Think Cheese Is More Eco + Humane Than Meat? Think Again

cheese selection

Cheese is my weakness. Camembert and cheddar, stilton and swiss, mozzarella and mascarpone, gouda and goat’s cheese, feta and fresh quark – I love them all. And while it may not be great for my waistline or as environmentally pure as organic lentils, at least I can eat it knowing that it’s a more eco-friendly choice than, say, tucking into a juicy slab of steak. Or can I?

My vegetarian friends certainly seem to think so – many of them seem to subsist on cheese. Trust me, I can understand why – it’s an easy source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and other nutrients that omnivores typically get from meat. It’s easier than boiling up lentils from scratch and, let’s face it, for most people cheese just plain tastes good.

These same vegetarians might feel confident, or even a little smug, that they are making good dietary and green lifestyle choices. After all, going vegetarian is better for your health, the welfare of animals and the environment. Isn’t it?

Maybe not. Actually, cheese is pretty much just as bad as meat on all counts. Here’s why.

1. Animals die.


You are drinking the milk of the cow rather than eating its flesh, but all the same animals die. Maybe you already know that most cheese is made with animal rennet and you take care to buy vegetarian cheese. Sorry, but you’re not off the hook!

How do you think the mother cow (or sheep or goat) gets milk? She has babies and since after six months her milk production declines, she needs to keep having babies. What do you think happens to the bull calves? They get killed. And since dairy cattle and beef cattle are generally different breeds and there’s little value in raising the male offspring of dairy cows for meat, this happens when they are still babies.

Often, the calves are slaughtered immediately or just left to die, then added to the farm’s compost heap. Otherwise they may be raised for veal, which is usually a cruel process where they are kept in a confinement in semi-darkness and denied proper food, so their flesh stays white.

However, there are varieties of veal that are more humanely raised, allowing the calves to stay with their mothers and eat grass. Surely the ethically consistent position is either to cut out meat and dairy, or to eat the “humane” veal along with your dairy? Oh and by the way, mama cow will likely only live until she is five to seven years old – instead of the 20 years that is her natural lifespan.

2. Animal cruelty.

Cow milking

Most EcoSalon readers will be familiar with concentrated animal feedlot operations or CAFOs. These factory farms are not just prevalent in the rearing of meat animals but in the dairy industry, as well. The book The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason cites a Cornell University Study predicting the number of dairy farms in the United States to decline from 105,000 in 2000 to 16,000 in 2020, while the number of cows per farm and the total milk production both increase.

Many cows are confined to a single stall where they are fed and milked for a single year and if they do get to move outside, it’s usually on a dirt lot rather than on pasture.

The modern dairy cow produces three times more milk than its counterpart from 50 years ago, as a result of breeding, and many cows in the United States are injected with bovine somatotrophin (BST), a genetically engineered growth hormone banned in Canada and the European Union. This boosts milk production by 10% but the site of the injection can become swollen and tender and the injections can increase problems with mastitis, a painful udder infection that affects one in six dairy cows in the US.

The natural lifespan of a cow is 20 years but most dairy cows are killed between five and seven years because they cannot withstand the unnaturally high rate of milk production. By “killed”, I don’t mean euthanised – the process of dealing with “downed” animals involves dragging and winching them by the hoof with a tractor and taking them to a truck to deliver it to the slaughterhouse.

3.  Cheese has a huge environmental impact.

Cow pat

Slate had a great article on the environmental impact of cheese, just before Christmas. The truth is that rearing dairy cows or goats is a carbon-intensive process – and for some reason, sheep are even worse. They need to be fed and most dairy cattle are not exclusively grass fed, so that requires grain to be grown and shipped in. If they are kept in CAFOs, there is a huge manure problem that can pollute local waterways. (If the untreated waste doesn’t go directly into streams and rivers, it’s sprayed onto fields through an irrigation system, but often in quantities too great for the soil to absorb, and then in heavy rain it runs off into the creeks).

According to a local environmental group in Michigan, Lake Erie’s new “dead zone” is linked to runoff from livestock waste. Finally, there’s a problem that sounds like a joke but really isn’t – dairy animals are ruminants that fart and burp a lot of greenhouse gases, specifically methane. Scientists are working on reducing this problem by improving the diets of cattle, but it’s a long haul. All this is just to get the milk – to get cheese, it requires further processing and storage at just the right temperature.

4. Cheese isn’t healthy.

Peppercorn beef shoulder filet steak

I know many people who go vegetarian – or simply cut out red meat – for health reasons. Yet they eat cheese. This makes no sense to me. In what universe is cheese a health food? I want to move there!

I’ve looked up the nutritional statistics on and generic cheese is 27% fat. A whopping 62% of that is saturated fat, while only 22% is protein. Admittedly you do get a decent serving of calcium with your fat, but there are 84 calories and a heart-stopping 20mg of cholesterol in just one slice.

By contrast, a typical cut of beef compares favourably with 26% protein and 20% fat, of which just 39% is saturated fat. You don’t get so much calcium, but that’s more than compensated for by the fact that 20% of your meal is iron, something many women lack. There is also less cholesterol in beef than cheese.

So pound for pound, beef is healthier than most cheese. Unless of course, you are eating low fat cottage cheese, in which case it’s only 1% fat and 12% protein. But then you could be eating healthier meats as well – lean cuts of beef or lamb, low-fat poultry and fish with healthy oils.

All this is not to make anyone feel guilty. But I do think there is little point in going vegetarian and then making up the shortfall with cheese. Sure, you can eat organic dairy in moderation from small family farms with good environmental and animal welfare practices – such as Straus Family Creamery in Northern California – but you can do the same thing for meat. I know plenty of ethically minded omnivores who eat meat and dairy in moderation and source both with equal care.

I believe if you are going to cut out meat, you need to fully embrace cooking with and eating beans and lentils. There are some great recipes – I am a meat-reducing omnivore myself but one of my favourite all-time recipes is vegan – a Lebanese eggplant moussaka with chickpeas that comes to me via Nigella Lawson.

Free-range and organic eggs are another good source of protein in moderation as well, though caged eggs still account for 98% of US egg production. (In Europe it’s a different story – sales of free-range eggs were due to hit two billion eggs a year in 2009 in the UK, exceeding battery egg sales in value terms, while from next year eggs from battery hens will no longer be sold in German supermarkets). You may want to check out Vanessa’s post on how much protein the human body actually needs.

Images: Joi, fklv, smoodysarah, orinzebest, TheBusyBrain