Milk milk everywhere but not a drop to drink

By Guest Author 20/10/2011

By Professor Jack Heinemann, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury

Kiwis are drinking less milk but making more of it.

cowsBetween 1995 and 2007, the amount of milk consumed by New Zealanders decreased 28% or 21 kilograms/capita/year (kg/capita/yr). The proportion of the food budget going to milk also decreased between 1993 and 2008.

What has caused this change in behaviour? The price of milk has been a topic of intense discussion in New Zealand. Could production problems, price rises, relative decreases in earning power, the availability of milk alternatives or a change in lifestyle account for these observations?

A decrease in production is not the explanation. New Zealand is the 8th largest producer of cow milk in quantity and value. Between 1995 and 2009, production increased 66%, over 6 million metric tons, and yield increased 14%, or 4000 hectograms/animal (Hg/An), to 33,427 Hg/An. Milk production in 1996 was 2,766 kg/person, and in 2009 it was 3,487 kg/person.

Other major producing countries tend to drink more, not less milk. Germany decreased production of milk by 2% and domestic supply increased by 2 kg/capita/yr. The USA increased domestic supply by the same amount and production by 22%. Russia decreased production by 17% and increased supply by 28 kg/capita/yr. Only France and India saw declines in domestic supply between 1995 and 2007 of 31 and 1 kg/capita/yr, respectively.

Did we used to consume a great excess of milk and now are simply more prudent? Unlikely. Relative to other major milk producing countries we are not extremely high milk consumers. In 1995 we used 75 kg/capita. In 2007 China used 27, India 41, Germany 70, Australia 116, Russia 125 and the USA 128 kg/capita. We never were high per capita users compared to other dairy nations, and there are indications that some sectors of New Zealand society can access too little milk.

Addicted to cream.

Throw into this mix that our largest company is the dairy cooperative Fonterra. Provided that demand keeps prices for milk (or milk solids) outside of New Zealand high, then more farms and infrastructure shift to supporting the production of milk. This in turn leads to more export earnings from milk. According to Fonterra, New Zealand exports 95% of its dairy production.

The number of dairy farms is decreasing, from nearly 17,000 in 1994 to under 13,000 in 2005. 40% more land was converted to dairy farming in 2005 than in 1980. The size of the remaining farms and herds, and concentration of cows is growing, reflecting intensification of the sector. The number of cows/Ha increased 86% between the early 1980s and 2005. With intensification of the means of production comes intensification of political and economic power.

The decline in domestic milk availability at a time of record dairy export earnings is worrying. It suggests that the economic feedback loop on dairy is so powerful that it can deprive New Zealanders of milk. Sure we are not starving. But if circumstances were different – say if the price of milk were to fall, a disease or toxic contaminant tainted world opinion of our milk, or the price of other foods, fuel or fertilizer were to rise faster – would we have the reserves to finance a shift out of dairy and still feed ourselves? Could we find different export dollars to buy in for our basic needs?

Where have I seen this before?

Similar trends can be seen in Argentina. Between 1980 and 2009, soybean production expanded from just over 2 million hectares (Ha) to nearly 17 million. The rate of conversion to soybean monoculture went exponential around 1996. Strikingly, it was also during this period that Argentina’s food security (measured in dietary energy, kcal, per person) statistics made a dramatic change. Averaged over the years 1990-1997, the annual change in dietary energy was increasing 0.9%. Averaged over the period 1995-2002, the annual dietary energy available decreased 0.1%, and accelerated to -0.9% per year from 2000-2007, the date of the latest statistics. The food deficit of the undernourished was increasing by an annual 1.4%.

In contrast, countries such as Brazil and Chile who are pulling themselves out of poverty, have had similar rates of change in dietary energy supply, but all positive.

Argentina is in a feedback spiral where export income from cash crops, particularly soybean, have altered its fundamental agricultural landscape and economy. Caught in a ratchet that moves in only one direction, as prices for these crops plummet the country lacks the deep resources needed to change direction. When the prices are high, as they were relatively from 1998-2007, the country not only lacks the will to plan for change, the rachet’s lock of investment, infrastructure and concentrated wealth resists diversification.

Perhaps the problem is that New Zealand is too good at making milk. The more we make the more we can sell — on the world market. An irony of history is that ’even in the face of some of humanity’s most famous famines, food was exported away from the famine victims’ (Vandermeer and Perfecto, 2007). Would New Zealand be able to drink its own milk if we had too little to go around, or would we be trapped in a noose tightened by a rachet that forced us to sell milk only to buy nourishment back?

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