In the 1970s, a small group of feminists dusted off an obscure Old English word and disrupted the patriarchy in the process. By replacing the offending "e" with an empowering "y" in the word "women," the founders of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival took a stand against prevailing gender norms, sending the message that language is power, that words contain meaning both hidden and intended, and that even a single letter can be significant. "Womyn" remains in use to this day to signify an expression of female autonomy and a rejection of patriarchal linguistic norms.
Animal and environmental advocacy groups today are faced with a similar moment. In December, over two dozen congressmen sent a letter to the FDA urging it to enforce its own regulations and prohibit plant milk companies from using the word "milk" in their labels. Their argument is that allowing plant milk companies to use terms like "milk" is "misleading to consumers, harmful to the dairy industry, and a violation of milk's standard of identity." (The FDA defines the word "milk" as "the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.") In January, Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin introduced the Dairy Pride Act, which would update the U.S. Code's section on "misbranded food" to prohibit plant-based products from using terms such as "milk," "yogurt" or "cheese" on their labels.
The FDA is wise to have thus far declined to enforce its own outdated regulation and should consider updating it to reflect the reality that that milk does not only come from "healthy cows." The current regulation is at odds with the dictionary definition of "milk," which does not limit the word to animal-derived fluids but rather recognizes that the substance comes from plants as well. And as the Plant Based Foods Association pointed out in their response to the Dairy Pride Act, plant-based milks are currently properly labeled with their "common or usual name."
The swirling controversy around whether plant milk should be allowed to continue using the "milk" label raises another, more provocative, question: Is "milk" even a word worth fighting for?
"Mylk," like "womyn," is an Old English word that contains within it the opportunity to envision — and create — a different world. "Mylk" is free of the suffering that is bound up in "milk," the separation of calves from their mothers at birth or a few days of age, the confinement which for most animals in the dairy industry means that they never see the light of day or feel the earth below their hooves, and which always, even on "happy" organic farms, ultimately ends in death. "Mylk" is unencumbered by the history of animal abuse, exploitation and commodification that "milk" cannot escape. "Mylk" is not saddled with the same greenhouse gas emissions that weigh "milk" down and tether it to climate change.
The word "mylk" has long been used within the vegan community to signify plant milk. The practice is gaining wider and more commercial appeal, with a range of companies selling plant-milk products, like U.K.-based Rebel Kitchen, L.A.-based Renew Juicery Wellness, and Australian-based Loving Earth, currently using the term to describe the plant-based milk in their vegan beverages and chocolate bars.
Plant milk companies should not adopt "mylk" to avoid misleading consumers; as Emily Byrd from the Good Food Institute (GFI) recently wrote, "[c]onsumers are not buying plant-based milk because they have been tricked into believing they actually came from a cow." Rather, companies should adopt "mylk" because like the word "womyn," "mylk" offers a departure from a problematic history and association with exploitation and oppression. It signals to the consumer a different narrative about milk, bringing up the injustices, exploitation and suffering bound up in the history of the word "milk" and offering a different path forward.
Perhaps the best way for animal and environmental advocates to stand up to the dairy lobby and the FDA is to let cows keep their "milk," and to instead embrace the power of the "y." Fighting for the widespread adoption of "mylk" may be the most powerful way to signal a demand for a kinder, greener and less exploitative world.
Iselin Gambert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of legal writing at The George Washington University Law School, where she teaches courses in legal communication and rhetoric and runs the law school Writing Center. Tobias Linné (email@example.com) is associate professor at Lund University in Lund, Sweden, where he teaches courses in critical animal studies and is co-founder and director of the Lund University Critical Animal Studies Network.