Hey, climate people! Stop bullying your friends for eating cheese! That’s the message behind a “don’t cancel the cow” campaign launched in the UK this week by a major dairy producer.
Arla Foods, a multinational food cooperative based in Denmark, is the world’s fourth-largest milk producer by volume and Britain’s largest dairy company. (Arla is a cooperative, meaning it’s owned by nearly 12,000 dairy farmers across Europe.)
In a press release posted last week, Arla touts the results of research it conducted, which it claims shows that 34% of people living in the UK make dietary choices “based purely on information from social media.” This, the release continues, is a big problem. (We reached out to Arla asking to see the research, and will update this article if we hear back.)
“The rise in cancel culture is playing too much of an influence in the way that we make decisions relating to our diets,” the release reads. “Instead of relying on facts about the whole of the food production process and considering in detail what makes a sustainable diet and what food groups are ‘good’ for us, snap decisions are being made based largely on popular opinion.” The release claims almost half of Gen Z respondents are “ashamed to order dairy in public in front of their peers,” and while 70% of Gen Z-ers would like to keep eating dairy, an “alarming” 57% plan to take dairy out of their diets in the next year. (While some polling shows vegan diets are on the rise in the UK, per capita cheese consumption has also increased.)
Conversations about individual diets are complex, and “sustainable” has become a meaningless catch-all word that can’t begin to convey the myriad of problems with the way we produce food. But if we’re talking purely about carbon emissions, the math is pretty clear: The world’s huge appetite for animal products is contributing to climate change. This is in large part due to the enormous amount of greenhouse gases that animal agriculture, especially cow farming, produces. Despite other environmental problems plaguing the alternative milk industry, like astronomical water use to grow crops like nuts, a 2018 study found that the greenhouse gas emissions from a liter of soy milk were a third of the emissions from a liter of cow’s milk; all other types of plant-based milk, the study said, have similarly lower footprints. There are definitely worse things for the environment than a teen in the UK feeling social pressure to stop eating so many cheeseburgers.
A polluting industry trumpeting concerns about being “canceled” or otherwise misunderstood is something of a trend these days. In November, a group of gas exporters cried to the UN that poor, misunderstood natural gas was a victim of “ongoing reductionism and cancel culture on hydrocarbons.” That complaint came on the heels of Texas passing legislation last year that prohibited the state from doing business with corporations that were pursuing climate action or no longer working with fossil fuel companies. (Oil and gas companies “are being treated a little bit like the state of Israel,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a conference last February. What a fun sentence!) Never mind that it’s impossible to bully multinational corporations; it seems like the new trend these days is for polluting industries to bust out their smallest violins and milk—literally—the situation for all it’s worth.
To its credit, Arla seems to be checking a lot of the boxes when it comes to corporate actions on climate. It has a plan to reach net zero by 2050 (although we know those plans can often be problematic), and last week announced it will run a large-scale trial of a new feed additive meant to reduce cows’ methane emissions. “We know that farming is not without its challenges and when it comes to dairy farming and the climate crisis, we have many hills to climb,” Graham Wilkinson, senior group agriculture director at Arla, said in the release.
In a delicious twist, Arla has seemingly already tried to cancel vegan dairy alternatives, quite literally. According to Swedish outlet Aftonbladet, the dairy company sponsors a yearly baking competition in Stockholm to find the city’s best semla, a type of cream-filled flour bun topped with whipped cream. Last year, Aftonbladet reported, a vegan bakery entered a coconut-and-soy-cream version and quickly took the top spot in the voting. A week before the winners were to be announced, Arla canceled the competition, citing concerns around the pandemic. It then offered to buy 100 rolls from the top bakeries in the competition—provided that they were made only with real cream. (A spokesperson from Arla told Aftonbladet that she hadn’t heard of any discussions about the vegan bakery and that the cancellation was due to bakeries “having a hard time” during the pandemic.)
Look, preachy vegans are certainly annoying, and as most of the writers on this site can attest, being bullied as a teen really sucks. But people around the world, especially in developed countries like the UK, do need reduce the amount of animal products we eat. Global methane emissions, around a quarter of which come from agriculture, have reached worrying levels, and the IPCC says that bringing them down as soon as possible is crucial. Technofixes like the feed additives Arla is trying can only go so far and have serious problems of their own. Meanwhile, climate change is also affecting milk producers: Europe’s prolonged drought in 2018 and 2019 caused serious damage to the dairy industry, reportedly putting 2,000 dairy farms out of business in Lithuania alone, trade publication Dairy Global reported.
“Canceling” powerful industries by talking frankly about their environmental impacts is not a real concern, and companies don’t seem to be listening, anyway. This is likely just the latest in what might be a truly obnoxious new trend: Big businesses trying their best to get a Substack deal to whine about cancel culture.