Since the very first food pyramid, milk has been hailed as one of the most natural, nutritious foods there is. But, have you ever stopped to think how natural drinking another mammal’s milk really is?
And is it really as good for us as it’s made out to be, even before the hormones and antibiotics are thrown into the mix? Are the pain and suffering that cows and calves go through, the blood and pus levels in every bottle, and the links to cancer really worth it? All this, before we even consider the ethics of stealing milk from cows in the first place.
In November this year, Cape Town will be hosting the International Dairy Foundation’s World Dairy Summit, at which dairy leaders from around the world are expected to gather to discuss ways of “meeting the needs of tomorrow’s consumers”.1 It’s time to ask whether the milk industry is simply doing its best to meet consumer demand for a food that “we cannot live without”, or if it is perpetuating one of the biggest myths of all time.
First things first, what is milk exactly? Milk is a specialised food, produced by a lactating female mammal, to protect the newly born infant by supplying concentrated antibodies that will counter disease until its immune system is fully functional, and thereafter to also ensure rapid growth until the young are more independent. The milk we purchase from supermarket fridges and shelves is defined as “the normal mammary gland secretion obtained from lactating cows of the bovine species”.
Researchers at Bristol University in the United Kingdom have shown that these “cows of the bovine species” have a strong, complex emotional life, feeling pain, fear and anxiety. They are not only aware of their surroundings, but have sensations and thoughts. They even form friendships with one another. However, in order to obtain low-cost milk at high yields, with optimal efficiency to satisfy demand, the humble dairy cow has been turned into a piece of machinery, whose sole purpose in life is to produce milk.
The global demand for milk is so great that it has created a number of environmental and animal welfare problems. The genetic manipulation of cows for milk production efficiency has resulted in high-yielding breeds that produce more than 10 times the milk that they would ordinarily. These cows have lifespans five times shorter than that of the average non-factory farmed dairy cow and most cows don’t make it past three lactations because the genetic component responsible for high milk yields is also positively correlated with the incidences of lameness, mastitis, and reproductive and metabolic disorders. “Long-term genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows,” concluded a report from the European Food Safety Authority on the welfare of dairy cows.
As a result, dairy farmers have to choose between maintaining and treating cows with health problems or culling them. More and more, cows are simply not coping with the amount of milk they are being forced to produce, which has seen culling rates in the UK increase to between 18% and 35% per year.
Who’s milking it in South Africa?
In terms of gross value, the dairy industry is the fourth largest contributor to agricultural output in South Africa and provides work for more than 60 000 people. The dairy industry differentiates between milk producers and milk processors. Milk producers are the farmers who own and milk the cows, while milk processors are the companies responsible for getting the milk from the farmers, and onto supermarket shelves in its primary and secondary forms.
The Milk Producers’ Organisation (MPO), which is the leading agricultural producers’ organisation in the country, represents close to 2 500 milk producers. This may seem like a large number, but the milk industry is consolidating at a rapid rate. The number of milk producers has come down by 65% since 1997, while the number of milk processors has decreased by 53% since 2003. The Western Cape has the most milk producers (647) in the country, however, the Eastern Cape, with only 283 producers, has the highest average number of cows per producer (313), making it the number one milk producing province in the country, with an output of between 200 litres to 350 litres per square kilometre. In 2011, the total milk to market was 2 647 billion litres, up 0.4% from 2010. South African dairies produce around 220 million litres of milk per month, with each cow producing on average 18.5 litres per day.
The most significant role players in the dairy processing industry are Clover, DairyBelle (in which Standard Bank owns a 50% shareholding), Parmalat and Woodlands. Clover is the number one selling brand in South Africa for both fresh and UHT “long life” milk, holding 28.7% and 26.1% of the market share respectively. In April 2012, total dairy exports exceeded total imports by 20 million litres, with total exports eight million litres higher than total imports for the first quarter of 2012. All exports increased, with a sharp rise in exports of long life milk specifically.
In the October issue of Ethical Living, we look into all aspects of the milk industry in South Africa and inspect its ethical status. We also rate fridge-freezers available in South Africa and launch our new column on fair tourism, sponsored by Fairtrade in Tourism South Africa!
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