Cows Eat Grass, Don’t They?

Join Orla Shortall at 1.50pm, Thursday 24th August at the New Town Theatre (Fringe venue 7) to discuss the way in which our milk is produced and how this relates to how we value agriculture in general. 


Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a social scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen. I do research on how people make decisions about land use and why we value agriculture. Is agriculture similar to any other industiral sector in our economy and we should try to produce as much food as efficiently as possible? Or what are the other reasons why agriculture is important to us, including the role of agriculture in our history, culture and countryside; our connection with the land through the food we eat; and our relationship with animals. How can these values be included in decisions making about agriculture?

How does your CoDI show fit in with your research?

Indoor dairy farming is a topic I’ve developed an interest in over recent years as I’ve been working on disease control on dairy farms. It seems that the dairy sector in the UK is changing rapidly with more cows spending more time indoors, but the public are largely unaware of these changes. I feel more discussions around the topic would be helpful.

Why is the topic ‘dangerous’?

I feel this topic is dangerous because it’s not being widely discussed. When I mention indoor dairy farming to people many of them are surprised that it’s happening and very much against it, so there seems to be something of a disconnect between what people believe, how they want their food to be produced and the direction the industry is going in. When you get a disconnect between what people in the scientific community or industry believe and what “the public” believe then you can get outbreaks of controversy and protest. It has also been the subject of controversy in the past with protests over a “mega dairies” opening in people’s local area.

Does it rightly have this label? Is the topic unjustly controversial?

It depends what point of view you look at it from. There are lots of reasonable arguments for indoor dairy farming and we’ve already partly accepted indoor pig and poultry production in our food sector – so why should dairy farming be different? It might be the case that people oppose changes to the sector now but we get used to milk being produced indoors. A lot of the arguments about indoor dairy farming relate to the cows’ welfare, with opponents stating that cows aren’t happy indoors all the time and proponents saying that cows can have a very good life indoors. This one is hard to resolve because you can’t ask cows which they prefer and there isn’t agreement on the best way to assess if cows are “happy” or not, and there haven’t been that many studies done on it. Other countries such as the Netherlands have already undergone these changes and are now moving back in the opposite direction, with requirements for cows to spend a proportion of their time out of doors and a market for free range, outdoor milk. This suggests this isn’t a topic that isn’t just going to go away.

Why is the topic important to you?

I drink milk and eat dairy products in the first instance, so that gives me a reason to think about how milk is produced. The disconnection between how normal indoor dairy farming is in the industry in the UK, and how unaware most people are of it has struck me over the last few years. I’m interested in how the dairy sector is changing. It’s a really diverse sector in the UK with all types of different systems, technologies, sizes, so this feels like an important time to think about dairy farming. I’m Irish as well, and Ireland has a more extensive dairy system in general than the UK, with lower milk yields and cows spending more time on grass, so I’m interested in the comparison. People seem to object to cows being housed all year around more so than pigs or chickens, so I’m interested in why that is as well. The image of cows grazing in a grass field is such an iconic image of the countryside.

 Describe your show in 3 words

Talk about milk

 Why should the unenlightened Fringe-goer attend your show? What will they learn?

They’ll get the chance think more about how their food is produced and discuss the different sides of the argument. They’ll be challenged and hopefully exposed to a lively debate.


Get your tickets here!:

The Stand

Ed Fringe