By Ishita Puri, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai

Fritjof Capra, in his book The Systems View of Life remarked “As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security – cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent.” His assessment of ecological issues and conservation could not have been more accurate. No effective solution can be realised if humanity continues to view the ecological issues of Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, exploitation of animals and poverty alleviation in vacuum.

In this context, it becomes pertinent to analyse India’s primary sector, employing almost half of the total workforce. Due to growing climatic imbalances and disruptions in rainfall patterns, agriculture may no longer assure food and financial security for our population. In such a scenario, other sources of income, especially dairy farming has gone a long way in easing the burden on marginal farmers and landless labourers. They have been assisted by several subsidies offered by the Government of India for loans at low / no interest, for fodder and for adequate milk processing plants. Consequently, a large proportion of farmers and labourers are engaged in occupations related to dairy which mainly includes milk production, processing and marketing.

Production Quantity and the Well Being of the Dairy Industry

Population growth, urbanisation and income growth have infused the dairy sector with an urgency to meet the soaring demand for milk. According to the National Action Plan for Dairy Development: Vision-2022, India’s milk production skyrocketed from a meagre 17 Million MT in 1951  to 163.7 Million MT in 2016-17. This plan envisions to increase this to 300 Million MT by 2023-24. This exponential increase –  requiring Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 9.2% – can not be realistically fulfilled, unless human intervention in the form of artificial insemination, agro-chemicals and antibiotics, is encouraged. However, questions arise over the consequences of human interference with natural, biological processes of milch animals for profits. 

Since dairy-farming has the potential to solve the issue of hunger and uplift the agrarian households, attempts have been made to increase its productivity with the help of artificial insemination and cross breeding of milch animals. Right from the collection of semen from bulls, the dairy industry undertakes a plethora of questionable methods to maximise the quantity of milk produced.

Female milch animals are artificially inseminated at times by workers, who do not even follow the fundamental, precautionary norms of using sterile instruments or gloves. This puts the animals at high risk of vaginal infections. Moreover, artificial insemination has made the male calves commercially redundant due to which they’re sold to slaughter houses within hours after their birth. Even in that short period of emotional distress, male calves are fed milk-replacements as the mother’s milk is solely reserved for human population.

By cross breeding, the lesser productive local cattle breeds are often replaced by high yielding, Holstein-Friesian (Breed of dairy cattle from Holland & Germany that are known as the world’s highest production dairy animals) cattle. Since crossbred milch animals are less suited to India’s humid climate, they require more visits to the veterinarian as compared to the local cattle. However, it has been observed that irrespective of the breed, milch animals are often denied proper medical care and wounds are either ignored, leaving them vulnerable to infectious diseases or worse, ‘treated’ by inexperienced pastoralists who inject them with antibiotics.

Thus, with growing preference to artificial insemination and crossbreeding, the Indian dairy-industry has seen an influx of agro-chemicals, mainly antibiotics and anti-parasitic drugs, used to raise milk productivity and protect animals from environmental fluctuations. The residuals of these chemicals, if not disposed of safely, can enter the food chain via milk, affecting the biodiversity – soil fertility and public health. Incessant availability and use of antibiotics has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant populations, that have proved fatal for both humans and animals. These newly-arising microbes can potentially make a disease, once-treatable, deadly. This profit-oriented shift towards genetic modification for higher milk production, has endangered local cattle breeds that have been driven out of farms along with the ‘high-yielding’ breeds that are non-lactating and hence not lucrative any longer, both of which are abandoned.

Greenhouse Gases, Access to Pastures and the Question of Quality

Pastoralists, with insufficient land for grazing, turn to forests to fulfill the dietary needs of cattle, cows and buffaloes. Unable to support such high numbers of grazers, forests are inevitably converted to pasture lands. The process of milk production in ruminants and this conversion of land-use release GHG in the atmosphere, contributing to increasing global warming and puts ever-depleting forest resources at risk. Due to milk’s perishable nature, it is transported and sold in plastic packages. Since it is an essential requirement in the largely vegetarian-population of India, the amount of plastic used daily adds up to humongous numbers.

In 2019, several places in Rajasthan faced acute fodder scarcity and almost 90% of landless pastoralists in Jaisalmer could not avail the govt sponsored fodder subsidy. Rajasthan’s exponential boom in milk production, despite these hardships, has been fuelled by the scientific inventions where milch animals are altered to suit the existing demand-supply scenario of milk. The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) report places the responsibility of unnaturally produced milk – over 20 litres per milking for an animal- on repeatedly induced impregnation and use of banned drugs such as oxytocin. 

Indiscriminate use of oxytocin, as in the case of Rajasthan, portrays the draconian reality of India’s dairy-industry. Since the milk is produced for their calves, cows instinctively withhold some of it during milking. Rampant use of hormonal manipulation to acquire this withheld milk, creates disruptions in cows’ reproductive systems and reduces their life expectancy. Administered to stimulate uterine contractions in women, oxytocin can also have adverse side effects – on pregnant women as well as newborn babies – such as abnormal heart rate and seizures, that require immediate medical assistance. 

Violating the Prevention of Cruelties to Animals Act (PCA), 1960, the present state of our dairy industry has endangered our symbiosis. According to Amruta Ubale of Animal Equality, “In the wild, cattle may live up to 20 years. These cruel practices cause their bodies to deteriorate at the age of just four.” Expanding the search for symptoms enables the search for better and efficient solutions. Our urge for profits and need for harnessing animal resources cannot take precedence over the principle of cohabitation and the subsistence of our ecology. Hence, the following measures can be adopted to restore an ecological balance with respect to India’s dairy industry:

  1. Farmers must be made aware of possible ‘methane reduction strategies’ and risks associated with it such as increasing fats and starch, which may result in higher glucose and insulin levels in milch animals.
  2. Recognition and promotion of Ethno-Veterinary Practices [EVP] in dairy-industry via policy intervention. Small farmers must be informed of the adverse effects of agro-chemical residues on humans and animals. Potential alternatives in the form of EVPs can be encouraged to control the extreme mechanisation of dairy-industry. 
  3. States can organise regular meets or ‘Sammelans’ for inventors and small entrepreneurs to come together and bring up cheaper, eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging of milk.
  4. Systematic inclusion and incorporation of the Natural Livestock Farming five-layered approach for special emphasis on improved management system of animals, protection of local breeds and milk quality control for better dairy-industry.
  5.  The Centre must come up with financial and regulatory incentives for small cooperatives that can help increase revenue of small farmers. The Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) can also provide them with better training in natural resource management and recycling of manure that can nourish agricultural soil. It can also give them the opportunity to work with veterinarians towards the common goal of animal well being in dairy.
  6. Amendments to the existing PCA Act can be made to impose heavier penalties for offences against animals. Ambiguity in the language, such as “beating” and “pain” must be overcome to differentiate among offences, as these involve very broad scope and degrees of cruelty.
  7. India is Asia’s second largest producer of Soyabean, accounting for approximately 3.95% of the global produce. This plant is regarded as the richest source of plant protein. Hence, plant based milks such as Soya, Coconut, Almond etc., can be promoted as healthier and eco-friendly alternatives to animal derived milk after aligning the economic viability and geographical suitability of their production. Growing awareness about exploitations in the dairy industry and a shift to Veganism (A purely plant based food consumption and lifestyle choice) can be complemented by incentives for production of non dairy milk.
  8. Non lactating abandoned cows are often seen straying at several places in India. The ever increasing number of such animals alongside the problem of them feeding on garbage and obstructing traffic management in Indian cities, calls for a policy in place to establish district level shelter homes for abandoned milch animals.  Administration and management of these centres could be the responsibility of the district administration in coordination with the municipal authorities. 

It is in our respect for ‘life’ in all forms that can bring about an ideological transformation- expanding what exactly covers life and whether one life form can take precedence over another. Innumerable incidents stand witness to mankind’s struggle for supremacy over nature and its continued exploitation for profits.

Dairy-farming has a lot of connotations in India. What started as an alternative source of livelihood for poor farmers and labourers, soon took the form of an economic model of unprecedented rate of production at the cost of the ecological sanctity. Human beings as part of the ecology, were supposed to cohabit the planet with other animals and harness animal products in a judicious fashion. However, since animals have now considered the means to attain the economic aspirations of resource surplus, we might blow the bugail of our achievements as one of the biggest dairy industries in the world, but as we are also part of the same ecology that we are exploiting relentlessly and with such apparent callousness, the cycle of imbalance will come back to haunt us if we don’t admit the problem with the structure of our dairy industry and become mindful of our animal resource exploitation and consumption. 

After all, as Fritjof said, “Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”