Farmers turn on animal welfare czar over criticism of dairy farming

Animal Welfare Commissioner said cows are artificially impregnated every year to keep them producing milk, by farmers express ire over criticism of dairy farming

Milk cow blues... Photo: Ray Attard
Milk cow blues... Photo: Ray Attard

Updated at 6:48pm with milk sector cooperative KPH Group statement

Maltese farmers have raised a stink over an online post by Malta’s animal welfare commissioner, for marking World Milk Day with a post challenging the need for human consumption of milk.

Alison Bezzina, who as commissioner advocates for animal welfare and standards for the health, keeping and treatment of animals, said in a Facebook status that the production of milk for human consumption required the artificial impregnation of cows to keep the producing milk.

Activist Jeanette Borg, from the Malta Youth in Agriculture, was having none of it, exhorting commenters to signal their dislike of the post. “This post is unacceptable and an insult to our dairy farmers across Malta and Gozo who ensure high animal welfare standards on their farms.”

Bezzina’s post took a sharp tone on the production of milk, which scientifically cannot be produced by cows unless they just given birth. The separation of calves from the mother ensures the cow keeps producing milk, a process informed by the maternal instinct, while the young are fed formula. “[Cows] are forcefully and artificially impregnated every year to keep them producing milk… even when separated from their calves, they will continue to produce milk, for months. But this is take away and sold to consumers. This cycle is repeated every year and only ends with the cow’s slaughter,” Bezzina said, who hashtagged her post with #crueltyfree and #plantbased.

All humans can digest milk in infancy. But the ability to do so as an adult developed fairly recently, likely in the past 6,000 years. A handful of mutations allows adults to produce the enzyme lactase, which can break down the milk sugar lactose.

While animal rights activists and vegan promoters applauded the post, Borg’s reaction prompted a slew of critical comments on the commissioner’s official page.

“It is a pity for the country that for such a scientific matter as animal welfare we have a Commissioner who has no idea of any aspects of the subject matter,” MCAST’s deputy director for agriculture studies Malcolm Borg, also founder of the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi.

“This issue is sensationalized so easily that logic, rationale or simple research is bypassed. And the Commissioner thinks that she’s doing the animals a favour by further adding fuel to the fire. Vegans think they are called for this battle to fight the livestock evil,” Borg said.

Borg also called Bezzina’s appointment a sop to animal lovers, saying she was not informed as to the difference between animal welfare and animal rights.

In a statement, milk sector cooperative KPH Group labelled the commissioner’s post as “unacceptable”, insisting the information was intended to “misguide people”.

“We as a cooperative, whose members are the local dairy farmers, confirm that they do whatever is necessary to keep the cows in conditions which are in line with European Union standards,” it said.

KPH said the post intended to harm the “important” sector, insisting the message conveyed goes beyond the role played by the office of Commissioner for the Protection of Animal Rights.

“This is when we are at a difficult time, when there is a need to promote the whole local agricultural sector for food security,” it said.

George Carbone, a former director at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, joined the fray, calling the ‘anti-milk’ missive “blinkered and stupid”.

“Hadn’t it been for the dairy industry involving millions of herdsmen, research workers, veterinarians, investors in the production of dairy products – milk, cheese, butter, yoghurts – and meat products, most of which have contributed to fight malnutrition and famine worldwide, the bovine species would have met the same fate of the extinct dinosaur.”