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Flash in the Pan

Dairy at a major crossroads

—Ari LeVaux

Mammals are named after their milk-producing glands. They developed as a way to feed babies, but only humans continue drinking mammary secretions after infancy—and no other species drinks the milk of another. Today, dairy consumption is at the center of several interconnected social, economic, and health crises. Maybe it’s time to reconsider our relationship with dairy.

“Every time the milk truck pulls in, more money leaves the farm,” says Philip Ranny, a seventh-generation Vermont dairy farmer so in debt he’s decided to sell his herd. Across the country, dairy farmers are going bankrupt, cashing in their IRAs and selling their herds to slaughter because crashing prices have left them earning less for their milk than it costs to produce it.

While wholesale prices have dropped by half, retail prices have remained relatively steady. That’s been good business for distributors like Dean Foods, which controls about seventy percent of Vermont’s milk production. Dean’s dairy subsidiary reported $182 million in operating income in the first quarter of 2009, thirty-nine percent more than it earned in the first quarter of 2008, when wholesale milk prices were still strong.

Increased supply and decreasing demand are both weighing on the price. One factor that affects both sides of the equation is rBGH, a genetically-engineered hormone that’s injected into cows to boost milk production. While rBGH contributes to production gains, it has limited demand in export markets like Canada and the European Union, which ban milk from rBGH cows in deference to health concerns.

Milk from rBGH-treated cows is so controversial even Monsanto got out of the business (selling the patent to drug maker Eli Lilly). The hormone causes increased levels of carcinogenic Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) in milk. Due to domestic consumer rejection of rBGH milk, many retailers, like Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill, have pledged not to use products treated with rBGH. When large distributers pool milk from rBGH and non-rBGH cows, the whole lot is disqualified from export.

Public fear of rBGH has helped sales of organic milk, which is required by law to be rBGH-free. But organic dairies have problems of their own.

About twenty large industrial dairies, milking fifteen hundred to seven thousand cows each, produce roughly forty percent of the nation’s organic milk. Under the Bush administration, the USDA repeatedly looked the other way as large corporate agribusinesses violated federal standards while jumping on the organic bandwagon.

The poster child for this regulatory failure is Aurora Farms, which operates five factory farms in Colorado and Texas and supplies store-brand organic milk to Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway, Costco, and other national chains. In 2007, Aurora was found by USDA investigators to have “willfully” violated numerous organic regulations, but the company faced appallingly mild sanctions—no fines were levied—from USDA appointees who rejected staff recommendations calling for revocation of Aurora’s organic certification.

On July 16 in West Salem, Wisconsin, nearly two hundred organic dairy farmers and their supporters gathered at the La Crosse County Fair seeking the attention of one of the fair’s marquee attendees, USDA chief Tom Vilsack. They urged Vilsack to take action against factory farms that are saturating the organic market with non-organic milk, taking advantage of organic’s price premium without incurring the expense of following the rules, which include feeding certified organic grain to their cattle.

“I commit to you that we will enforce the rules,” Vilsack told the crowd. But even if Vilsack appoints himself the guardian angel of organic dairy, the elephant in the room will continue farting its dairy-fueled stink-bombs.

A recent episode of The Diane Rehm Show, a nationally broadcast left-leaning radio program, assembled a politician, a dairy industry advocate, a farm advocate, and a USDA undersecretary to discuss the problems facing dairy. Most of the conversation focused on federally-funded industry bailout options, but one caller made a futile attempt to frame the problem in a larger context. Voicing concerns that milk isn’t good for adults and that dairy production creates a lot of greenhouse gas, she was disconnected mid-sentence.

After a moment of audible snickers from the guests, Ruth Saunders of the International Dairy Foods Association gave a limp response: “The dietary guidelines for Americans have always had as one of their key recommendations three daily servings [of dairy].”

Saunders didn’t mention that those recommendations exist largely because of intensive lobbying efforts by organizations like hers. Scientific research that’s not in the pocket of Big Dairy tells a different story. According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “approximately seventy-five percent of the world’s population loses the ability to completely digest lactose after infancy.” Harvard researcher Ganmaa Davaasambuu has noted that dairy intake correlates with ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and other so-called “hormone-dependent” tumors. She speculates this is because of the high levels of estrogen in cows’ milk, especially in milk from pregnant cows, which are routinely milked in large dairy operations, and have as much as thirty-three times the estrogen in their milk as non-pregnant cows.

The disconnected caller also had a valid point about the cattle industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, which constitute two percent of the national output. Fed soy-rich diets, as most large dairy herds are, cows belch methane, which traps twenty times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide does.

The dairy crisis is creating some heartbreaking stories on the family farm, but there are other ways to make a living off the land—and maybe federal price support money could be better spent re-tooling dairy farms, instead of propping up an industry that’s too big. Despite what the food pyramid says, we don’t need milk after we’re babies. Maybe it’s time to wean ourselves from the cow teat and grow up.

Shy of quitting cold turkey, we might consider limiting our dairy consumption to special occasions, rather than relying on them as a daily staple. If we return the dairy industry to its small-scale, alfalfa-fed roots, where producers have personal and respectful relationships with their animals and make fine artisanal products like cheese or yogurt, perhaps there’s a place for delicacies like a splash of cream in your coffee, or a pat of butter in your mushrooms. But the days of standing in front of the open fridge chugging milk from the open carton are over.

Ari LeVaux lives in Placitas where he writes his nationally syndicated column Flash in the Pan.

 

     

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