Humans have a lot to learn from cows, according to Werner Lampert, an organic farming and sustainability expert in Austria and the author of a new book called The Cow.
Cows embody benevolence and live in harmony with those around them, only taking what they need to survive and approaching the world with a gentle curiosity.
If humans approached the world in similar ways, the global environment would begin to regenerate. After all, mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss really is as simple as living in harmony with ecology. Doing so would also help eliminate poverty and all of its causes and consequences — all arbitrary, manufactured problems, as Nelson Mandela once observed.
But cows have lost their status as companions in many parts of the world, according to Lampert. They’re not just overlooked, they’re actively harmed by human systems. Most cows live on “factory farms,” where they’re abused and killed for their meat and skin.
In the US alone, 41 million cows are killed annually by factory farms, operations that release enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, while polluting local environments, according to the National Humane Education Society.
Ending the global reliance on factory farms is key to building a more sustainable future and countless people are working toward this goal.
Werner Lampert, Photo © Peter Meyer
Lampert is a leading voice in this space, and The Cow is a glorious tribute to cows and humanity’s relationship to them, featuring more than 480 photos of cows from around the world.
“Did you know that when a person forms a close bond with a cow, both beings produce oxytocin?” Lampert told Global Citizen. “Just like in a human-to-human relationship. Isn’t that fascinating? I cannot emphasize it enough: cows are genius, endowed by Creation with the capacity to be our readymade companions.”
Lampert recently discussed his love for cows, his ideas around organic farming, and his hopes for the future in an interview with Global Citizen.
Global Citizen: What drew you to cows from an early age?
Werner Lampert: I was fortunate to grow up in the Alps, where my grandparents had a farm. Cows played many important roles in my life. To me they were companions, therapists, partners in crime, and much more. I was out with cows the first time I smoked lianas, which made me really ill, by the way. When my heart was broken for the first time, I told the cows. I even used to read them poems or sing songs to them and pretend to be a young man of the world. Cows are incredibly gentle, they made me feel strong and protected.
How has closely observing and befriending cows changed your life?
Cows taught me that animals have souls, they can feel joy and pain. How we treat our animals tells [us] a lot about ourselves. If we ignore animal suffering, we harm our own souls. When I see a cow, I always have to think of the French researcher Claude Levi-Strauss. At the end of his life, he was asked if there was something he hadn’t achieved in life. His answer was that he would have loved to talk to an animal. As that would have given him so many different insights into life.
What do you want people to take away from The Cow?
I would like people to understand that there is a strong bond between people and cows all over the world. But we are running the risk of losing this bond for good. It’s terrible, how cows have been reduced to mere objects, producing meat mountains and milk lakes. They offer so much more to us. They have lived in an almost symbiotic relationship with us. Did you know that when a person forms a close bond with a cow, both beings produce oxytocin? Just like in a human-to-human relationship. Isn’t that fascinating? I cannot emphasize it enough: cows are genius, endowed by Creation with the capacity to be our readymade companions.
Without cattle, our lives won’t come to an end, but they will be much, much poorer. A sense of that is what I would like to convey to you.
What is your approach to organic farming? What principles do you strive to uphold?
Together with my team I defined eight core principles for organic farming many years ago, they are still valid today.
They are: climate and nature conservation, animal welfare, authentic origin, food quality, transparency, no GMOs, fairness toward consumers, fairness toward producers.
Everybody talks about “farm to fork” these days as if it was a new revelation. We have been practicing this principle of transparency for decades. Our company [Werner Lampert Beratungs GmbH] makes produce traceable along the value chain from the farm to the home of consumers. That way consumers know where their food comes from. We portray the farmers on our website. Our produce is not anonymous; it has a face, a heart, and a soul. Sometimes consumers even go for a drive in the countryside and visit the farms. We love to hear heartwarming stories like that.
When it comes to the farmers, we ensure that they receive fair prices for their organic produce and we strive to enter long term commitments with them, so that they can plan ahead. This way they don’t have to worry about the future and can focus on what they are best at: producing good quality organic food.
Hence, for us it is important to link organic farming to transparency and sustainability. This boosts resilience of economies and ecosystems, which is elemental in facing the great challenges of mankind.
What are your thoughts on the factory farming of livestock such as cows?
It is a cruel and inacceptable way of treating animals. For example, a century ago, the average milk yield of a cow was about 2,000 kilograms per year and the life span of that cow was about 20 to 25 years. Today, the milk yield in the USA is up to 16,000 kilograms per year. The working life of a dairy cow is just 2.5 lactation periods. I think these numbers tell the whole story.
Cows, which have accompanied man for thousands of years across continents, through history and through great hardship, are treated like a disposable product in factory farms. We have to break with this factory farming, radically and immediately.
Most people realize that cows are gentle, loving creatures — yet many overlook the treatment of cows by factory farms. Why do you think that is?
Unfortunately, I don’t think that most people realize how magnificent cows are. There are children out there who don’t even know that milk comes from cows. So how can we blame them for not caring? Our food production, especially factory farming, is mostly happening behind closed doors. Hidden away, far away from our lives.
But every now and then people are exposed to the horrors happening at those factory farms. And then they change their habits. Some for good and some only for a little while. It takes courage to say, “Enough is enough,” and to act differently to colleagues, family members, or friends.
But the change is coming. If systems — that humans have created — are driven past their tipping points, they can flip with astonishing speed.
How can people support the welfare of cows?
It may sound like a cliché but as consumers we have the power. Every day, we get to choose what we buy and what we eat. And with each pound or dollar, we cast our vote for or against animal welfare.
To all consumers out there, I would like to say: Every one of your shopping trips counts. Please make sure that the dairy products and the meat you consume come from cows that had the freedom to graze on pasture. Don’t buy products from cows that were kept in factory farms and that were fed with soy, corn, or any fodder that is not natural for the species.
I get it, organic milk and meat are more expensive, but if we consume less of it, it pays off — for ourselves, for the planet, and last but not least for the animals. We don’t have to eat meat every day. We can easily go back to eating meat once or twice per month. The planet cannot support more than that. Our meat mania has to stop.
How can a return to organic farming and sustainable livestock management help protect the planet?
Organic farming by itself cannot save the planet, it has to be a combined effort. The change starts with us. We have to change our eating habits and have to stop wasting all that food. Organic farming isn’t perfect, but it is the best we’ve got. It is the closest we get to a sustainable ecosystem. The organic way of farming builds our soils and treats animals and ecosystems with respect.
My company, for example, launched a pilot project, where dairy and vegetable farms try to prove that it is possible to be carbon neutral without any carbon offsets. To achieve this, the pioneer farmers make long-term changes in the management of their farm. They grow organic soil matter and forests on their land. That is sustainability as it should be.
Technology and emission trading won’t save us. The problem has to be tackled at its roots and that is right at the start of the food value chain.
At the moment, organic agriculture is our best opportunity to face the climate and biodiversity crisis, we should embrace it with both hands.