Animal Conservation in Indian Agriculture
India is known across the world as an agricultural powerhouse, be it in terms of fruits and vegetables, pulses and spices, or milk and other dairy products. But in the past few years, this sector has seen a consistent downfall in its contribution to the Indian economy. A sustainable and productive agricultural sector is necessary to cater to the growing and diverse demands of the population. It is vital to protect the livelihoods of what makes up three quarters of the families in India, those who depend on rural economies, and about 70 percent of the Indian poor who live in the rural areas.
Animals, especially cattle, have been an integral part of Indian agriculture. Bulls have been traditionally used as draught animals, while cows and buffaloes have been used for dairy. India is the largest producer of milk in the world, accounting for 18.5 percent of the world production. This is largely the result of the ‘White Revolution’ in 1975, under which the milk production in the country increased from 22 million tons in 1970 to 104 million tons in 2008. This massive increase in production capacity of the country was made possible by the introduction of Jersey, cross-breed, and Holstein Friesian variety of cattle that have been genetically selected to produce an unnatural average output of 20 liters per milking, per day, per animal!
In order to meet the high milk production targets, these animals are over-exploited, resulting in unethical and cruel dairy practices. Such practices also reduce the average lifespan of dairy cattle and increase the risk of reproductive diseases and udder infections.
So while the over-exploitation of these animals does result in an increased and unnatural productivity, this form of dairy farming is definitely not sustainable. According to the United Nations, about 18 percent of global green-house gas emissions are caused due to animal farming, which is more than what is produced by all the vehicles in the world. Thus, unethical dairy farming is not only bad for the animals, which are treated like milk-producing machines, but for the planet as well.
The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) conducted a study in 2017 on the management of dairies in India and the results are nothing less than shocking.
• 25.1 percent dairies had no arrangements for shelter, and had housing in the form of thatch-roof sheds, road-side areas, etc.
• Continuous tethering of cattle at all times was a common practice in 78.8 percent of the dairies; the tethers are extremely short to accommodate a large number of cattle in a small area. This causes extreme physical distress to the cattle, preventing them from being in a natural, comfortable posture.
• In 25.1 percent of the dairies, male calves died within the first month and if they survived, they were sold for slaughter. Old, unproductive cattle also faced the same fate with 62.9 percent dairies selling cattle to smaller farmers or slaughter houses. One of the most convenient options for the dairy farmers was also to abandon these “unwanted animals” on the streets.
• 57.85 percent dairies were found to have animals under stress or suffering from injuries or illnesses.
• 55.9 percent dairy owners allowed the use of sick animals for milking.
• Injuries to animals, ranging from small bruises to tumors and fractures, were noticed in 64.1 percent of dairies.
• Illegal use of Oxytocin hormone to increase the milk let-down was a common occurrence in 46.9 percent dairies. Dairy owners used it in excessive quantities (3 to 4 ml). This resulted in animals having side-effects such as lowered fertility, calf deaths before parturition, calf deaths shortly after birth due to low quality and quantity of milk, dependency on the hormone to release milk, and reduction in lifespan.
• Separation of the mother from her calf is another common practice that was observed in most dairies. Often, the calf was either tied away from the mother, or sent for slaughter. Absence of the calf was then used as a reason to inject hormones into the animals to stimulate milk let-down.
Based on these results, an exhaustive set of good practices were compiled for the dairy farmers, paving the way for a better, welfare-oriented management of the dairy animals. Seven states have now adopted these standards, which is the first step towards ensuring animal conservation in farming. Centralised and mandatory government policy is required for the management of ‘unproductive’ animals. Use of sexed semen to prevent birth of male calves and transfer of animals to Gaushalas at the end of their ‘productive’ lifecycle needs to be looked into seriously.
The dairy industry in India needs to include animal conservation and welfare in management practices to help the industry remain marketable as well. The present set of practices, which are geared solely towards productivity, are the cause of the milk being contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, and animal suffering, which the modern consumer is shunning. The direct connection between the health of the animal and the health of humans consuming their milk is now evident for all to see.
A milch animal in India is often injected with antibiotics and hormones to increase the amount of milk she gives. This often translates into the milk being adulterated with the traces of these antibiotics, further leading to various problems in the people consuming this milk. Again, if a milch animal is infected or diseased (with mastitis, for example), then the milk she gives will most probably have traces of pus or blood, which is ultimately consumed by humans. Other common problems are the unsanitary condition in which the animals are kept, which not only makes the milk unhygienic for consumption but also causes public health concerns in the surrounding areas.
Thus, it is extremely important to note that the dairy industry is at a crucial stage where the volume of milk produced is not as important as its quality, as well as the inclusion of animal conservation practices in the process of obtaining that milk. Progressively, consumers are moving away from low welfare milk and demanding better quality milk from healthy animals. The industry needs to take note of the trend to enforce voluntary standards to ensure that the supply is at par with the demand. Additionally, enforcement of existing policy for registration of dairies and preventing use of banned substances is the need of the hour.
It's time we stopped exploiting dairy animals, and forcing them to be slaves of capitalism; because at the end of the day, it’s not about the liters of milk produced, but about the quality of that milk—that is the only thing that will make dairy sustainable and humane.
The author is the Executive Director of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO)