Milk without Killing?

Unfortunately, it's very hard to be a milk drinker without being complicit in the killing of male cattle. For every female dairy cow born, there's a male that's got to be put to some use.  In developing countries, the male might be used for labor, but here in the US, males are used for meat.

I've been thinking for a while there's a solution that's at least conceivable.  Females are artificially inseminated with bull semen. Why not preselect XX sperm so male cattle are never born? Why not indeed.  It turns out that the technology already exists and has been used since 2006.  Over 90% of calves born using this technology are female. The New York Times says that 63,000 sex-preselected heifers are going to be added to US dairy herds this year, and 161,000 next year. That means there will be about 250,000 fewer male cattle destined for slaughter.

So, something to celebrate?

Not so fast! It turns out that all those extra heifers seemed economically desirable, back in 2006, but now there's too much milk flooding the market, making prices too low.  "Desperate to drive up prices by stemming the gusher of unwanted milk, a dairy industry group, the National Milk Producers Federation, has been paying farmers to send herds to slaughter. Since January the program has culled about 230,000 cows nationwide."

So much for milk without killing.

But what if the technology had worked, just as promised? More females, more milk, fewer males, less killing. Is that all to the good?  In their new book on women's rights, Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn decry the the huge number of baby girls that aren't born each year because of the widespread practice of sex selection in places like India and China.  They call this "gendercide," obviously inviting a comparison to genocide.

Why is it that human gendercide is a very serious matter, morally, but animal gendercide is not? It's not, is it?  Using sex pre-selection to prevent later killings of animals seems all to the good.  I can't really see a downside.

So animal gendercide is not just like human gendercide, if it's like it at all. While we are making comparisons, how about the comparison between human gendercide and genocide?  Does the word play create a false analogy?


amos said...

I don't see any ethical problems in pre-selection of an animal's sex to avoid killing animals. It does seem that there should be some guarantee that the animals are not later slaughtered because of low milk prices. Perhaps a minimum milk price could be set, and the excess milk sent to poor countries.

I don't sure if parents using abortion (I'm ruling out infanticide) to select the sex of a child is wrong. Although it reveals an inherent sexism, it's the sexism that is wrong, not the abortion. It is certainly not comparable to genocide in ethical terms. What about a couple who adopts a child and demands a boy? Is that wrong?

Faust said...

How does the sex selection being refered to work? What are the specific mechanics that allow for the selection of one sex or another? Pre-natal? Post-natal?

Dominic said...


one question is whether the reduction in male cows actually reduces killing, or merely shifts its location. If there is a fixed demand for meat, and the source of bobby calves dries up, those farmers who raise cattle for meat will presumably increase their supply.
(There is a more complicated story here relating to the effect of price on demand, but lets set that aside).

So one question is this.
Say I choose to drink XX milk (milk from cows that only produce female offspring). I may personally be involved in less killing of cows, since I am no longer implicated in the supply chain that leads to cow slaughter. I sleep more soundly at night.

But if just as many cows are killed - is it actually any better?


Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Just to be more concrete, the # of "missing women" is estimated to be between 60 and 107 million. I'm concerned no matter how these births are prevented. It's just extra terrible, the later the decision is made. Apparently some little girls don't get fed as well and taken to the doctor as often as their brothers.

Faust, In the animal case, sex-selection works by sifting sperm. Apparently xx sperm are stickier, so there's a way to separate them out. In the human case, sex-selection can be done by using IVF and embryo screening. In reality, though, it's usually done by abortion or even infanticide. The animal technology could be used on humans too, so I bet we're going to be hearing more about it soon.

Dom, Hmm. Say some "humane" dairy farm decides to buy XX semen. Thus, they're no longer supplying unwanted males (aha, they're called "bobbies") to a nearby beef operation. The beef operation buys the leftover XY semen (not sure if it actually works that way). If I buy milk from the dairy farm, am I really complicit at all in the killing at the beef operation? Considering that the dairy operation could continue and the beef operation shut down, it doesn't seem so.

Then again--it does seems sort of like magic. How can it be morally THAT different whether you get the dairy and beef operations going with ordinary unsifted semen, as opposed to dividing it into XX and XY semen? Sill, if you're going to take the notion of "complicity" seriously, it seems to make a difference to do things this way (oddly enough).

Faust said...

Well as for the milk issues it sounds to me as if there's just not enough data to support an argument one way or another. It's clear that the selection of females only doesn't simplify things quite as much as one might like, but it's not clear either that it doesn't reduce overall killing. The glut of milk could be a temporary problem, something that arose out of the technique being more successful than imagined...or other force. Let's imagine that the whole culture decided we were going to cut our meat eating by 90%, but that we were still going to drink milk. Based on my limited knowledge of the technology as explained, I see no reason they couldn't reproduce the cows to get the ammount of milk that would work in the market so that cows wouldn't need to be slaughtered to keep production down. But maybe it's inherent to the process and not just bad planning. It's hard to tell based on limited information.

As far as the analogy with humans, "gendercide" is a nice catch phrase, but I don't see the problem with it IF it's tied only to IVF and embryo selection (or even abortion for that matter) IF one rejects potentiality arguments. Infanticide is a little bit stickier, but not much, not if you're in the Tooley camp. I'm sure there is a whole set of arguments that have been developed against the kind of manipulation that "gendercide" represents though, that I'm not familiar with.

Dominic said...


I think it raises the question of whether complicity matters, and also whether non-complicitness is enough.

I think that being complicit in something bad is generally wrong because your involvement makes it more likely that the bad thing will happen. We try to avoid becoming complicit in bad things because we hope that will reduce the occurrence of those bad things. It is a sensible general rule to hold. We should try not to be complicit in animal suffering.

But sometimes - and perhaps in this case, your/my involvement in the process makes no difference to the bad outcome. In that case it seems that stopping being complicit makes no genuine moral difference. It is a 'clean hands' solution to the problem that assuages our conscience but does not actually do any good.

(I'm not sure if XX milk is actually like this.)


Jean Kazez said...

Looking at the whole thing in strict utilitarian terms (for the sake of argument)--

I think it's fair to say there's a moral difference between buying milk from a normal dairy farm (with male calves going to a beef farm) and buying from an XX dairy farm--where there were no male calves to begin with. The consequences of the purchase are different. In one case you support killing, in the other you don't.

Things become trickier when you picture someone who once boycotted the ordinary dairy farm, thereby boycotting the beef farm. If she buys from the XX dairy farm AND does nothing to protest the beef farm, then she's doing less than before to protest the beef farm. So she's avoided "dirty" hands, but done worse.

If she buys milk AND protests the beef farm (in some effective way), then she's doing just as well as before, plus she's getting to have milk in her latte. If she enjoys that, the XX dairy farms are all to the good, as long as they don't make her morally lazy about the beef farms.

Wayne said...

I think we should just drink soy milk in our coffee.... I think its yummier personally.

I'm not sure if sex selection is immoral. I lean on the side that its not so long as it is done before conception (i.e. sperm sorting versus abortion/infanticide). Its a tricky thing when it comes to people, since if there is favoritism for one sex (males for the sake of argument) then a disproportionate males dominate the landscape, making females a more valuable resource. If men want a date, they have to compete with even more men, for even fewer women. So women may end up being treated better by men, since they can be far more selective of their mates (assuming free choosing of mates). At the very least, in patriarchical societies, since there would be fewer women, there would be less suffering (assuming women suffer more) just like in the animal argument...

Moreover, I really want to have a daughter, and if I sex selected for a daughter, have I done anything wrong? I'm sure I can't be the only person on the planet who would prefer a daughter to a son.

amos said...

I guess that figure of 60 to 100 million missing girls contains different elements. Infanticide is wrong, as is feeding girls less, but abortion of female fetuses is not. At what stage of pregnancy can the fetus's sex be determined? In any case, a society with fewer women is poorer, not in monetary terms, but in human terms. Engels (yes, Marx's pal) says that how advanced a society is can be determined by the way it treats its women. I can find the quote if anyone is interested.

Jean Kazez said...

I tried soy in my coffee and hated it...hence I worry a lot about milk!

I probably should have started a separate thread about "gendercide." Wayne, I'm not sure about your predictions. The lone male tends to be in pretty bad shape--in worse health, more prone to violence and depression, etc. etc. Also, if there were fewer females around, they would be in greater demand as mates, but does that really mean their status would generally rise? I don't think that's obvious. I could see allowing gender selection at fertility clinics (maybe!), but only if the natural ratio is maintained.

amos said...

Wayne: I have 3 sons and I'm past the fathering age, but I too always wanted a daughter, and I even had a name for her.

Wayne said...

Jean- there are different soy milks out there... I really like the Very Vanilla "Silk" brand soy milk. But I'm rather partial to vanilla too. But they have chocolate to if you want to make a mocha.

Okay I've done some more thinking about this analogy to the animals. There is something about the intent or assumptions behind discrimination against women that is significantly different than the gendercide of cattle. One assumes, incorrectly, in humans that there is a morally relevant difference in gender, a presumed inferiority. In cattle, the decision is being made not out of a presumption of inferiority (we think of female and male cows as equally inferior to us usually), but out of good animal husbandry practices.

I say good animal husbandry practices, because I think it would be poor animal husbandry practice to raise more animals than you can reasonably care for. So in this case, we are limiting the number of animals that we can reasonable care for (which is determined by their marketability), although we have predicted incorrectly.

Take China as the perfect example of harsh, but for the most part equitable, population control. In many ways all the chinese are better off with the population controls than without. The result is a gendered skewed population, but thats the result of questionable values. The policy itself (population control) seems to be a sound one, since an increasinly large population would strangely enough wreak economic havoc on the country.

Jean Kazez said...

I tried "silk" milk and it didn't go well. I did start buying soy ice cream, though. That's not bad at all!

I think sex pre-selection is one of the many things done to animals that are prima facie bad, but OK when done to prevent something worse. (Neutering animals is another example.) Sex pre-selection means there isn't going to be a normal herd with animals living normal lives. For example, it's bound up with artificial insemination--which takes away some of the normal "fun" of cow life, surely. But if you think beef cattle aren't destined for very good lives, it seems all to the good to create a female-only dairy herd.

Dom--Getting back to complicity--you have a very minimalist sense of why it matters. "The things we are complicit in are the things we have at least some power to change" (roughly). I don't know that this is always true. Sometimes you can do more about something that isn't your fault at all. I think there's something very deep-rooted about questions like--is it my fault? Is that my responsibility? Am I supporting that? Those only become misleading questions when we think we can be indifferent when the answers to them all are No.

amos said...

Complicity has to do with the kind of person one is, not only with the effects of what one does. That is, to understand complicity seems to demand a bit of virtue ethics.

Dominic said...


There are obviously different senses of complicity that people use and different degrees of complicity. And I think Amos is right that it is more consistent with virtue ethics (or deontology) than consequentialism. But the basic idea would have to be involvement of some degree in the causal sequence that leads to an outcome occurring. What I was arguing (perhaps not coherently) was that on my view at least morally significant complicity must make a difference to that bad outcome. If you happen to be causally involved in the sequence but your absence would make no difference to the outcome then I am less sure whether it matters.

One reason for returning to complicity and outcome is that when it comes to meat eating it all starts to get quite tricky. Say you go to a hardware store on the weekend and outside they have a free sausage sizzle. (I don't know whether they do such things in the US - they do back in Oz not infrequently). Now the vegetarian will walk past because he/she doesn't want to be involved (complicit) in animal suffering and killing etc. But the thing is that all of that suffering/killing has already occurred. It makes no difference to the animal whether the vegetarian has the free sausage or the next person showing up to the hardware store. So are they really complicit (in the sense that I argue is important)? Does it matter if they give into temptation and eat the sausage?

There is a complicated and somewhat half-hearted answer that the vegetarian might give to do with the influence of their taking the sausage on the purchasing decision of the hardware store (for their next sizzle). Or perhaps they will say 'no thank-you I'm a vegetarian' to the sizzler and thereby (to some tiny degree) raise the profile of vegetarianism or even nudge that person slightly more towards renouncing or reducing meat-eating.

As another example for the other vegetarians frequenting the forum - is it OK for the vegetarian to eat the meat about to be thrown out at the end of a shared meal? If it is going to be discarded otherwise - why would it be wrong for you to eat it? Is it because you would thereby be complicit?

I have half an answer, but perhaps I will leave the question dangling ;)


amos said...

A vegetarian wouldn't eat the meat, even if it makes no difference to animal suffering, because she is a vegetarian, that is the kind of person who she is, because it's important to her to be coherent or consistent with her principles, because vegetarianism is one of her life projects, because her personal integrity, her sense of who she is, involves not eating meat, even if it makes no difference.

Dominic said...

ah, but I didn't ask whether the vegetarian *would* eat the meat. I asked whether it would be wrong for them to eat the meat.

[I don't particularly want to resuscitate the relativism debate here. If you hold that it is wrong for the vegetarian to eat the sausage if they believe that it is wrong to eat the sausage, then clearly my question makes no sense]


amos said...

For the vegetarian whom I describe, it would be wrong to eat the meat because it would violate her personal integrity, her sense of who she is. For a purely consequentialist vegetarian, it might not be wrong: she'd have to calculate the consequences.

amos said...

I think both the vegetarian whom I describe and the consequentialist vegetarian are right: that is, good people can differ about what is right, although there are not an infinite number of possibilities which are right in any given case.

Faust said...

It seems fairly straigh forward to me under the following set of assumptions:

If you are vegetarian because you are concerned about the ammount of suffering generated by large scale meat production then you don't eat meat in the hopes that not injecting money into the marke (and encouraging others to do the same) will reduce the demand for the product and thus reduce the ammount of suffering.

In the case of the "free meat" outside the store it seems clear that if you eat the meat with no additional commentary you will simply be seen as increasing the demand for the "attraction" of free meat as a reason to visit the store. If no one ate the free meat it would not be regarded as a successful or valuable promotion...there is no demand for it so clearly no one is comming to the store for free meat. So I would say it continues to play to the supply and demand equation. On the other hand if you are visiting your friend's house, and even though you have argued vociferiously against their eating meat they agree to disagree with you, and there are leftovers that will go into the garbage, then I see no reason that eating that meat will have any effect on anything whatsoever. So that meat would be OK to eat on a consequentialist view.

Wayne said...

Jean- I think the obvious question you raise is exactly what is a "normal" herd and why is that morally pertinent?

Jean Kazez said...

I deleted the last comment, which was confusing.

Basically, I think in the new scenario, with the dairy industry completely severed from the beef industry, beef consumers have 100% responsibility for the treatment of beef cattle. Milk drinkers have none.

In the usual scenario, where the industries are connected, the responsibility is split between dairy consumers and beef consumers.

If I'm deciding whether or not to buy milk, it surely matters which scenario is the reality. Right?

What's more questionable is whether there's good reason to change over to the new scenario, if it's not any better for animals, on the whole, and just better for the consciences of people who like milk.

JK said...

p.s. I don't see the relevance of the hardware store sausage sizzle to this particular discussion. I can't see how the sausage-eater is doing anything analogous to what's done by the usual milk drinker (dairy-beef industries linked) or the new milk drinker (dairy industry stands alone). Maybe someone can explain...

Faust said...

Well to focus on the original question more tightly, I guess my position would be that:

1) I see no problem sex selecting domestic animals, especially if it is done through something like sperm sifting. I don't see that as prima facie bad. Unless you see breeding animals as prima facie bad...maybe you do?

2) If you could combine sex selection with practices that make dairy farming humane (this can be done it's not inherently awful though I'm sure current milk production rates/costs are not sustainable). Then I don't see the issue.

3) 2) is just as or more important than 1). The point here is to reduce the ammount of suffering tied to animal farming or to change laws that make mass agribusiness illegal. Speaking for myself, I have no problems killing animals for food, or using them for various purposes, provided they are allowed to live the bulk of their lives without being tortured, i.e. forced to live in ways that go far outside of what their bodies and instincts are structured to withstand. In sum: I don't want them tortured as part and parcel of animal product production.

4) That is the core difficulty lurking behind both this discussion and the knockout meat discussion. If our animal product "needs" demand that animals live in such and such a way is it OK if we change the animals to fit with out needs? Or do we need to change our needs to fit with the animals? At the end of the day that's what it seems to come down to.

Jean Kazez said...

The discussion went off in many directions--from "is there anything wrong with animal 'gendercide'" to "is animal 'gendercide' useful to the extent that it allows milk-buying without complicity with the beef industry?"

But there are tons of issues in the background. Like--is the beef industry really worse? I would think so, both because of what happens to beef cattle over the course of their lives, and because of the slaughtering process. I also worry about killing itself.

I'm personally interested in this because I buy organic milk and care about what I'm supporting by doing so. For example, it's important to me not to be supporting the veal industry. I've written letters and based on the responses, I think I'm not. At the same time, that's not the end of the story. There's still a veal industry, even if I'm not personally supporting it. I think I ought to do what I can to change it.

william said...

None of you sound like vegans. With forty years experience, I can assure you that it's not very healthy unless you're EXTREMELY disciplined. Soy has a number of serious shadows nowadays. Yet no vegans want to admit this problem. If I stumbled upon your article it's because I've been looking for a solution for three years now. The XX farm sounds like a very good, pragmatic step. It would help thousands of us who will otherwise capitulate for lack of a better solution.

az said...

If you pre-select a sperm to get an animal or human of the desired sex there is no killing and consequently no gendericide. You really don.t understand that you can.t kill someone who HAVEN.T BEEN CONCEIVED (so doesn.t exist)??? If those people in developing countries used sperm pre-selecting to get their desired baby boys, it wouldn.t be an ethical problem.
Honestly i want a daughter and would use any possible means and if i.ll have to use sperm preselection, i don.t see any problem.