an extremely dear price for its docility?
It is dietary control and genetic manipulation which has led to this extraordinary output of milk - as much as 35 litres a day, twice the volume cows were producing only fifty years ago. It carries with it a cost, all borne by the cow. She has a one in three chance of her udders secreting pus and painfully swelling with mastitis. The obviously painful process of forcing antibiotics up her teats is unsuccessful in controlling the disease. If you look at any herd going in for milking you will see the huge and unnatural shape of the cows udders which are a distortion of what they should be. You will also see that many of the cows limp as a result.
Because of the strain of carrying her ludicrously over-sized udders and that fact that they distort the natural conformation of her legs, there is also a one-in-three chance that the cow will develop painful diseases of the feet, resulting in lameness. They are also difficult to cure and are frequently left untreated. When a combination of feet and udders becomes so great it starts to affect the cows milk yield, she will be sent to slaughter and used for burgers, school meals, baby foods and other "low-quality" products.
The dairy cow, which appears to have a better deal than most farm animals, is an extraordinary model of deception. She is worked beyond her capacity to cope which is why, since the war, the average number of lactation's has reduced from eight to slightly less than three. Only three months after giving birth and while still milking heavily, she will be reimpregnated, usually by artificial insemination. Only for the last few weeks of her pregnancy will she go dry. For nine months of every year she carries the double burden of milking and pregnancy, her udders working ten times harder than they would under natural conditions.
It isn't only mastitis and hock problems which send the dairy cow to the slaughter house, some go because they are simply worn out and no longer sufficiently productive for the balance sheet. They can lose body tissue, a polite way of saying they become emaciated. The evidence is there in almost every dairy herd.
If you look beyond the scene of apparent tranquillity, particularly at the hind quarters of grazing animals, you will often see little more than a skin-covered coat rack. In advanced cases the eyes sink into the head and the coat becomes rough owing to the lack of moisture under the skin. This can be associated with a complete breakdown of the tissues of the udder. In human terms it is the equivalent of teenager being physically destroyed through the demands made on her.
Now, you would think that in return for this constant and uncomplaining production-line lifestyle, the dairy cow would earn our thanks. Not a bit of it. Listen to Dr David Beever, head of ruminant nutrition and metabolism at the Agricultural & Food Research Council:
"We can look at the efficiency with which a cow is converting forages into milk energy by looking at the overall energetics (of the 72,000 calories a cow consumes every day, 19,000 are converted into milk) and she is not very efficient. I see little evidence that we are working these cows too hard and if we care to look across into Europe, and particularly look into the United States, then we have got cows that are working a lot harder through both genetic improvement and through nutritional improvements. So I would certainly not agree that we have got these cows to their limits."
Just for a minute, relish the implications of this little speech. Paraphrased, what he's saying is that other people treat them worse than us so we're all right and it's perfectly in order, in fact necessary, to push an animal to the very brink of its capacity to cope. The skill is in not pushing it over. In a sentence he has summed up the modern attitude to life which is increasingly being applied to human and other animals alike. No care, no compassion, no concern - you're as good as what you produce and nothing more.
Fortunately, there is a countervailing view and in this instance it comes from Professor John Webster, head of the department of animal husbandry at Bristol University:
"The dairy cow is a supreme example of an overworked mother. She is by some measures the hardest worked of all our farm animals and it can be scientifically calculated. It is equivalent to a jogger who goes out for six to eight hours every day, which is a fairly lunatic pursuit. In fact the only humans who work harder than the dairy cow are the cyclists in the Tour de France, which is the ultimate in masochism really." And even they only do it for a couple of weeks or so.
And as though that was not enough, the government has allowed experimentation in fifteen herds with a drug called BST (bovine somatotrophin) which increases a cow's milk yield by 20 per cent. It is a growth hormone which essentially stimulates the cow into diverting more of its nutrients into making milk and is injected directly into the animal on a daily basis. The farms involved in these trials have been kept secret and the milk produced by the cows has been included in the public milk supply without any real tests on its safety implications for humans nor on its implications for the cows.
The use of BST has now stopped in Britain and its future use depends upon decisions made in the EEC. But who needs BST when the latest experiments, again in Cheshire, involve breeding from European cows who can produce double the current output of milk without it?
As for the offspring of these and all other dairy cows, I will talk about them later in the book.