Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, reviews the BBC Panorama programme “A Cow’s Life”, and the reaction it has caused.
Documentaries are powerful things.
Once they attract you to watch them, they can grab your attention and not let go. While keeping you captive under their audio-visual spell, they deliver revelatory information directly into your brain in such compelling ways that can transform you. Mixing the magic of storytelling with the gravitas of “truth” creates a cocktail that can blow your mind and change your life. We, vegans, know this well. If it did not happen to us, we probably met some other vegans who adopted this philosophy after having the experience of watching a poignant vegan documentary.
Earthlings is one of those veganising documentaries often referred to as the last “drop” that made people become vegan. Directed in 2005 by Shaun Monson, narrated by Oscar-winning vegan actor Joaquin Phoenix and with music by Moby, it graphically shows humanity’s use of other animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research. If you have been vegan for over ten years, you probably remember the time when you greeted other vegans with the phrase “have you watched Earthlings yet?” The other is Cowspiracy. Directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn in 2014, it rationally explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. And to tie these two together, What the Health, the 2017 documentary film also written, produced, and directed by Kip Andersen, and executive-produced by Joaquin Phoenix. It critiques the health impact of meat, fish, eggs and dairy products consumption, and questions the practices of leading health and pharmaceutical organisations.
There have been others: Meat the Truth, (2007), Food, Inc. (2008), The Cove (2009), Vegucaded (2011), Forks over Knives (2011), The Ghosts in our Machine (2013), Blackfish (2013), Speciesism the Movie (2013), Land of Hope and Glory (2017), The End of Meat (2017), Dominion (2018), 73 Cows (2018), The Game Changers (2018), The Animal People (2019), Countdown to Year Zero (2019), Seaspiracy (2021), and Milked (2021).
But the thing about documentaries is that you have to decide you want to watch them. You need to invest some time and have an open attitude towards learning from them. Otherwise, they just become a title and a cover.
News programmes, though, are a different story. They may be as long and highly produced as a feature film documentary, but they often come to the audience unannounced. They pop up on your TV, catching people by surprise. Would that make them more effective? Would they have a stronger life-changing impact that way?
Looking at social media reactions to the BBC Panorama programme titled ‘A Cow’s Life: The True Cost of Milk?’ that was first aired on Monday 14th February 2022 in the UK, you would think that the answer is yes.
I had to watch it to see what was all the fuss about.
Is Ignorance Bliss?
It still surprises me that most people do not know that cow’s milk comes from cows’ breast, after having given birth to a calf, after having been pregnant for about nine months, after having been inseminated with sperm from a bull, and after having given birth to the previous calf. Without pregnancy and birth, there would be no milk.
Before I became vegan, I had never thought about it properly, but I believe that, had I done so, I would have figured it out. It would have never occurred to me that an apple would materialise on a tree branch overnight, or that honey would grow on flowers in small glass jars. There is an unavoidable logic in realising that the liquid excretions mammals produce to feed their newborns only come after they have been born, not before. After all, half of the humans walk about with breasts that only produce the stuff after giving birth, and the other half have most likely seen this.
This underwhelming revelation is one of the major memorable story points of the Panorama programme. Directed and produced by Tom Jenner, the 30-minute long programme shows reporter Daniel Foggo visiting different dairy farms in the UK, watching undercover footage obtained by the organisation Animal Equality in some of them, and talking to farmers and vets about it. It’s a classic BBC format with its typical journalistic sober tone. Nothing new, really. People hurting animals as part of their routine job, experts having different views about how much harm took place — and how lawful or justified it was — various examples of different settings treating the animals differently, and the general open question of “is this an exception or the norm?”
I have seen it many times, in the case of zoos, circuses, dog racing, horse racing, hunting, fishing, egg farms, factory farms, and also dairy farms. For a vegan like me, it’s just another exposé of yet another standard animal farm. For animal farmers, it’s just another attack and an exaggerated claim, not representative of what they do. But what about the average viewer?
Looking at the articles written about it, and the comments on social media, the issue that seemed to cause more shock was not the farmworkers hitting and hurting cows, or the several cows in obvious pain and distress during their normal lives, but the realisation that milk comes from cows that have given birth, and the calves are removed from their mothers either immediately after birth, or later — with the considerable distress for both.
What did the people who comment expect? It seems they expected nothing. In the bliss of their ignorance, they never thought about it — as I didn’t before I became vegan. But now that they have been disabused of their rationalisation for continuing using dairy products, they don’t like it. Some people think that the separation of calves is an anomaly of the dairy industry that can be corrected. They don’t’ want to admit that this is intrinsic of all dairy farms (big or small, intensive or “free ranged”, organic or standard), and if they disapprove of it, the only logical option is to stop consuming any dairy. Soaked in denial, they think this could be changed with reform, not abolition.
Jayesh Patel is an eloquent fellow vegan activist and public speaker with whom I have done vegan outreach in London. His post on Facebook as a response to some of these reactions illustrates well this issue:
“I have been triggered to make this post on receipt of a well-intended but misguided message from a person who saw the recent panorama programme which laid bare the truth about the common and universally accepted separation of calves from their mothers in the dairy industry (even the so-called ethical dairy farm admitted to forced separation when the calf was 5 months old — imagine if you had been separated at that age from your mother and never to see her again). The person sent me a petition to sign that asks the government to stop this evil practice. The fact is, the dairy industry would become massively loss-making if the separation of calves was outlawed unless the price of dairy milk was increased many times over compared to current levels. Even at those price levels, cows would still be forcefully impregnated (done to your mother it would be called rape, done to animals it is called breeding), they would still only be allowed less than half the year to graze in fields (that would be considered ethical — imagine if your mother was forcefully impregnated and was only allowed out for less than half year), they would still be “milked” into exhaustion such that they have to be killed for cheap meat and leather at well below half their normal lifespan. So, let’s have a petition that (i) bans forceful impregnation (ii) allows cows to graze outside for as long as they like (iii) only allows surplus milk that is unwanted by calves to be consumed by humans etc, etc. What are the chances of all this being outlawed?? Zero.”
Denial and ignorance are not chronic diseases. They are caused by bad education, and they can be cured by a good one. Perhaps it’s time we start looking at educators and the education authorities. We need vegan teachers to get organised and work to change this paradigm.
The Bad Apple Problem
On 15th February 2022, the international animal protection organisation Animal Equality released disturbing undercover footage of violence and neglect on Madox Farm, a large dairy farm in Carmarthenshire, South Wales. Undercover investigators filmed troubling scenes spanning several months, which the organisation claimed included several serious legal violations. Workers kicking and punching cows in the face and stomach, twisting their tails, and hitting them with metal shovels. Their footage also shows scenes of calves being tipped out of a tractor bucket, a dying cow left for 24 hours before a slaughterman arrived, and another “downer” cow partially raised on a telehandler and dragged across concrete. This is the footage broadcasted to millions of people on the BBC’s Panorama programme A Cow’s Life.
The programme interviews other farmers who, supposedly, don’t do any of these things to the animals they exploit. The implication is that the Welsh farm is a “bad apple”, not representative of the entire industry. How many bad apples do you need to conclude that the year’s harvest is ruined? 20%, 50%, 70%?
Indeed, Matt Knight, the director of The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, said to The Scottish Farmer: “Our farmers work long hours, often going weeks without a break to ensure the health and welfare of their cows are maintained. So, we are sad the BBC has chosen to highlight one farm where inexcusable abuse was witnessed, as this is not representative of our industry.”
No matter how many exposés have been publicised, it seems that most people still consider that they are just exceptional bad apples. In 2018 an exposé by the vegan charity Viva! revealed horrific conditions on six UK dairy farms supplying the supermarket chains Tesco, Cadburys and Arla. These included Fairfield Farm in South Devon, Mile Elm farm in Wiltshire, Arla farm in Somerset, and Halswell farm in South Devon. In November 2019 the animal rights group Surge launched the campaign Dismantle Dairy featuring 18 months of undercover footage obtained from inside UK dairy farms. One of the farms recorded, C J and G R Carnell dairy farm in Buckinghamshire, ended up being investigated by the RSPCA. On April 2021 the animal protection group Animal Justice Project released horrific calf abuse footage obtained from Oaklands Livestock Centre in Shropshire, UK. Every year there seem to be a major exposé of several dairy farms, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. After all, there are about 12,000 dairy farmers in Britain, so the average non-vegan would need many more examples to believe that the entire basket of apples is rotten.
However, if exposé after exposé may not be enough for many people to become vegan, sometimes some significant good comes if some farms end up closing because of it and some animal abusers end up convicted. Did the BBC Panorama programme help with that? Too early to tell. Animal Equality’s lawyers have submitted an official letter of complaint to Carmarthenshire County Council, the local authority where the farm featured on Panorama is based.
As the programme explains, Madox Farm supplies milk to Freshways, the UK’s largest independent dairy processor. It distributes dairy products to retailers and businesses including Costa Coffee, British Airways, Londis, Budgens, and P&O Cruises. Perhaps the supplier or their clients will experience some consequences after the broadcast. At least we learnt that Red Tractor (which accredits farms deemed to be of higher animal welfare standards than average) suspended the dairy farm membership of the exposed farm after the programme was aired. But then again, this is a temporary suspension while they investigate, and if it becomes permanent this only means that a bad farm will not be labelled as a good farm anymore. It doesn’t stop the farm from exploiting any animals.
It may be that the bad apple effect will always be an obstacle for abolition and the overall impact of any farm exposé, prosecution or closure is very limited, but what are the alternatives? If most people still believe that milk comes from happy cows roaming the fields, how many more would believe this deception if there were not one or two of these exposés every year? And how many people would still believe the misleading PR of the dairy industry if such exposés never reached mainstream media, let alone prime BBC time? Cognitive dissonance and confirmation biases are powerful delusional forces when they transcend from the individual to the social. If left unchecked, they can delay considerably our journey to the vegan world and severely hinder our transformative movement. We have no choice other than to expose the truth of the animal agriculture industry every time we have a chance. If we cannot do better, at least one apple at a time will have to do.
Programme or Documentary?
If challenging the dairy industry as a whole is a very difficult task due to its subsidised PR propaganda, the lack of adequate education that leads to widespread ignorance, and the bad apple effect, we cannot afford to waste time and resources on the less effective tactics. Campaigning organisations and investigative groups have a specific role to play so it is entirely logical that they focus on that. But the vegan movement as a whole covers a wider spectrum of strategies, tactics and targets, and no one really knows which ones will end up being the key for success in the future — and if someone tells you they know, you would be wise not to dispose of your scepticism.
For instance, if we had a choice, what would be more effective, produce a feature-length high-quality documentary capable of winning many awards that will last forever, or a TV programme broadcasted on prime time watched by millions of people during a limited period? Not an easy question to answer.
The comments I have seen about the BBC Panorama programme come from upset people. Upset because they deny what the programme shows is happening everywhere. Upset because they don’t understand why the abusive farm workers seem to get away with it. Upset because they realise they don’t have any excuse anymore to continue consuming the products they like. Upset because of how careless some of the farms might have been to allow investigators in. Upset because some vets seem to legitimise some of the horrible practices shown. Upset because of realising the farm showing the worse animal welfare belonged to the Red Tractor Assurance scheme. Upset with themselves for not having known about the calves’ separation before.
But what has been the outcome of all this upsetting? Some people have posted on social media that, after watching the programme, they decided to ditch dairy. That’s good news. But others have gone out of their way to defend the dairy industry and write letters to the papers complaining against the BBC for what they see as “unfair” treatment of the farming world. Without any proper quantification, it’s impossible to assess which of the two sides is dominant. Without a proper analysis, we will have to remain ignorant about the true impact of the programme.
With a vegan documentary, you know that the more times it is watched, the more people may become vegan because of it. But with a TV programme that upsets viewers from both sides, some viewers may become vegan, but others may get triggered to become defenders of the industry. They may become extra defensive and close their ears to any argument towards veganism. These did not choose to watch the programme, let alone with an open mind. These, reacted because they don’t like the programme shown to “non-vegans”. They do not mind if vegans watch vegan documentaries and show them to their friends and family. But they do mind if programmes with vegan and anti-dairy messages are shown to the general population at prime viewing hours.
By choosing a TV programme instead of a documentary, we may reach more people outside the vegan echo chambers, but we may also arise a stronger defence of the industry by people who otherwise would not bother to defend it. Whether it was a successful choice would very much depend on the final numbers. The numbers we do not have.
But one thing is certain. If you opt for the TV programme option, in the UK you would not do better than the BBC Panorama programme. I know from experience how powerful is the BBC to disseminate any message around the world. When I started a crowdfunding campaign to pay the legal fees of my litigation against my former employer — which eventually led to ethical veganism being accepted as a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010— the Guardian was the paper that first told the story to the world on 16th June 2018. Despite being one of the best newspapers, not many people read it and only a couple of other media outlets reported it the following weeks. But when the BBC made a mini news programme about it and launched it on all its platforms on 3rd December 2018, most media around the world reacted and wrote about my story. For months I was continuously being interviewed (as the litigation ended in March 2020 in my favour) and my case became one of the widest reported vegan stories in recent years.
A Cow’s Life was not only a BBC programme from the prestigious Panorama series, but it was a particularly good piece of journalism. One of the experts interviewed was Professor Andrew Knight from Winchester University, the well-respected vet I mentioned in the article I wrote about whether cats are obligatory carnivores. His testimony was on the money, and he definitively was the right expert to be added after the farm vet Roger Blowey told the programme that “It would be unusual to find any herd without lameness” and lifting cows on a hoist is “common practice.” The undercover investigator was also interviewed (with the obligatory dramatic face covering and voice distortion), and the most graphic footage he obtained was shown in the programme (sometimes they only show the less dramatic images). And despite the producers also decided to show how an “ethical” dairy farm in Scotland operates, they did not hide the fact that in that one, calves are also separated from their mothers, although five months later. The reporters went beyond the farms looking at the suppliers too, which is good. Overall, maintaining the obligatory balance and neutrality the BBC has to operate under (being a broadcaster paid by licence holders) the message that vegans would hope to see was definitively sent with this programme. Unsurprisingly, the dairy industry — and the veganphobes who deeply care about what we do — got quite upset. But naturally, on the other side, vegans have been talking about the programme and using the fuzz it has created to spread the vegan message even more:
If you have to choose between a documentary that will not be watched by many people and will not receive any award, and the BBC Panorama broadcast during primetime in BBC1 (and then made available in BBCi player for weeks), the latter is definitively a better achievement more capable of having a greater impact.
But we don’t have to choose. We can have both award-winning documentaries and wide-reaching TV programmes. In 2021, a new British documentary about the wrongs of the dairy industry called Cow was produced. From 14th January 2022, it can be watched exclusively on MUBI in the UK, Ireland, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Italy, India & Latin America. Directed by Andrea Arnold, it’s the story of a cow’s life. It begins with the birth of Luma the cow and ends with her being shot in the head at point-blank range with a bolt gun. It has already received several international awards, including at the Cannes Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival, and it has great reviews.
We don’t need to choose. We can show the reality of the dairy industry from any angle and perspective. From the cow’s eyes to the farmers’ actions. From the vets’ assessments to the consumer choices. From the rotten apples to the shiny ones. If done with honesty and objectivity, all the stories will show the same reality. The reality that only leads to one course of action:
We all must ditch dairy and begin building the vegan world without it.