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Milk and dairy products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in Aylmer, Que., on May 26.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Pamela Fergusson is a registered dietitian with a PhD in nutrition who runs her virtual private practice from her home in Nelson, B.C. Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and animal advocate.

High inflation is on Canadians’ minds, and dairy milk prices are part of the problem. Since January, the price of dairy milk in Canada has increased by 25 per cent, and come Sept. 1, Canadian dairy farmers will be getting paid even more for their product – 2.5 per cent, on top of February’s 8.4-per-cent hike. Yet demand has not been as high in recent years, with dairy milk sales in decline in Canada in proportion to population growth.

Now, at least one dairy producer appears to be taking heed of these headwinds: Lactalis Canada announced this month that it will be ceasing dairy milk production at its facility in Sudbury, Ont., by the end of September, so it can switch over to plant-based products.

Perhaps all Canadians should consider doing the same.

Despite what years of well-funded dairy marketing has told us, humans don’t actually need dairy. Dairy milk is produced by cows to feed their young; that milk is designed to nourish and grow a baby calf, just as human breast milk is designed to nourish and grow a baby human. But for many decades, dairy was a unique food group within Canada’s Food Guide, and Canadians were encouraged to get two to three servings each day to help meet our nutrient requirements.

That changed with the most recent version of the food guide, which was based on a scientific review of the evidence, apparently without input from lobbyists from the animal agriculture and food industries. Now, dairy milk and dairy products are categorized among other high-protein foods as only one option, and not as a requirement. The Food Guide now encourages Canadians to choose plant-based sources of protein more often.

In fact, dairy consumption has been found to be associated with some health risks. For example, Health Canada advises that we limit our intake of saturated fat to decrease our risk of chronic disease, and while many of us may think of meat when we think of saturated fat, dairy is also a leading source. A diet high in saturated fat increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer (including prostate cancer, according to a recent study), which are among the leading causes of death for Canadians.

Dairy milk production also comes with heavy environmental consequences. Despite well-produced TV commercials showcasing Earth-loving dairy farmers promising to go net-zero by 2050, the eco-footprint of dairy production remains significant. “Although dairy production in Canada has become more efficient through intensification, it still has significantly higher impacts than plant-based alternatives across all metrics,” explains Nicholas Carter, a Canadian ecologist and the co-founder of PlantBasedData.org. “It causes at least three times as much greenhouse gas emissions, uses around 10 times as much land, up to 20 times as much freshwater, and creates much higher levels of water pollution.”

And there remain concerns about animal welfare when it comes to dairy production. While some Canadians may still believe that cows just naturally make milk, the truth is that just like humans, cows have to give birth in order to lactate. Those babies are removed from their often-distressed mothers soon after birth, so the calves don’t steal the product being devoted to humans. Then, unless they are funnelled into milk production themselves, those babies are either briefly raised for veal or killed on the spot. And when the mothers can no longer keep up with all the artificial insemination, birthing, and milk-producing, they too are typically shipped off to be slaughtered.

Though milk does contain nutrients that humans need, such as protein and calcium, those nutrients are not unique to dairy, and can be easily found in other foods. For example, a cup of dairy milk provides about 8 grams of protein, which is the same as 2 tbsp of peanut butter, a half-cup of lentils, or a quarter of a block of tofu. Similarly, a quarter-cup of chia seeds, two cups of cooked greens such as bok choy or collards, or one cup of calcium-fortified plant-based milk all provide as much or more calcium than a cup of dairy milk. And according to a July report from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, these plant-based milks have now reached average-price parity with dairy milk in Canada.

It appears many signs are now pointing to the decline of dairy milk in Canada. For the health of Canadians, our planet and the animals, that is a very good thing.

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