Photo credit: Public domain
I understand why the concept of vegans breastfeeding could be confusing to some people. After all, if there’s one thing that they know about vegans, it’s that they don’t drink the milk of (non-human) animals.
So if vegans are against drinking the milk of animals, they think it should be obvious that breastfeeding would also be a no go.
Here’s the thing, the choice to eschew milk from cows, sheep, and goats is not arbitrary.
I didn’t one day just randomly decide after years of ingesting tall glasses of cows’ milk, melted grilled cheese sandwiches, and wedges of brie that I suddenly wanted to drop them just for the sake of doing it.
In fact, just as so many people are quick to tell the vegans in their lives, “I just couldn’t live without cheese,” most of us were once there too.
So if a person is going to stop doing something they most likely enjoyed, there have to be some good reasons for it.
Is breastfeeding vegan? The short answer is yes.
In fact, as counterintuitive as it may seem at first blush, vegans are pro-milk. Vegans think that a mother’s milk is the perfect food… for her baby.
Humans’ milk is the perfect food for human babies. Goats’ milk is the perfect food for goats. Sheep’s milk is the perfect food for lambs.
When you want to raise a strong, full-grown cow, cows’ milk is the way to go.
Then after the baby has reached the age of weaning and is able to get her/his nutrients from food instead of milk, they move on to that instead. (Where do adult cows get calcium? Grass.)
Once humans are weaned, they don’t need to go to their mother’s breast for sustenance any longer, because they can find it in whole foods. You don’t see adults sipping on humans’ milk after they’re full-grown just as you don’t see cows sipping on cows’ milk when they’re adults.
(Where can humans get calcium? We can get our nutrients from the earth like cows do and eat things like dark leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tahini, almond butter, Great Northern beans, chia seeds…)
Back when I first went vegan, a friend of mine was telling me about her own experience with dairy cows. She’d gone on a trip to meet her future in-laws who had a small dairy farm.
One of the cows had just recently given birth to a calf. From the dining room table, my friend could hear her bellowing outside.
The cow wouldn’t stop.
My friend didn’t know why the cow was so upset. The answer was that her baby had been taken from her.
As is common with dairy cows, calves are generally taken away from their mothers within a day or two.
(If the calf is a girl, she’ll become a dairy cow too. If the calf is a boy, he’ll become veal or beef.)
The sad truth is the dairy industry is built on impregnating cows so that they will lactate. Then their offspring are taken away from them, so that humans, who are long past the age of weaning, can drink the milk that was made to grow a small calf into a full-grown cow, a lamb into a full-grown sheep, or a kid into a full-grown goat.
Cows have been known to bellow for days for their calves after being separated.
The bonds of motherhood and desires to protect our young are not things that only humans own. That need to take care of those we love, especially our own offspring, is not something that is solely the domain of human beings.
To drink a cow’s milk would be to take something that isn’t mine. It wasn’t meant for me. But breastfeeding my own child if I were to have one? Definitely vegan.
What do Vegan mothers do who CAN’T breast-feed their baby?
That’s a really interesting question, Tracey! I haven’t had kids myself, but I did some googling. A vegan mom could either go through a milk bank, where other lactating moms donate milk, or she could use soy formula. The vitamins in soy formula may contain a trace amount of animal products.
In respect of ALL of creation, plants are living beings too.
I believe the ideology & mindset that killing animals for sustenance IS NOT ok, but killing plants for sustenance IS ok is a silly and narrow-minded prejudice.
For some it may be a stretch to conceptualize or believe, but once we get past identifying with superficial difference such as race & skin color, on another level we tend to identify (and/or exclude) based on *other* similarities & differences such as having legs, or eyes or mouths or other features that make a living thing closer to man’s “image”. The fact that plants are biological quite different & distinct makes them no less worthy of the dignity we assign to animals.
The real challenge is to learn to life with the world & creation in a totally respectful way. The native americans were far closer to getting it “right” than we do. They hunted AND harvested, but did so with reverance and respect, that was close to a worship of the antelope and bison and harvest. Not only does our meat-diet NOT respect the animal but ….. neither does most of our dietary plant production either.
I am not being trite or glib in saying the above. To me NEITHER is necessarily good or bad, both are potentially beneficial and need to be viewed and used respectfully and with dignity.
As a side note, if any of you have ever seen the delightful 1980 movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” — there is a poignant & touching scene in it which embodies this sense of true respect for creation. This tribal elder bushman who has embarked on a long journey becomes hungry. At one point hunts & kills an animal. After doing so, he walks over to it kneels and (on behalf of himself & his whole family) speaks to the animal – thanking it for its help in assisting him on his mission. Very touching scene, but very powerful statement.
Vegetable, greens, legumes are GREAT. So are fish and animals.
We must earn to live in harmony together with all of creation. …. even cats 🙂
If your child went outside and stepped on the grass or mowed it, you would react entirely differently than if your child went outside and stepped on the cat or cut him. Why? Because we all know that animals can experience pain while plants cannot. If a child is mean and aggressive towards animals, it is one of the signs that there’s some maladjustment. If a child is prone to gardening, no one has the same concerns. Plants do not have a nervous system or pain receptors. Animals do.
There are 562 federally recognized Native American tribes in existence today. There were obviously many more tribes before the U.S. was colonized. Each tribe had and has its own traditions, along with hunting and gathering methods. To say that “Native Americans behaved like this” is convenient storytelling. People use it as a handy excuse for their own preferred behavior. More importantly, the way animals are killed today is wildly different than what you’re describing in that fictionalized movie scene.
If it takes compassion to kneel beside an animal you killed and thank him, it takes even more compassion to not kill him in the first place. Furthermore, who feels better after thanking the animal? The person who killed that animal. The animal is already dead, and so to him, it is the same. And honestly, if someone killed an animal I loved, I would much prefer they didn’t THANK him. The animal didn’t have a choice and would have preferred his own life. It is self-aggrandizing to kill someone and then act like you are doing him a favor.
Finally, I disagree with the notion that killing 56 billion farmed animals per year for food is “living in harmony with all of creation.”
If it is natural to survive on the produced nutrition of the mother, which I agree, why is there vegan dog food which is against their most natural behaviour?
While I lived abroad imported veg etc was expenciveso ate what was available due to season, ie salad summer, root veg winter and had never felt better or looked healthier.
If there is an answer I would be happy to hear as i am still deciding on best for my pup
Like humans, dogs are omnivores. So they can do well on a carefully balanced vegetarian or vegan diet. Cats, however, are obligate carnivores, and cannot.
I like the calm and straightforward nature of this post, but I do have a problem with your lack of knowledge in the field of chemistry. The reason I say this is because the chemical composition of grass contains no calcium. It is due to that mistake that your words have lost their integrity.
The mineral composition of calcium in grass varies depending on the type of grass, but hovers around 43%.
Please be gentle. I’m new 🙂 We have just become the caretakers of six beautiful baby chicks. We were told they would lay an egg a day without fertilization or a rooster present. Can they be eaten? If not, what should be done with them? My daughter has wanted these for years, and we felt she is finally old enough to help care for them responsibly. And they couldn’t stay where they were.
Just as a woman releases an egg as part of her menstrual cycle, a chicken releases an egg if it hasn’t been fertilized. So yes, without a rooster around, the chickens will continue to release their eggs until they are past their fertile years.
I’m a little confused by your question. Are you asking if they can be eaten from a vegan perspective?
I am not a vegan, but I have been breastfeeding my son for the past 9 months. Although I love feeding him, it is tough work. It’s got me thinking about drinking other species’ milk. I would be devastated if someone took my baby away from me and just milked me for years so, for example, a dog could drink my milk and eat the cheese and yogurts made out of it. So I’ve decided I am no longer having dairy. My husband doesn’t understand, but I feel very strongly about this. Thanks for your post.
From my perspective, breastmilk itself isn’t vegan but it falls in line with the vegan lifestyle. I.e. the sustenance of going from one member of a species to another member of the same species.
I am curious what you think about those places that make food products using breastmilk for adult consumption?
I don’t actually know of any food products that use human breast milk for adult consumption. I vaguely remember that PETA did some kind of joke publicity campaign for a fake product of human breast milk cheese a few years back to draw attention to the repulsion many feel to the idea of human breast milk-cheese while still eating milk from another species. However, I haven’t heard of anyone actually making food products from human breast milk.
Anything is possible, I guess, and if those products do exist, I personally wouldn’t be interested in eating them. I’m past the age of weaning and have been for a long time. I don’t have the biological need for breast milk at this point. However, if a woman is willingly giving her own breast milk, that is her property. She’s free to do with it in whatever way she wants. If she wanted to give her breast milk to make some kind of food product that adult humans ate, more power to her.
I would liken it to a male human using a sperm bank. That is his own bodily fluid, and he’s free to do with his excretions in whatever way he chooses. If he wants to donate to a sperm bank, good for him. In contrast, domesticated turkeys are unable to breed naturally because of the way they’ve been bred to grow faster and larger than they would naturally. So the males are “milked” and then the female turkeys are artificially inseminated. In that case, I would be against it, because turkeys are being used and exploited for humans, who have decided the animals are “property” to use in whatever way they choose.
To me the distinction between one being having power and control over her life and her body versus another who has zero would be very obvious.
I’d just like to throw out there that the standard husbandry practices of industrial agriculture are NOT the only way to raise animals. We have a milk goat on our farm, and we dam raise the kids, which means that they nurse until she weans them. They are separated from her at night, but they can see and smell each other, and they make no complaints (though they do nurse furiously when they see us coming in the evening). There is no getting around that the bucks have to go in order to avoid unwanted breeding, but they could be neutered and sold as pets or companion animals.
The challenge with dam raising is weaning. Some moms are great at weaning; others never actually do fully wean their kids if they’re left in the same herd. Occasionally, you’ll have a year and a half old PREGNANT doe who still nurses off her own mother. More rarely, but still known to happen, is a doe who learns to self-nurse.
Adopting a vegan diet is one way to assuage the suffering of our animal neighbors. Forming a direct relationship with a farmer to whom both the emotional and physiological well being of their animals is another, especially for people stuck at the “I couldn’t live without cheese!” phase.
Thanks for your perspective. This part of your comment particularly stuck out for me:
“There is no getting around that the bucks have to go in order to avoid unwanted breeding, but they could be neutered and sold as pets or companion animals.”
A slaughter-free dairy is not fiscally practical. First there are the costs involved in neutering 50% of the offspring of animals used for dairy. Then there are the resources it would take to find homes for those animals and the additional animals that would continue to come with every pregnancy. Finally, there are the costs of either finding homes or money to take care of the females after they are past the point of reproduction and at a time when their medical needs/costs would likely increase. I know how difficult it can be for sanctuaries to find safe homes for the animals they want to rescue. I can only imagine how that difficulty would increase if a dairy farm was trying to make a profitable business out of it, while they’re also meeting the other demands of farming.
As I’m sure you are well aware, goats are incredibly playful, sweet, and curious creatures. I had never spent time with them before going vegan, and getting to know them at a sanctuary where I volunteered was a wonderful and joyful discovery. Like so many people, I once thought I couldn’t live without cheese either, but I realized that I could. There is life after cheese. And doing what I can to reduce the suffering of others, including the abundance of males who are useless on dairy farms and the females who are eventually killed after their reproductive years, is more satisfying to me than chèvre.
Interesting post! Are you opposed to adult humans drinking human milk? Would you also consider this a vegan activity? Just asking out of curiosity and for further clarification. Love your blog btw!
Thanks, Rebeccah! That’s a good question and one I’ve never been asked before. I don’t know why an adult human would want to drink another’s milk, but I don’t see any ethical reason against it. As far as I’m concerned, a consenting, lactating woman can do whatever she wants with her milk.
You are simply the best at making veganism simple and fun and approachable. I love the concept of this series and can’t wait to read more!
So sweet of you to say, Kristy! Thank you!
Argh, hit send before I finished!
What I meant to say was, It still surprises me some of the questions that people ask of vegans, about the most odd of subjects. Like, if a bear was attacking me, would I fight back, or would I have a blood infusion if I was injured!
I think posts like this should be laminated and next time someone asks me an odd question, I’ll just smile and hand one of these out!
So funny! How surprised would someone be if you handed them a laminated sheet for every question they have? “How do I get my iron? Just one second. I have a sheet for that.” 😉
It still surprises me some of
Of course breastfeeding is vegan, unless your baby is feeding from a cow’s or goat’s boobie 😉
But I digress. Stopped by to say that you should stop over at my blog. There’s a surprise for you! xx
What a nice surprise! Thank you!
Thanks for posting this. I’ve been shocked by how many people are surprised that I’m breastfeeding my baby because they don’t perceive it as vegan.
You’re welcome! When you’re back to blogging it would be interesting to hear about some of those exchanges. I hope you’re enjoying your time with your little girl. She is so adorable!
You are more understanding than I am, and I thought I was pretty understanding. I think a person would have to be pretty confrontational to disparage a vegan for breastfeeding. I shouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point, but do people rally think it’s wrong for a vegan to nurse a baby?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels — what they mean, what they convey and what they do to encourage division and confrontation. I’m sure I’ll see some discussion here. Thank you for taking on difficult topics in such a friendly and encouraging way.
While some people I’m sure use the argument as a “gotcha,” for more people I think it’s simply a lack of understanding about why vegans do what they do. I had a long discussion with a non-vegan friend once in which he absolutely INSISTED that there are strict vegans who won’t french kiss (and do other displays of intimacy) because there would be an exchange of body fluids. No matter how much I told him that veganism had to do with ethics not rules of purity, he wouldn’t hear me. It was very frustrating and surprising since we’d had a number of discussions about veganism.
I hope you’re planning on writing about these thoughts you’re having around labels. There’s a lot to discuss there!
Great post. While I get the initial “but it’s milk!” response about vegans breastfeeding I still have to stop myself from the whole face-palm thing because I find it so rediculous. Luckily most people I come in contact with since I’ve been breastfeeding have understood (by our explaining it mostly) that veganism is about not using other species. Our milk is for our babies. Cows milk is for their calfy babies. Sheeps milk is for their little lamby babies. and so on. You’re doing a fantastic job of being informative and friendly which some of us have a hard time doing sometimes with some of these topics 🙂
Thanks, Bex! I was surprised as well that breastfeeding confuses some people. I’ve even seen articles online in which people were angry at vegans for their refusal to breastfeed because of their ethics. I thought, “That’s a straw man argument! Vegans have zero ethical quandary with breastfeeding their own babies.” I think many people just don’t understand the reasons around not consuming eggs & dairy. Meat is obvious to them, but the reasons around eggs and dairy take more probing.
I love this series Cadry.. it is always amazing at the kind of questions people come up with,.and your post answers it beautifully. i like how all your posts are non confrontational and put a seed in there for everyone to think.
Just the other day when i wrote about the cheese article, someone commented on the blog saying that they didnt know cheese caused so much pain. now they do.
Keep this series coming.
Thanks, Richa! The dairy industry certainly does a good job of painting an idyllic picture of the lives of dairy cows. Like you said, many people don’t realize how much pain is there – from losing their offspring after the same length of gestation as humans, to being impregnated over and over to keep a supply of milk, to producing more milk than they would naturally by way of hormones, and finally after their bodies are too tired and old to produce, they’re killed.
This is a great post, Cadry! It actually didn’t occur to me until recently that calves are taken away from their mothers so soon so the milk can be used for human consumption. I was just reading the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, and there was a section on how attached the mothers are to their calves (breaking down all kinds of barriers to try to get to them, bellowing for days) – it broke my heart. It’s yet another reason why I’m so committed to veganism versus vegetarianism. I think a lot of vegetarians, even those who are coming from a place of compassion for animals, don’t realize the repercussions of consuming things like dairy and eggs.
Anyway, I’m really looking forward to reading more from your series about misconceptions. xo
Thanks, Amanda! I’ve heard good things about that book. It is a fascinating, multi-faceted disconnect that we build between the animals we love and the animals we eat. We’re taught that we shouldn’t care about the feelings of a pig or cow because they’re “food animals,” but if someone hurts a cat or dog, people are incensed.
I think you’re right that many people just don’t realize the pain and suffering within the egg and dairy industries. I was vegetarian for a couple of years before I went vegan, and I really thought I was doing “enough.” The dairy and egg industries seem innocuous since lactation doesn’t hurt and losing eggs as part of a chicken’s monthly cycle doesn’t hurt. I didn’t realize then how much more there was to it than that.