The Myth of Harmlessness: The Real Underbelly of the Dairy Industry

Marla Rose
10 min readJun 21, 2018

When I went vegetarian at age 15, I thought that was the end of the road with what I needed to do to withdraw my support from animal cruelty. Mind you, I went vegetarian during a much less sophisticated time — the 1980s — an era when juveniles like myself would spend our days collecting neon zebra print leggings and listening to mixtapes, which is to say, I didn’t know any better. It would be 13 or so years before I would learn enough about animal agribusiness to understand that vegetarianism was just the beginning — a genuinely laudable step for cutting out one aspect of needless cruelty, suffering and violence — but really just a step. When I learned more, thanks to the books I was reading, the films I was watching and the activists I was meeting, I learned that some of the products I was still consuming were just as exploitatively and cruelly obtained as the flesh I had long ago given up for ethical reasons. In fact, I learned that these industries and the meat industry are inextricably wound together. This is the first in a series I will be writing about the often-hidden corners of animal agribusiness, what many consumers unknowingly shrug off as harmless byproducts. My inaugural piece is on the dairy industry.

“The milk of human kindness,” was an expression coined by Shakespeare and uttered by Lady Macbeth in an attempt to manipulate her husband, whose nature she worried was too gentle, kind and bereft of ambition to murder King Duncan and assume the Scottish crown. Historically, milk has symbolized nurturance, simple comfort and the sacred mother-baby connection, whether human or otherwise. Whether in Greek mythology, where it was said that the Milky Way was formed by Zeus’ wife Hera when she pushed away the unknown suckling baby her philandering spouse created with Alcmene or Kshir Sagar, the Ocean of Milk in Hindu cosmology, where Vishnu resides with Lakshmi, milk and its symbolism as a pure, essential nectar is an ingrained part of our mental landscape. Those warm feelings about milk have extended to milk in general, including dairy milk. How could something so connected with innocence be controversial?

Like most kids in the U.S., my attitudes about dairy were shaped by the images I’d been exposed to from my earliest picture books, of placid Holstein or Jersey cows on expanses…