The Ethical Hedonist: The Better Butter Battle

Every week, my housemates and I endeavor to comfortably seat 14 people across four couches in our living room for as long as it takes us to discuss the week’s affairs. Meetings can involve anything from divvying up chores to planning camping trips to discussing why your shampoo seems to be magically disappearing between uses. Our most onerous discussions, however, are almost always centered on the food we’re currently buying. If it’s not a half-hour debate over whether to buy one stalk of celery or two, it’s a straw poll on whether or not we should be buying or making almond milk.

These discussions are important, as we buy and consume this food together and must therefore agree not only upon what we eat but also what we support ethically. Most things shake out in the end. For now we buy two stalks of celery and almond milk — only if almonds are not on sale. One item we still haven’t figured out, though, is butter.

Butter and milk are the only non-vegan items we’ve purchased as a house in my time living at the co-ops, and in the last two years that list has been narrowed simply to milk. Butter, like milk, has some relatively common vegan alternatives, most of them centering around safflower or palm oil.

Safflower oil — the main ingredient in the popular butter substitute, Saffola — is an excellent oil to cook with, but the partial hydrogenation process required to solidify it into a butter substitute alters its fat structure and creates triglycerides which have been linked to cardiovascular disease and strokes.

Palm oil’s cost is not to the consumer, but rather the environment it’s harvested from. Much like corn in the U.S., palm oil has become a cash crop in Africa, Central America and Eastern Asia. The highest levels of palm oil production right now are coming out of Indonesia and Malaysia, each of which are displacing indigenous tribes and the fauna — most notably, the orangutans — that live there. Thus, the incredibly popular vegan butter option, Earth Balance, the main ingredient of which is palm oil, must also be called into question.

Then again, butter from cow’s milk has some obvious draw backs of its own. Beyond the question of whether or not it’s ethical to keep a cow in an unnatural state of constant lactation, industrial dairies are far from bucolic scenes of frolicking livestock — despite what the Happy Cow campaign may tell you. In fact, in the days when farmers milked their own cows and sold to only their neighbors, milk was neither produced nor sold in the winter months when their cows were unable to graze on fresh grass, and butter and cheese were made as ways of preserving milk through these periods.

These days, no one questions the availability of milk year-round and “the average dairy cow on industrial farms produces roughly 20,000 pounds of milk a year — 10 times more than she’d normally produce to feed a calf,” according to Marlene Halverson, Senior Animal Welfare Policy advisor at Farm Forward. This scale of production comes with a number of physical problems for the cows as well, including lameness, utter infection and incredibly premature death as their “healthy” milk production ends within a period of two to three years rather than the 10-20 they would have had living as a productive member of a heard instead of a mooing milk machine.

So what now? The way I see it, we have a few options.

The truly committed can forgo butter (or its assorted substitutes) altogether, utilizing oil in the occasional baked good, but recognizing that croissants will probably never be the same again.

The more industrious of us may endeavor to make our own butter with obscure oils and even more obscure emulsifiers — all of which you’re likely to find at the Davis Food Co-op should you be truly interested in this option.

And for the rest of us, the ethical hedonists out there with enough socioeconomic privilege to “vote with our dollar,” perhaps we buy from smaller, local dairies whose cows likely still produce year-round but do enjoy fresh air outside a feed lot and live to see the age of ten.

HILLARY KNOUSE drinks locally sourced, raw milk with her S’mores Pop-Tarts, every morning. Email your questions, concerns and dinner date offers to hkknouse@ucdavis.edu.

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