Mammals are named after their milk-producing glands, 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.
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. (Last week's Indy reported on the fate of Hillside Farms Inc. in Charlo.)
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 70 percent of Vermont's milk production.
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 containing rBGH. When large distributors 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 20 large industrial dairies, milking 1,500–7,000 cows each, produce roughly 40 percent of the nation's organic milk. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) repeatedly looked the other way as large corporate agribusinesses violated federal standards while jumping on the organic bandwagon.
On July 16 in West Salem, Wisc., nearly 200 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 75 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 33 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 2 percent of the national output. Fed soy-rich diets, as most large dairy herds are, cows belch methane, which traps 20 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 tit 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 artisan products like cheese or yogurt, perhaps there's a place for delicacies like a splash of cream in your coffee, or a pad of butter in your mushrooms. But the days of standing in front of the open fridge chugging milk from the carton are over.
Ask Ari: Egging us on
Q: Dear Ari,
Our little flock of backyard chickens just started laying, and now I'm looking for a way to cook the eggs that doesn't hide the flavor with spices and vegetables, like a frittata does. I'm looking for a simple recipe that highlights their bright yellow yolks and creamy flavor.
A: Welcome to the world of egg snobbery. I feel bad for anyone who invites you over for breakfast, if they don't have their own flock. Ditto for the restaurant servers who bring you a three-egg breakfast, and anyone else within earshot. Everyone's going to have to listen to how yellow the yolks are in Chicken Farmer's daily masterpieces.
Hopefully you won't be as bad as I once was, so high on my eggs that one morning, craving the corned beef hash at the Hob Nob, I brought over three eggs, handed them to the cashier, and asked to have them cooked into the order.
And guess what? As you suggested in your question, it was difficult to discern the fabulousness of my eggs amid the deliciousness of the corned beef hash. All I really gained was another notch in my well-deserved reputation as a snob.
My favorite way to cook good eggs is the minimal scramble. Heat a medium-sized pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil and beat your desired quantity of eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, but before the oil starts to smoke, add your eggs. Watch them spread out flat and sputter. Wait 15 seconds, until the edges start to cook. Then stir it minimally with a spatula, just to make sure there's no sticking. Wait 10 seconds and do it again. Then kill the heat, stir it one more time, and let the remaining pan heat finish the job. For a demonstration of this simple procedure, I've posted a video at www.flashinthepan.net.
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