Got ‘Underdeveloped’ Milk? – Part II

Milk - 32 flavours and then some.

Milk – 32 flavours and then some.

I’m growing fat and nourished on unprocessed milk these days whilst living in Uganda. 

I don’t have much of a choice, at least, not like I do in Canada when I go to the grocery store, and see shelves stacked with yellow, purple, blue and red plastic-capped jugs of milk, representing homogenized, 1%, 2%, skim, low-fat, “no-fat” and so forth.

Such choice can be overwhelming, especially when you start to taste on the Great Milk Debate, and ask questions about the dairy industry like “Where does my milk come from?” and you realize milk is far more processed, politicized and complicated than the classic images of the docile grazing cow and the glass of wholesome milk with cookies.

Myself, I grew up on Parmalat liters of 2%, 1% and Skim milk, and reading “Got Milk?” advertisements in Seventeen magazine. I didn’t think anything about the milk I drank until my mid-twenties when the son of an organic pork farmer from rural Alberta asked me, point blank, “Why don’t you just save your money and drink water?” after I told him I preferred skim milk. “You’re basically drinking water, after all.”

"Weak in the knees?"

“Weak in the knees?”

The more I learned about large-scale dairy farming, the more I realized that I didn’t have a very conscious, or informed choice about my brand of milk. In fact, it probably started in high school, from flipping through those stupid fashion magazines and admiring the celebrities and sports-stars with their thin, muscular bodies asking me “Got Milk?” and recommending three glasses of skim, low-fat, or no-fat milk a day.

Let’s just say I’ve changed a lot from the person I was in high school. And now I’m 110% okay about my butt getting bigger from drinking milk with some substance.

Post World War II, Winston Churchill used the expression “underdeveloped” to describe countries who had low economic productivity. That said, I want this article, and these rambling ideas on systems of milk production and distribution, to turn Winston’s words upside down their head.

These days in Uganda, I’ve come to realize that, considering all the indigestion caused by milk politics and money in “developed” countries, I much prefer my milk to be “underdeveloped”.

What are the risks of 192 Bessie's "confined" together in one barn?

What are the risks of 192 Bessie’s “confined” together in one barn?

Canadians are Drinking Milk from the Same Cow

Government regulations of milk production in Canada, hands down, favor the large-scale dairy operation, making the small dairy farm endangered, near extinct.

Getting into the milk business is expensive and capital-intensive.

Production of milk is regulated by provincial legislation, and a quick read through Alberta’s Dairy Act is enough evidence to see how challenging it would be for small-scale dairy production and processing operations to meet government requirements.

If you want to produce and sell milk in Alberta, you need to have a dairy barn with all the latest gadgets for producing “commercially sterile” milk. For this reason, it’s no surprise that Canada’s average dairy farm has a minimum of one-hundred cows.

My guess is that if you have one-hundred Bessie’s on the same farm, they aren’t enjoying ‘the good life’ on green pastures, but living inside what the industry calls the “confinement system”. 

Life inside the dairy barn is costly, not only for the cow to live an existence against her nature, but for the farmer who bears an enormous burden of buying off-farm agriculture inputs, including: grain, oats and supplements, and vaccinations and drugs (disease is highly monitored, especially when cows are highly susceptible to sickness because they’re living in close quarters).

The large-scale dairy farm also has a huge environmental (and human) cost. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that raising meat and dairy cattle produces more greenhouse gas emissions than pollution from motor vehicles. It’s also estimated it requires 255 liters of water to produce one 250 ml glass of milk. And speaking of water, it’s difficult to measure just how many watersheds have become contaminated due to the leakage of waste into waterways.

Grass-fed cows produce "low-impact" milk.

Grass-fed cows produce “low-impact” milk.

On the other hand, milk produced by pasture-raised cows has a significantly smaller footprint, and yet the current government regulation and legislation (not to mention the competition with larger operations when it comes to selling milk to the same large processing plant) makes it difficult for the small farmer.

So the majority of milk that Canadians are drinking is, metaphorically, from the same ‘large-scale dairy operation’ cow that is high input, high output – but not only in milk, but environmental waste and degradation. Large-scale farmers sell their milk to dairy processing plants (that are also highly government regulated).

“We produced milk and they just trucked it away and it was hard to know where it was used. It’s blended into the pool and some of it goes to bottled milk and some goes to cheese plants,” said Shep Ysselstein, a farmer from Woodstock, Ontario, who was featured in an article by The Globe and Mail (May 2013).

Shep’s words indicate that the dominant dairy system in Canada cuts off the farmer from the finished milk or dairy product, and most importantly, from the consumer.

“The dairy industry [in Canada] has become fragile because we’re investing in one particular way,” said Dr. Alan Fredeen, a professor at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (Truro, Canada) on Kootenay Coop Radio’s Deconstructing Dinner episode that focused on the ‘Deceivable Dairy’ industry. “We need to maintain diversity in [our] production systems,” Dr. Fredeen stressed, though he didn’t finish the implied question to follow – or else, what?

Cuba's dairy collapsed in 1989.

Cuba’s dairy collapsed in 1989.

Case Study from Cuba: Undoing “Development” – From Factory-Farms to Pastures

Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro & Co. had a lot to prove to the world about the social and economic potential of communism and the “New Socialist Man” – and so they set to work transforming Cuban society.

When it came to producing food, Fidel jumped on the “Green Revolution” bandwagon and wanted to “modernize” Cuba’s agriculture with fields of tractors, combines, sugarcane, coffee and banana processing plants, and large-scale dairy, chicken and pork farms. For the first twenty-some years, the “Green Machine” in Cuba was doing exactly what it was supposed to – produce a lot of food for consumption and export – largely because their ideological partners in the Soviet Union were footing the enormous bill for the “oil” (fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, livestock feeds, vaccinations and drugs) to make the machine “run” as it was designed.

Milk in Cuba was, most definitely, “developed” milk. From the 1960s to the 80s, Cuba’s dairy system looked a lot like Canada’s dairy system: large-scale farms with cows packed together in stalls, and fed on imported grains. It was high-input and high-output.

Fidel Castro even had a “Got Milk?” campaign (of-sorts) of his own. In the early 1980s, it wasn’t strange to see Fidel’s symbolic pride and joy featured on the front page of national newspapers – not a big hipped Cubana manguita (beautiful woman) with a milk moustache – but a dairy cow named “Ubre Blanca” (‘White Udder’) who had broken a Guiness World Record by producing 109.5 liters of milk on a single day in January 1982.

Fidel's companera, Blanca.

Fidel’s companera, Blanca.

Blanca, the Heifer-zebu (exotic-indigenous cross) hybrid dairy cow, became one of Fidel’s most cherished symbols of political propaganda, and he’d often reference her in speeches about communism’s superiority, with raised fists, “Viva!’s” and all.

Blanca’s death in 1985 should’ve been foreshadowing for Fidel and friends. Having produced over 24,000 liters of milk in 305 days, Blanca was given the proper “hero’s burial” with a full-length obituary and eulogy published in the Gramna and her body stuffed by taxidermists to be forever preserved in a climate-controlled container. Blanca’s milk was legendary – but nothing so sweet can last so long…

In 1989, Cuba’s “Green Machine” steam ran out. Completely. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was cut off, suddenly, from the oil and agriculture inputs that made Blanca famous. Cuba’s dairy industry crumbled to the ground. Blanca’s off-spring, along with ten million other cows, became ribs and bones and, eventually, carcasses on the ground – due to the lack of imported feedstuffs.

“Cuba was having to become self-sufficient,” commented Dr. Alan Fredeen on Deconstructing Dinner’s ‘Deceivable Dairy’ episode.

“They had been using a high input system to produce milk, and suddenly they had to convert to pasture systems…[but] Cuba had lost that knowledge.”

Fortunately, pasture-fed dairy cows, raised by Cuba’s iconic el guajiro (peasant farmer) and small family farms, were amongst the few survivors of the broken down machine. While the rest of the agricultural sector was scrambling in what Fidel was calling “The Special Period” – the cow on the small farm was grazing, as usual, and producing, not as much milk as Blanca, but her regular daily quota of what had become considered “white gold” on the milk-thirsty island country.

Small farmers survived.

Small farmers survived.

Cuba’s small-farm, which had been generally-speaking, left alone by Cuban officials,  provided “resilience” to the Green Revolution breakdown. Small-farms became training-sites where government agriculturalists, once again, returned to the land and “old ways” and began specializing in pasture management. This resilience helped Cuba to survive the crisis, and even acted as a stimulus for innovative research that’s now informing a global community about food security achieved through sustainable agriculture.

Today, Cuba has increased dairy production using a mixture of small-scale and larger-scale dairy farms, and is experimenting with grazing cows (and milk goats) on forested pastures (practicing agroforestry) to bolster milk production. Cuba continues to provide a national milk-feeding program for children, and works with cooperatives and small-farmers to supply schools, nurseries, nursing homes, and other social institutions with milk.

As for Blanca, her stuffed body (with in-tact udder) stands on, although Cuban scientists have been yet to successfully clone her frozen tissues samples.


Next week: Read Part III – How will Uganda’s milk industry “develop” down the road? “Green pastures forever?” Or more imported, “developed” (and UN-sustainable) production systems ahead? Which glass will be “more full”?

Sancti Spiritus farmer, Edinson, milking his goat "Blanca"

Sancti Spiritus farmer, Edinson, milking his goat “Blanca”

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