For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth. But what happens to the male offspring that have no future in the dairy industry?
This question takes us straight into the politics of food since different interests and concerns are involved in defining what should happen to them and then how are concerns communicated, to whom and how are they acted on. Just by looking at male dairy calves we see that food is a highly contested terrain of multiple and sometimes contradictory ethical and economic concerns.
Several things have happened to male dairy calves in the UK since the second world war. We’ve reared them as continental (white) veal. But, led by animal welfare/animal rights groups, opposition mounted against those methods of production and government acted by outlawing them. Then we live exported the ‘problem’ to continental farms and markets. But live export was equally odious and led to large port protests. Then, mad cow disease struck and export was prohibited and so we slaughtered and incinerated male dairy calves, which offered no ethical solace. Then, slowly, a new product was brought to market: rose veal. Despite the string of celebrity chefs who have touted the ethical virtues of rose veal it remains a niche product – it’s very hard to shift the unethical associations of veal and, seemingly, we Brits just don’t like veal . Rose veal has a long way to go if it is to resolve the ‘problem’ of male dairy calves and many are still destroyed at birth.
I’d spent several years looking at male dairy calves, but one question never occurred to me. And now that’s embarrassing because it’s an obvious question.
If Brits just don’t like/want veal, why not raise the calves for beef (which we love)?
But that question is never raised in all the media coverage of rose veal. Except I did find one fleeting mention of a stakeholder group ‘beyond live export’ in the mainstream media and suddenly the question became very compelling. It was this that allowed me to explore the relationship between the food mainstream (of Big Ag and Big Retail) and alternative (the world of conscious consumption explicitly aiming to address ethical and dietary problems). The distinction is well drawn in the food literature and the two are often portrayed as diametrically opposed.
That brought me eventually to my paper ‘Making a market for male dairy calves: alternative and mainstream relationality‘. In it I track the parallel development of the rose veal market (ostensibly alternative) and the dairy-bred beef market (ostensibly mainstream).
It turns out that male dairy calves can be (and are) raised for beef. It turns out that Big Retail and their suppliers have collaboratively developed the science and the systems that allow them to do that. Amazing. ‘They’ have never told us, but more male dairy calves enter the beef chain than the rose veal chain. And by ‘they’ I mean both the mainstream actors selling dairy-bred beef and the chefs encouraging us to buy rose veal. Not that we shouldn’t or must not know – just that we don’t need to know. Meanwhile, the science and systems developed in the mainstream to bring dairy-bred beef to market have been assimilated in the alternative rose veal market, which is still presented as THE solution to the ‘problem’ of male dairy calves. It’s an intriguing story that I’ve tried to unpack using Actor Network Theory, the market studies literature and the notion of concerned markets.
What are my personal takeaways as a researcher interested in the politics of food and also a consumer who loves food and tries to be conscious in my food selections?
- Firstly, if you produce something expecting it to be waste, it will indeed be waste. The retailer supplier groups have generally eschewed hyper-high-tech techniques in favour of adaptations to fairly low tech breeding and feeding methods that produce a sufficiently healthy animal that is capable of being bred to (relative) maturity. Simples, (relatively).
- Secondly, if you want to be a conscious consumer it’s necessary to get really informed about the mainstream (good and bad), not simply and dogmatically oppose it. The alternative and mainstream are co-constituted. They borrow from each other and are shaped in the history of the other and through conversation with the other. The boundary is fluid. I’m not saying that you should drop your current allegiances – just arguing that a deeper understanding of the intersection and co-development of alternative and mainstream is required if we are to address at scale the multiple challenges surrounding food production, distribution and consumption.
Read the original research article: Hopkinson, G.C. (2017). Making a market for male dairy calves: alternative and mainstream relationality. Journal of Marketing Management. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2017.1301533
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