You come in from the pouring rain and kick your soggy shoes off after a day at work; you get back from a long journey; you get up from the computer at your tedious, number-crunching job... You put the kettle on and with a cup of tea in hand, you momentarily become human again. The only thing missing is a dash of milk, but what if you'd like to try going dairy-free?
So what are the options? Cows milk is very cheap and universally available at every corner shop, but every time I use supermarket cows’ milk, I am slightly unsettled by it. Firstly, we have the mass slaughter of male calves then there is also the poor conditions in which overmilked 'factory' cows are kept; lameness, mastitis, reproductive and metabolic disorders are all side effects of industrial methods of dairy production. Not to mention the premature slaughtering that takes place when a cow's productivity goes down.
It has been reported that dairy farms such as Nocton Dairies keep having of up to 8000 cows (Guardian 13th November 2010) permanently producing without ever seeing the light of day. Just a few decades ago I remember my mum talking about life in the Land Army where she looked after cows on farms and estates: there was Flossie and Blossom, Lily and Bessie. Each cow had a personality known to the farmer and each one was both a farm resource and a member of the household.
Will Nocton be naming each of their 8000 cows? If you don’t name your washing machine, why name your milk machine?
Cows are inherently lovely creatures - affectionate, intelligent, curious, trusting, fun-loving - we know when they’re happy and when we’re doing right by them. And we know when we’re not. Compassion in World Farming’s excellent study Farm Assurance Schemes and Animal Welfare (23rd March 2012) offers evidence that cows, like humans, do best in small stable groups where they can demonstrate natural behaviour.
The answer to these problems is education: We must provide our farmers and consumers with hard facts in an attempt to move our dairy consumption trends away from industrial models. So first let's look at the dairy alternatives.
Never heard of it? No, neither had I until recently. Ahimsa Milk is the only commercially-produced milk that guarantees no cow, calf or bull is ever slaughtered as part of its production; it’s gaining ground and can be delivered to your door if you live near Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire. There are also four points beyond Hertfordshire where it can be bought direct, and it can also be ordered online.
It’s a little expensive at around £2.75 a litre (inc. delivery) but it doesn’t half make you feel good when you drink it - and not least because it’s top quality and tastes wonderful compared to the pale, industrial stuff we’ve got used to. The price reflects the real cost of producing the milk humanely while providing as pleasant a life as possible for the entire herd including cows Iris, Dora and Tilly. www.ahimsamilk.org
It’s easier to digest than cows’ milk and is an equally good source of calcium, but despite the producers’ best efforts, it still has a rather goaty taste when drunk fresh. It costs a bit more than cows’ milk (£1.39 a litre approximately), which is about the same as soya.
However, the problem remains that, as in commercial dairy herds, the males are often slaughtered shortly after birth.
It is mostly available in powder form, it may seem quite expensive to buy (about £11 a tub) , but it makes 4.2 litres meaning it lasts a long time and keeps you from constantly having to lug cartons home from the shops. Best of all, once made up, sheep’s milk tastes no different than cows’ milk and is great in cooking as well as tea. Try www.woodlandsdairy.co.uk
There are of course plenty of vegan non-dairy alternatives. Here are some of the best:
Soya is now widely available, but is rather more expensive than cows’ milk. A top tip for using soya in hot drinks to heat it up before putting it into your tea or coffee as this will prevent it from curdling. Some people are very conscious of the taste and it is not enjoyed by everyone.
To add to this, soya's environmental credentials are far from sound and it has also been reported to have certain negative effects on the body including issues concerning fertility. Costs anything from 99p to £1.49 for a litre.
Oat milk is available in health food shops and some supermarkets. It is quite watery and has a very nice subtle flavour. Oat cream (available from health food shops) can also be used. It is delicious and would work well for those who find oat milk to be too 'thin' in consistency. Costs £1.30 to £1.75 approx.
Rice milk contains more carbohydrates than cows’ milk without containing any lactose or cholesterol. It doesn’t contain as much calcium or protein as cows’ milk.
It is fairly bland on the pallet and is more watery than cows’, goats’ or sheeps’ milk. Most commercial brands of rice milk are fortified with calcium and some also with niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D and iron. Cost is comparable to soya milk, about £1.20-£1.60
This is a tatsy treat for some - quite sweet and watery with a strong coconut flavour. Great in smoothies and shakes, but can be a little more dominating for drinks such as tea. Costs around £1.70 a litre.
Almond milk has a rich, thick nutty taste. Almonds are one of the most easily digested nuts and may provide the perfect drink for those not sold on soya or coconut milk. The only downside is the price tag, costing as much as £3.20 a litre - that’s more than a litre of ahimsa milk.
So we’ve a way to go before we crack this one - cows’ milk as it’s currently produced is not really a conscionable option. Ahimsa milk not yet widely available but might be in years to come (it would be great if all dairy farms worked on ahimsa principles). Other options - rice, soya, oats etc - will suit people differently but there is a fair amount of variety out there. Sheep’s milk is also a pretty good sustainable alternative if trying to recreate a dairy flavour.
The positive thing is that more and more options are coming to the market: this must mean that a lot of people aren’t content with drinking cows’ milk resulting in an increasing demand to explore alternatives. Why not ask your local supermarket manager if he/she will consider stocking Ahimsa milk? It may not come to anything but at least this way, we are able to spread the word on dairy alternatives.
Hopefully it won’t be long before we find the perfect alternative, giving you a decent cup of tea at a price your conscience can afford.
Anna Glanville-Hearson is spearheading a campaign to prevent even more supermarkets coming to her local market town. To read her story of bribery and corruption see 'Developers offer to pay neighbours £20,000 each in exchange for a successful supermarket planning deal'.