Why It’s Time for the Dairy-Free Movement

Dotsie Bausch

Executive Director, Switch4Good

Editor’s Note

At Stray Dog Institute, we take a systems approach to understanding problems and solutions in food production. Causal linkages mean that it is impossible to consider dietary choices without thinking about production, and it is impossible to consider animal welfare without thinking about human rights and the environment. We recognize that solutions will need to engage with these multiple dimensions in order to be effective. We appreciate problem framings that acknowledge intersectionality, and innovative approaches that illuminate new entry points for confronting complex problems.

In this post, we highlight Switch4Good, an organization taking a unique perspective on dietary change advocacy. Their approach is based on a broad, intersectional understanding of the serious and interconnected problems dairy creates: for the animals it exploits, for the public whose health it harms, for specific groups within society whose interests it systematically ignores, and for the environment that sustains us.

Here, we invite Switch4Good’s founder (and Olympic medal-winning cyclist) Dotsie Bausch to explain why her organization’s unique entry point gives funders and fellow activists something to think about.


What if the way we’ve understood the plant-based movement up to this point is wrong? What if we’ve misunderstood motivations and miscalculated how to convince a public bombarded with prompts to choose what feels good over what is good for them, or for the planet?

Beyond data-driven discussions of animal suffering and carbon emissions is an often-overlooked human element. Just how do we get 7 billion people to not only acknowledge a systemic societal problem, but realize that their daily activities—the food they find comfort and joy in—is contributing to the issue at an alarming rate?

On December 29, 2020, the New York Times published an article titled “Is Dairy Farming Cruel to Cows?”. The article, which revealed the truth of what happens on dairy farms, hit on something the general public has been waking up to in recent years. Dairy farming is not only cruel, it is wasteful, environmentally toxic and detrimental to human health. Based on the explosion of the plant-based dairy market over the past several years, it is clear that the public is ready for a change.

From my position as Executive Director at Switch4Good, I see the next decade as critical to bringing about systemic and cultural change in the way we view dairy consumption.

From my start as a vegan athlete who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, the influence that dairy had on me was ever-present in my training. Despite being a plant-based athlete at the top of my game, I was surrounded by dairy industry advertising. I was told that cow’s milk was the optimal recovery tool. I was warned that without dairy, I was giving up the edge I needed to win. And that message wasn’t just fed to the competitors. Whether it was from “Got Milk?” commercials, endorsement deals signed by my fellow athletes or billboards on every highway in America, dairy industry advertising was a ubiquitous part of American culture. But as I stood on the podium receiving my Olympic medal in cycling, I knew the truth had to be exposed.

USA Women’s Track Team, 2012 London Olympics

We now stand at a moment in history which I believe is a cultural tipping point in our relationship with food. According to climate scientists, we must drastically reduce our global emissions this decade if we plan to mitigate the worst consequences of man-made climate change. While the issue of animal suffering is a worthy cause and dear to my heart, large-scale suffering for every being on the planet—humans included—could await future generations if we fail to take action. Dairy’s environmental footprint, combined with its racially problematic health concerns and an expanding alternatives market, create the perfect intersection for achieving immediate, urgent impact that will resonate with a public ready to exert some control over these systemic issues. Investing now in dairy-free interventions might not only be the best solution we have to tackling these interconnected problems, but also the only solution that makes significant progress in the timeframe we need.

The dietary racism of dairy dependence

So why is it so important to invest in the dairy-free movement right now? The reasons are complex, but the rationale is simple: ending our cultural reliance on dairy greatly improves a number of critical social issues that sit at the intersection of how we eat.

In a world less reliant on dairy, we would see far-reaching, immediate changes on such important issues as human health, climate change, workers’ rights and racial injustice. Despite the slogan “milk does a body good,” contributing to dairy’s demise may be one of the best things that we could do for our society.

Marketing dairy industry advertising as health advice perpetuates systemic injustice.

What kind of damage does it do when dairy advertising is marketed as health advice? It perpetuates systemic injustice. Nationally, about 36% of the population suffers from lactose malabsorption (more commonly known as lactose intolerance). However, that percentage skyrockets to 70% – 95% among Blacks, Asians, Latinx, and Ashkenazi Jews.

Despite the fact that dairy causes symptoms such as debilitating cramping, bloating, and nausea for over 100 million Americans, the federal government still recommends dairy as healthy for all Americans. For those in communities of color, the subtext of this policy is clear: American health guidelines aren’t crafted with them in mind.

This type of unseen bias toward white Americans (or, worse, corporate interests) is dietary racism. Creating a fairer, more just society requires us to think of the way others interact with the world. And when your interaction with dairy is plagued by physical illness, that athlete with the milk mustache seems less like an inspiration and more like a reminder that your experience is marginalized because you are different.

Raising Awareness

Encouragingly, this issue has received increased attention over the past couple of years. Thanks in large part to a push by Switch4Good, over 20,000 comments flooded regulations.gov, the federal government’s comment portal, asking for the Dietary Guidelines to be amended to avoid perpetuating the racial bias of three daily servings of dairy. The comments against cow’s milk represented over 27% of the overall comments submitted regarding the Guidelines. While the Guidelines for 2020-2025 did not remove dairy entirely, it did for the first time acknowledge that soy milk is nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.

Our win shows the strength of a unified movement against an industry with a $600 billion  economic impact. Federal policy shifted not because of corporate lobbyists, but because of the will of the American people. Investing in causes that address intersectional issues with multiple stakeholders is the single greatest thing we can do to make change on a timescale of months, not decades. 

While cow’s milk has been promoted as a nutrient-dense beverage high in calcium, the truth is these benefits are outweighed by dairy’s negative effects. Milk’s high saturated fat content sets the stage for serious long-term health conditions such as inflammation, arterial plaque buildup and, ultimately, heart disease.[1] Even low-fat dairy has been linked to medical issues such as cancer,[2] inflammation of airways associated with asthma,[3] acne[4], type 2 diabetes[5], hormone imbalances[6] and—ironically for an industry that promotes milk “for strong bones—”, weakened bone density.[7]

Yet despite all of these documented health concerns, cow’s milk is still promoted as a recovery tool for athletes and a critical element of elite human performance. Part of the reason these myths seem so pervasive is the lack of science comparing dairy to plant-based alternatives from a performance perspective.

To combat this imbalance, Switch4Good is investing in independent, clinical research that investigates the effects of dairy and plant-based diets on high impact athletics. Looking at inflammation levels in the blood, we’ll be able to make definitive claims about the short-term benefits of each diet on recovery in the days following strenuous workouts. This type of research will help replace marketing messages with scientific consensus about plant-based alternatives to milk. This is hopefully the first of much more new plant-based research to come. The dairy industry has funded research highlighting performance benefits of milk for decades, albeit with a racial bias. One study, which touted chocolate milk to be the ultimate recovery tool for athletes, utilized a testing pool of just seven men of Irish descent. Acquiring proper funding for dairy-free research couldn’t be more critical at a time where people are looking for justifications to make the switch.

Behind Farm Walls: The Hidden Price of Dairy

Beyond the issues of racism and human health lie the consequences of the factory farming system.

Dozens of undercover investigations have unveiled the horrific abuses that take place on dairy farms. Beyond acts of violence that have been caught on camera, dairy production under any circumstances involves co-opting a primal process by impregnating cows and separating them from their offspring, often, with no consideration for what that means for the animals involved.

But as cruel as dairy can be, it’s the environmental impact that makes dairy one of the most toxic products in the world. It takes over 1,000 gallons of water to produce a gallon of milk.[8] Raw milk production accounts for 38% of digestive greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. Dairy farming is simply unsustainable.

Among solutions for climate change, diet change rarely receives the same attention as fossil fuel reduction.

Sewage runoff from dairy farms has also been shown to pollute local water supplies and reduce biodiversity in the surrounding area.[9] In order to reverse the effects of this damage before it’s too late, a sustained and well-funded education campaign is needed. Diet change is a critical element in reversing climate change.

Even among climate change advocates, the impact of the way we eat rarely receives the same attention as fossil fuel reduction. We need to bring the plant-based movement in line with the work being done to reverse climate change if we stand to make a significant impact within the timeframe scientists have outlined.[10]

Currently, inroads are being built. For Switch4Good’s part, we’re collaborating with some of the biggest names in the sports world to introduce diet change to their climate change mitigation strategies. Our sports-focused collaboration is a natural fit for creating urgent systemic change. The sports world is highly visible, focused on performance, and draws in a wide array of audiences, from corporate sponsors to fans from every walk of life. We’re set to build upon this vision by transforming the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles into the first ever plant-strong Olympics, as we have been invited to act as thought leader on sustainability as it relates to food for LA2028. For the world to reach its climate change goals[11], we’re going to need sustained pressure and generous support for educating the public on the effects of factory farming on the planet and providing roadmaps for plant-based eating. 

There is no debate; America has a dairy problem.

Immediate Interventions

So how do we go about changing this reality? Fortunately, the same thing that makes the dairy problem so urgent is also its greatest strength. The intersectionality of this issue is fertile ground for collaboration.

Investing in causes that connect intersectional issues and multiple stakeholders is the single greatest thing we can do to make change on a timescale of months, not decades.

Whether the cause that ignites your passion is human health, racial justice, animal rights, environmentalism, food, employee protection or an end to corporate interests controlling political decisions, the dairy-free movement needs your energy. We will need to leverage each and every connection to make a difference, because the effects of dairy touch everyone.

Just in the last year, Switch4Good has been able to pull together experts, advisors, and activists from all walks of life. Our current network includes doctors, dietitians, athletes, coaches, animal rights activists, environmentalists, professors, civil rights leaders, business owners, artists, philanthropists, politicians, universities, research institutions and a host of mission aligned nonprofit organizations.

Most of all, we need to put pressure on the institutions that continue to uphold a status quo that does not serve all Americans. The general public has the most power when it is well-informed and empowered to make the right choices. The dairy industry has worked hard to keep us in the dark.

We need to support dietary recommendations from health professionals that don’t include dairy requirements. We need to advocate for mandated dairy-free alternatives in schools, hospitals, prisons and other public institutions. We need to ensure that healthy, sustainable foods are available to every community. And we need to work together to make sure that dietary racism becomes a thing of the past.

It’s critical for increased support to build on the momentum that’s been created. This year, Switch4Good has already challenged some of the most damaging relationships that the dairy industry has formed. This includes the industry’s relationship with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which we believe does its athletes (especially those from communities of color) a disservice by promoting a product that does such harm.

Solving this issue is no easy task. It’s going to take a lot of people, each one bringing their own passion, experience and perspective to the cause. It will take an understanding of science. An understanding of politics. An understanding of economics. An understanding of our environment. And an understanding of people, both in what they value and in what motivates them to act. It will take nonprofits collaborating, sharing resources and knowledge, to arm the public with the knowledge and the passion needed to affect change. It will take boldness and creativity from investors and funders to diversify the approaches working to make progress. And it will take concerted efforts from all of us to bring the urgency of diet change to the forefront, so that it’s place in mitigating these systemic problems can’t be denied.

We must ensure that healthy, sustainable foods are available to every community, and dietary racism becomes a thing of the past.

As I pondered at the outset, just how do we get 7 billion people to each accept their place as an actor within this unsustainable system?

Consider the traditional model of the omnivore’s transition. As a person moves away from a meat-based diet, they often look to replicate the satiation of animal products with foods laden with cheese and other high-fat dairy items. This increased dairy consumption can stall a person’s transition, as the addictive casomorphins in dairy interact with the brain in much the same way as caffeine, alcohol and other drugs.

What if we turned the traditional model on its head? Instead of focusing on meat reduction first, starting with dairy might eliminate the largest hurdle in transitioning for many people. Without the gastrointestinal distress, itchy skin, inhibited breathing, acne and addictive impulses that dairy supplies, individuals making the transition to plant-based eating would find the switch easier and even encouraging, leading to higher conversion rates and less backsliding. The truth is, no one ever said “I gave up chicken (or fish) and within a few days I noticed a dramatic shift in how I feel.” But that is exactly what people say when they give up dairy. And within a few months of giving up dairy, we’ve noticed that people begin asking questions about the animals on their plate and how to give that up as well.

Dairy is a fantastic entry point to the plant-based movement because the intersectionality of the issue provides an array of secondary justifications to feel good about making the switch. Using dairy as an entry point is going to introduce the public to a lot of social justice issues, many of whom will adopt veganism, racial justice causes, or environmental protection as passions as a result.

One of the greatest questions we can ask ourselves is “how do we use our resources to reduce the most suffering?” From the intersectionality and urgency of the issue, to the market trends indicating future success, to the opportunity to bring more people to the causes we care about, perhaps the answer was the dairy-free movement all along.

Read Switch4Good’s Research Report: “A Scientific Report on Cow’s Milk, Health, and Athletic Performance


References

[1] Tyler W Benson et al., “A Single High-Fat Meal Provokes Pathological Erythrocyte Remodeling and Increases Myeloperoxidase Levels: Implications for Acute Coronary Syndrome,” Laboratory Investigation; a Journal of Technical Methods and Pathology 98, no. 10 (October 2018): 1300–1310, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41374-018-0038-3.

[2] Davaasambuu Ganmaa and Akio Sato, “The Possible Role of Female Sex Hormones in Milk from Pregnant Cows in the Development of Breast, Ovarian and Corpus Uteri Cancers,” Medical Hypotheses 65, no. 6 (2005): 1028–37, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2005.06.026.

[3] Adam Frosh et al., “Effect of a Dairy Diet on Nasopharyngeal Mucus Secretion,” The Laryngoscope 129, no. 1 (January 2019): 13–17, https://doi.org/10.1002/lary.27287.

[4] Clement A. Adebamowo et al., “High School Dietary Dairy Intake and Teenage Acne,” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 52, no. 2 (February 1, 2005): 207–14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2004.08.007.

[5] Vaarala O et al., “Cow Milk Feeding Induces Antibodies to Insulin in Children–a Link between Cow Milk and Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus?,” Scandinavian Journal of Immunology 47, no. 2 (February 1, 1998): 131–35, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-3083.1998.00282.x.

[6] Bodo Melnik, “Milk Consumption: Aggravating Factor of Acne and Promoter of Chronic Diseases of Western Societies,” JDDG: Journal Der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft 7, no. 4 (2009): 364–70, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1610-0387.2009.07019.x.

[7] Karl Michaëlsson et al., “Milk Intake and Risk of Mortality and Fractures in Women and Men: Cohort Studies,” The BMJ 349 (October 28, 2014), https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g6015.

[8] A. Ertug Ercin, Maite M. Aldaya, and Arjen Y. Hoekstra, “The Water Footprint of Soy Milk and Soy Burger and Equivalent Animal Products,” Ecological Indicators 18 (July 1, 2012): 392–402, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2011.12.009.

[9] Nathan Clay, Tara Garnett, and Jamie Lorimer, “Dairy Intensification: Drivers, Impacts and Alternatives,” Ambio 49, no. 1 (January 1, 2020): 35–48, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01177-y.

[10] Fredrik Hedenus, Stefan Wirsenius, and Daniel J. A. Johansson, “The Importance of Reduced Meat and Dairy Consumption for Meeting Stringent Climate Change Targets,” Climatic Change 124, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 79–91, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5.

[11] Fredrik Hedenus, Stefan Wirsenius, and Daniel J. A. Johansson, “The Importance of Reduced Meat and Dairy Consumption for Meeting Stringent Climate Change Targets,” Climatic Change 124, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 79–91, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5.

About the author

Dotsie Bausch — Guest Author

Dotsie Bausch is an Olympian, cyclist, activist, and Executive Director of Switch4Good. As an athlete, she won a silver medal in cycling at the 2012 London Olympics on a completely plant-based diet. In 2018 she founded Switch4Good, a nonprofit focused on creating healthier people and a healthier planet by challenging the way we eat.

About the Author

Dotsie Bausch is an Olympian, cyclist, activist, and Executive Director of Switch4Good. As an athlete, she won a silver medal in cycling at the 2012 London Olympics on a completely plant-based diet. In 2018 she founded Switch4Good, a nonprofit focused on creating healthier people and a healthier planet by challenging the way we eat.

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