I wish I had a dollar for every time someone told me they could probably give up meat, but they don't think they could live without cheese. This statement is often followed by a question about what's wrong with eating cheese. It's not like you have to kill the cow to make cheese, is it?
While it's true that you don't have to kill that particular cow, cows do die so that we can have cheese. But that's not the only reason vegans don't eat cheese. Here are three concerns that may have caused your vegan friends and relatives to give up dairy products.
Concern for the Animals
Maybe I'm a little slow, but it took me awhile to figure out why dairy cows produce milk. As it turns out, they produce milk for the same reason other mammals produce milk -- to feed their offspring. Dairy cows are mother cows whose calves were probably taken away from them at birth so that all the milk the mother produces can be turned into dairy products for humans. So what happens to all those baby cows? It depends. If they're female calves, they may grow up to be dairy cows just like their mothers. But if they're male calves, they are likely to turn into veal.
Several years ago, animal rights activists were able to convince thousands of meat eaters to give up veal by exposing the inhumane way that veal calves were treated -- taken away from their mothers right after they were born, packed into tiny crates to prevent them from using their muscles, thus ensuring that their meat would stay tender, and then sent to factory slaughterhouses to end their miserable little lives.
Many soft-hearted people who were repulsed by this practice and stopped eating veal, however, didn't make the connection that the huge demand for cheese and other dairy products necessarily increases the supply of veal calves. Although new laws were passed to make conditions marginally better for veal calves, I still have a hard time justifying the idea that a cheese pizza for me results in a short, unhappy life for a baby cow.
Concern for the Environment
Dairy farming has become a huge industry, and it negatively impacts our environment. Everyone by now has had a good laugh over the issue of whether global warming has been exacerbated by cows passing gas. I don't know if that's true or not. What I do know is that all of those cows produce millions of pounds of cow poop, which ends up in rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water, killing the fish and other organisms and compromising our drinking water supply. While small amounts of manure make good fertilizer, it's impossible to safely process all the manure produced by dairy cattle in this country. The manure ends up in cesspools that may breed disease, pollute our groundwater supplies, and endanger the health and lives of dairy farm workers.
Concern for Our Health
So, let's just say you happen to find a small family farm where the milk of a well-treated dairy cow is used not just for human consumption, but to nurture her calves as well. Let's say those calves are allowed to graze in the pasture and live long and happy lives until they die of natural causes, and they produce only as much waste as can be used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm. Is there any other reason to give up cheese?
Only if you care about your health. Cheese and other dairy products contain large amounts of cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat, which can contribute to numerous health problems, including heart disease. In fact, Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet. And low-fat and nonfat cheeses have nutritional challenges of their own. According to Dr. Barnard, the most abundant nutrient in nonfat milk is lactose sugar. Many non-vegans think that cheese and other dairy products are necessary sources of protein and calcium, but there are many vegan foods that provide protein and calcium in a more healthful way than cheese and other dairy products do.
Vegans have decided that, as far as they're concerned, the drawbacks of eating cheese greatly overshadow any perceived nutritional benefits. More information about the effects of cheese and other dairy products on our health is available at http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/health-concerns-about-dairy-products.