My reaction to Ms. Alison Bezzina’s interview. Long post ahead. Tried my best at translating the Maltese phrases… apologies in advance to professional translators, but my expertise lies elsewhere.
1. The interviewer said he is vegan… Ms. Bezzina replied by saying “prosit” (“well done”).
There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with following a vegan diet. I personally prepare plant-based meals every day. But the implication here is unequivocal. The Commissioner’s role is to safeguard animal welfare standards, and by animals, we rationally include farm animals (bovine, swine, poultry, and other minor categories). Therefore one cannot aim to improve the welfare of livestock animals if that person is in principle against the rearing of such livestock. Ms. Bezzina’s bias has already compromised local farm animal welfare in the past. More on this below.
Again, demonising whoever is not vegan is not correct, especially from officials who should be supporting the welfare of livestock animals.
2. “Kieku hemm mod li ma nkunux vegani u ma nkunux krudili u abbuzivi lejn l-annimali, I would be all for it”
(If there are ways not to be vegan while avoiding being cruel and abusive towards animals, I would be all for it”)
Since when are animal cruelty and abuse justified and accepted in farm animal production? Never! “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.” Not my words but those of Professor Temple Grandin (a world authority in animal welfare). If anyone would wish to have a taster about this dogma, watch the film “The life of Temple Grandin” and afterward, consider embarking on a long journey reading a degree (or two) in Animal Management. Thanks to science, we now know a lot about animal physiology and psychology and we can care for animals using systems that ensure proper welfare. Do we know everything about the humane treatment of animals? No. That is why research plays a crucial role in animal science.
3. “Nemmen fl-edukazjoni bil-verita”
(“I believe in education by saying the truth”)
Actions speak louder than words. Absolutely, we need to educate and base our teaching on truth, and in this case, rely on science. To be considered as an educator in any field, one has to be qualified in that particular area of study. It is very clear that the Commissioner lacks the necessary academic qualifications and/or experience in animal management. The points raised in the notorious World Milk Day post contained half-truths in order to sensationalise the topic. In education, there is no room for drama.
4. The Commissioner then gave us an example: Bears, and what is considered to be an adequately sized territory in the wild for such an animal.
Agreed. That is factual. But we’re not talking about bears here.
5. When the Commissioner related that many people she spoke to were not aware that a cow needs to have given birth to produce milk…”ma kienux nies ta livell ta’ edukazjoni baxx” (“these weren’t people with just a basic education level”)
That goes to show the lack of knowledge in our community about the food we eat. No wonder our country became one of the most vulnerable in terms of food security while at the same time leading the highest positions on the obesity scale. Professionals in food production are definitely outnumbered by all sorts of other professionals. If the role of a Commissioner is to educate, and most of us agree with this, then being educated in animal science should be the basis of occupying such a post.
6. “L-ewwel nett mhuwiex attack” (First of all, it was not an attack)
Those who rear cattle and work around 15 hours a day surely did not appreciate half-truths related to their work. When aiming for true sustainability one has to make sure that social aspects are not left out in any sort of argument. Dairy production is a relevant economic sector driven by a relevant workforce, including many young farmers. Leave out the community aspect, and there is no triple bottom line.
7. Comparing the rearing of cows to cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and eating fats (I think she was referring to saturated fats here)
This is a non sequitur! The rearing of cows, and milk production is a process that differs from country to country, depending on many regulations, cultures and practices, what she mentions here has been deemed by science as harmful. I have yet to read a peer-reviewed scientific paper that compares milk with these items.
8. “Illistjajt il-fatti kif isir il-ħalib” (I have listed the facts of how milk is produced)
If only learning about milk production was that simple! It is true that the way we should go about raising awareness (geared towards the general public) cannot be as in-depth as learning about the subject in an academic environment. But the post, which generated so much debate, needed to be worded differently, maybe with less sensational hashtags, yet sticking to facts!
In a small country like Malta, I am sure that Ms. Bezzina and other government officials read many social media posts and comments (including mine) and should realize that the repercussions of misinformation cannot simply be amended by saying “ok this is a learning curve”.
Here are a few points where Ms. Bezzina was factually wrong or failed to present the whole picture:
– The misuse of the word ‘forcefully’. Dairy cows are only mated when they are in heat, there is no raping involved.
– The misuse of the word ‘artificially’. It is true that dairy cows are sometimes inseminated artificially (by expert practitioners) however it is also true that bulls are used for mating. Failing to mention this gave the impression that anything to do with milk is unnatural.
– The phrase ‘separated from the mother’ is full of romanticism, but not based on facts. All dairy farmers supply calves with the animals’ own mother’s milk by means of a bottle for a week or more. Just like humans, feeding the mother’s milk at the early stages of life is crucial, because of colostrum.
– There are two main reasons why the calves are separated so early from the mother.
1) Genetically, most dairy cows, (including the main breed found here the Holstein Friesian) have been bred to produce large quantities of milk, way more than what a calf would consume. If the calf consumes more milk than it needs there’s a huge risk of scours i.e. diarrhea. Young animals die from this condition.
2) Dairy cows (and other lactating farm animals) need to be milked to maintain a healthy udder. Without adequate and constant milking, in the case of cows every 12 hours, the cows risk getting mastitis, an ugly illness associated with teats.
– The misuse of ‘strong maternal instinct’. Cows produce milk because it is a natural process. It’s not about instincts.
– The implication that the milk is ‘taken away’ from the cow at the expense of either the same cow or its calves. That milk is a surplus product, just like for example honey, when sustainably harvested.
– The sensational misuse of the word ‘slaughter’ in order to bring out a guilt complex within the consumers. Living animals eventually die. What matters is how they lived and the avoidance of pain and suffering at the end of their life. Slaughter should be a process where pain and suffering are avoided at all costs.
9. When asked if Ms. Bezzina ever tried to create a dialogue with farmers, she practically said that she never set foot on a dairy farm. “Direttament mal-irziezet le”
Through this statement, the Commissioner gives us the impression that she has never stepped onto a dairy farm, before or during her tenure. How can one possibly act as an advocate for animals without actually knowing firsthand how they are kept, the systems by which they are bred, what they are fed, and so on?!
10. “Sfortunatement fuq il-kwistjoni tal-ħalib m’hemmx x’tirranġa” (Unfortunately, regarding the milk issue there’s nothing to improve)
This statement, unfortunately, shows the complete lack of knowledge the Commissioner has about the local dairy sector. Of course that there are aspects that can be improved.
I will mention just one for the sake of those who are not familiar with farming. In Malta, we do not have veterinarians specialised in dairy cows readily available to visit farms when needed, day or night. This is something that many dairy farmers complain about so I am not unveiling any industry secret. Even worse, other local vets who might intervene when cows are sick, might not be available at such awkward hours. Had the Commissioner tackled this single need, she would have done something practical that alleviates the pain and suffering of sick dairy cows. What are farmers forced to do when there is no help available? Call the abattoir. Is this ok? Of course, not. It’s not ok to kill an animal just because we cannot provide it with adequate veterinary care, but this is the real situation. I expect that the Commissioner sees to this as soon as possible, given her role and passion for animal welfare!
Let’s throw in another episode, amongst many others, where the Commissioner’s intervention would have truly helped farm animals. At the beginning of the COVID quarantine crisis, I personally contacted the Commissioner about several livestock farmers who were denied permission to visit their farms to tend to their animals while they were in quarantine. The Commissioner didn’t act about this and simply told me that “farmers should have thought of this themselves”. So much more could have been done to mitigate the situation.
11. “Hemm triq tan-nofs fejn inti d-demand jekk tonqos, is-supply tista tonqos, allura l-baqra tista forsi ttiha break itwal”
(a compromise can be achieved since if demand for milk decreases, so will the supply, therefore the cows will be given a longer break)
Where do I even start? What an oversimplification. Let’s talk once again about sustainability. Economically this makes absolutely no sense when considering that farming is a business. If it weren’t for the marriage between nature and farming, no dairy cows would exist in the first place. No farmer in the right state of mind will keep an animal on the farm unless it is for sustainable production. Do you know how much a cow eats or drinks and what amount of Euros this translate to? Who would fork out the additional money to make up for the expenses? Or are we expecting the consumer to pay €10 for a liter of milk?
There’s nothing much more to add at this point, but at the same time, I will admit that even though I studied agricultural sciences, my knowledge about dairy production is limited compared to other local experts in the field.
There’s definitely much more to be said, discussed, and learnt!