Gene Baur is president of Farm Sanctuary and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
For decades, the federal government has enabled our dairy industry by subsidizing the excess production of cow’s milk even as American consumers drink less of it and we face a glut of 1.4 billion pounds of cheese in storage. Our milk supply is outpacing demand, but dairy farms continue to receive government support, which promotes further wasteful overproduction. Industrial dairies are exploiting tax breaks and other benefits to consolidate their influence, while smaller dairies are in crisis. Many of these smaller farms are going out of business, despite the government subsidies meant to keep them afloat.
Our nation’s dairy policies are unsustainable, and they are in desperate need of reform. Rather than perpetuating a dysfunctional system, propping up a declining industry predicated on overproduction and wasting billions of dollars every year, the best way for the government to help dairy farmers would be by helping them get out of the dairy business.
The dairy industry is among the most entrenched lobbies in Washington, and it wields undue influence in garnering government funding. It has also benefited from the revolving door between government and big business. Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, a state whose dairy farmers produced 562 million gallons of milk in 2015, and former agriculture secretary, now heads the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which works to maintain agribusiness profits through trade policies and tariffs that promote U.S. dairy exports around the world.
It makes sense that the dairy industry would need to lobby so aggressively: Dairy farmers’ dependence on government largesse is staggering. A study released last year found that 73 percent of U.S. dairy producers’ revenue came in the form of various government supports. Such agricultural policies, crafted to serve the shortsighted interest of keeping these farms in business, fundamentally undermine agricultural markets. They are costly and detrimental to society at large.
This is especially true because there are numerous opportunities for transforming dairies into other enterprises that are better aligned with the changing marketplace and emerging societal values. These farms could transition to producing fruits, vegetables, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, hemp and myriad other crops that are increasingly in demand. Former dairy farms could also earn income through eco-friendly hospitality and agricultural experiences, including farm stays, retreats, training programs, corporate meetings and other events. In addition, there are opportunities to host and participate in farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, farm-to-table events and “pick your own” (or foraging) operations that connect consumers to the sources of their food and also provide farmers with a greater share of consumer dollars.
The public is ready for these changes. Citizens are increasingly aware of the impact their food choices have on animals and the environment, and they want to support farms and businesses they trust. The demand for organic and plant-based food is growing, as is the demand for alternatives to animal products. Supermarket shelves are now stocked with milk made from almonds, soy, coconut, oat, hemp, cashews, bananas, walnuts and other nondairy ingredients. Plant-based meats are also increasingly available, even in fast-food restaurants, and multinational agribusinesses with long histories in animal agriculture are investing in plant-based alternatives to traditional animal foods.
Trying to keep dairy farmers in the dairy business is a herculean and misguided effort, and it can’t last forever. Rather than perpetuating an untenable status quo and prolonging the distress of struggling dairies, government programs should encourage farmers to transition to plant-based agriculture and other emerging opportunities outside of dairy production. This would benefit farmers, as well as improve human health and environmental sustainability. Exploiting animals for food is a leading cause of our planet’s most significant ecological threats, including the climate crisis and the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity. Meanwhile, the excess consumption of dairy and other animal foods in affluent countries such as the United States is making us sick and costing billions of dollars in preventable health-care costs every year.
The best hope for dairy farmers to stay in agriculture, and the best policy for our federal budget and our waistlines, is to get them out of dairy farming altogether.