Milk & eggs

You'd think by now I'd know better than to get sucked into another discussion with that same old "advocacy group dedicated to promoting ethical, sustainable and responsible farming." (What they mean is vegan.)

The topic was keeping cows in barns and drinking milk. Several sharp young farmers were also involved but I suspect that they went away frustrated, as is often the case when talking turkey with zealots.

Despite my strong belief in Agvocacy, getting involved with the members of such groups is usually a waste of time, not to mention bad for your blood pressure. Through painful drubbings over the years I have learned to be short on sharing opinions with turkey talkers, and long on links to scientific studies.

It is harder for them to offer refuting proof against a scientific study than it is to come up with straw man arguments.

Thus, when they got to lecturing the dairy farmers about how humans are the only mammals to drink milk after infancy, so we oughta get rid of all our cows and raise broccoli, I tossed 'em a link to an article in Slate magazine. The piece credits our ability to drink milk into adulthood with being a significant factor in humankind's construction of western civilization as we know it.

That's a pretty big claim, but scientists believe that a mutation allowing the digestion of lactose by humans cropped up around 10,000 BC, probably near what is now Turkey. Unlike most mutations, which tend to spread slowly, this one was said in the article to spread in "an evolutionary eye blink" until between 80 and 100 percent of Europeans became able to drink milk beyond childhood.

Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist with the University of London, was quoted in the article, "A 'high selection differential' is something of a Darwinian euphemism. It means that those who couldn't drink milk were apt to die before they could reproduce. At best they were having fewer, sicklier children. That kind of life-or-death selection differential seems necessary to explain the speed with which the mutation swept across Eurasia and spread even faster in Africa. The unfit must have been taking their lactose-intolerant genomes to the grave."

I wish I could share the whole article with you, as I was able to with the activist group via a hyperlink, but it equated the ability to drink milk with the spread of people throughout what is now Europe and beyond.

The vegan folks replied, "You have studies, we have studies," although they didn't cite any, and certainly the dairy study didn't change their minds. However, perhaps it did so for a few of the others reading the dialog, who weren't categorically opposed to eating meat and drinking milk.

Another study, this time by Bristol University, U.K., showed that the seniors who drank the most milk as children walk faster and are less likely to experience age-related balance problems in later years. Personally, I credit a lifetime of drinking milk for saving me from broken bones when I was resoundingly kicked by a cow this week. The family heard the resulting crack all around the barn and came running. I had to spend a few minutes leaning on the wall and groaning, but all bones are still intact and functional. Thank you, milk.

Feedstuffs provided another heaping helping of supporting science on the influence of diet on the minds of the aging. To synopsize, 1,230 people ages 70 to 89 were asked about their dietary habits during the year prior to the beginning of the study; 940 of them, who showed no cognitive impairment at that time, were invited back for re-evaluation. In four years, those who ate the most fat were significantly less likely to experience mental degeneration, 42 percent over those who ate the least. Those who consumed the most protein saw 21 percent lower risk.

"When total fat and protein intake were taken into account, people with the highest carbohydrate intake were 3.6 times likelier to develop mild cognitive impairment," concluded the article.

Interestingly, the study was not conducted by an agricultural group, but rather by the National Institute on Aging, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Then there is the study on chicken housing, also shared by Feedstuffs. As you crack an egg on the edge of the stove and slide its golden goodness into sizzling butter, while toast perfumes the air with delicious breadlyness, you are probably not thinking about the chicken that laid it.

However, activists are eager to take care of that for you and have convinced many egg companies to move away from cages for hens and toward ever more free and spacious housing for them. As always with such well-meaning actions, the devil is in the details, and the law of unintended consequences rarely fails. Thus the data from Flock One of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) Laying Hen Housing Research shows that all is not necessarily rosy for hens removed from conventional cage housing and placed in aviary housing. This, by the way, means a barn or shed in the language of ordinary folks.

Hen mortality during the length of the study was much higher in the loose housing than in confined settings. This was mostly because chickens love to fight. The whole concept of pecking order is based on their behavior. The top hen picks on everybody, the next one below her picks on everybody but her, and so on until the bottom of the order, where everybody picks on the lowest hen. After she is pecked to death, they continue the game on the next lowest one, etc.

However, since chickens are perceived to be better off when they are uncaged, perhaps we should construe that they died happy.

Aviary housing also produced significantly more dust and ammonia than conventional housing, requiring greater ventilation.

As you can see, however you like your eggs or milk or western civilization, one thing is certain. Somebody has a study for that.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs