How Cows Are ‘Designed’ By Farmers And Social Values
Today’s cows farmed for meat and dairy have been selectively bred to produce more dairy and beef than ever before. Whereas in the mid 19th century, an individual cow was used for all types of commodities (dairy, meat, and leather), modern breeding has now established at least two varieties of cows – one for meat and another for dairy. Indeed, within each group, numerous breeds exist as the result of artificial insemination and other modern breeding technologies. Because breed differences explain approximately a third of genetic variation (at least in dogs), sociologists have argued the breeds are therefore a social construct. This means that the creation of breeds is a social practice that reflects the (human) breeder’s visions of what the animal should look like and what their purpose should be.
Focusing on Swedish cow breeds, researchers in Sweden analyzed trade magazines and websites of three different breeding associations to understand their decisions in preserving certain breeds. This also allowed them to explore the visions and expectations held by different breeding associations in terms of what a cow “ought” to be. Their analysis focussed on the Swedish Mountain Cattle, who are the most common local breed in Northern Sweden. Since other breeds produced more milk, this local breed has been outcompeted, which has resulted in a push among farmers to preserve and breed this particular cow. Doing so gave rise to the establishment of three different breeding associations and at least four subsequent ‘designs’ (breeds) of the Swedish Mountain Cattle. Each of these specific breeds entail different definitions and breeding goals, including whether these cows ought to have horns (or be hornless), whether they can be bred for meat (in addition to dairy), and whether their genes should be preserved (regardless if they can produce at a commercial level). All these values have changed over time too, further demonstrating how breeds are negotiated and thus socially constructed.
Furthermore, one shared belief found across the various breeding associations was that the Swedish Mountain Cattle is presumed to be the new cow of choice due to climate change. These associations understand that current animal agriculture is unsustainable, and they regard rare cow breeds as being more resilient to environmental changes. As a result of these future visions, the bodies of Swedish Mountain Cattle will continue to be modified as breeding associations implement new breeding goals to combat a more sustainable practice.
For animal advocates, since the creation of breeds reflects societal values, this means that the future of cow breeding might eventually be halted as societal attitudes shift. If society’s current attitude is about shaping “sustainable” breeds for the near future, then there may come a time that farmers adopt a more holistic, non-selective approach to animal farming, until a day when zero cows being bred into existence for human purposes. This is especially relevant as cell culture-derived meat and dairy are becoming a reality, in addition to the plethora of plant-based meats and nut milk and cheeses.