The U.S. milk campaign “Got Milk” is famous for featuring stars from Beyoncé to Beckham. But milk seems to be on its way out, as Western consumers are turning to plant-based alternatives. The fact that health and environmental damage are now linked to an animal-source diet is changing the minds of consumers. Meanwhile, China is planning to triple its milk consumption and is still advertising milk as a necessity for big and strong children. The white gold tells us the story of modernization and the globalization of diets, of developing countries moving up the food chaintowards animal-source food and of wealthier consumers developing a meaningful consumption lifestyle.
Historically, milk was restricted to local consumption. A variety of dairy products are indigenous to different cultures, such as in India. But milk used to be hard to transport and keep fresh and often carried bacteria and diseases. Modernity changed this. Urbanization, industrialization, and scientific and technological progress made it possible to scale milk production and produce dairy products with a longer shelf-life. Expanding railway networks in the 19th century led to a revolution in milk production and supply. It kicked off the globalization of the dairy industry. However, aside from reflecting progress, convenience and efficiency, milk also represents the other face of modernity: the globalization of dairy led to environmental damage, to the loss of traditions (such as traditional, local dishes) and eventually to a global glut of milk in 2016.
As populations modernize and climb the socio-economic ladder, a shift in diet takes place, referred to as nutrition transition, that is also reflected in increased milk consumption. This nutrition transition entails moving up the food chain, away from diets largely based on locally grown grains and vegetable staples to ones with more processed foods and an increased animal-source food intake, and thus an increase in dairy products. This nutrition transition has been the main driver behind modern diseases such as obesity. Two phases of this nutrition transition are currently underway in the world and strikingly represented by two regions.
Today in China, milk is still an essential symbol of modern progress. In the five-year plan of the 13th Communist Party of China, shifting from small-scale herds to larger industrial factory farms to keep its population of 1.4 billion in milk is among the top priorities. The official dietary guidelines recommend that people eat triple the amount of dairy foods that they currently consume (that would still only be a third of the dairy the average European consumes). As we wrote before, the Chinese regime is deemed responsible for providing enough food for its population. If eating meat and drinking milk used to be an occasional luxury and the party accomplishes in making it more available to all, this is a sign of success and reinforces the legitimacy of the Party, making milk a tool for propaganda. Also, the Great Famine is still in the collective memory of the Chinese people and milk is considered a nutritious staple food. More than being a sign of wealth and a source of essential nutrients, milk has a modern and Western appeal to the Chinese.
The belief that Westerners are taller and stronger because they eat more meat and dairy is wide-spread, driven by state-sponsored advertising for domestic dairy products. To increase milk consumption, the state pushed for the modernization of farms and also started to raise new generations of milk drinkers by advising parents to give their children milk to make them lactose tolerant. Over the last decades, the Chinese diet has been transformed with extraordinary speed and the country is already the world’s third largest milk producer. The relatively new milk habit and ever-growing demand come with the problems that the next phase of the nutrition transition is known for: overweight and environmental concerns. China simultaneously has to deal with undernutrition and overnutrition. And tripling the nation’s consumption would have a huge environmental cost.
In Western countries, large volumes of dairy are no longer a sign of progress but of a broken modern food system. Continued improvements in the efficiency of milk meant that countries went from heavily subsidizing dairy production to being stuck with oversupply. Milk lakes and butter mountains are a persistent problem to the EU. Milk’s reputation has also suffered, as consumers are aware of the health issues related to diets rich in animal-produce and of the environmental damage they cause. Scandals in factory farming and the monopoly of big agriculture have pushed them to look for alternatives. Where dairy used to be propagated as a force for good, freely available with school meals, and part of every diet, this is no longer the trend. Different plant-based milk alternatives continue to grow tremendously in popularity, while dairy farmers are seeing a significant decrease in demand.
The Western dairy-situation of overconsumption is by no means the logical next step in China’s path. Already, scaling production is no longer the only priority, due to the negative impact on water-supply and the large amount of soy that has to be imported for livestock feed. In China’s Go Out food strategy, milk can increasingly come from overseas. And as Western consumers are setting the trend of meaningful consumption of milk and meat alternatives, this might soon find a way to developing countries. If might even lead to renewed popularity of traditional beverages and dishes with soy milk among young Chinese consumers.