Australia is in the middle of a milk war. Our 2 major supermarket chains have dropped the price of milk to a dollar a litre – less than the price of a litre of bottled water or petrol. We consumers are faced with a dilemma: reaping the benefit of cheap prices, but with a nagging fear that, in the long run, this can’t last, and can’t be good for dairy farmers, let alone for dairy cows.
In Australia, milk is a staple, but humans (and domestic dogs and cats) are the only mammals to drink milk into adulthood, and not everyone in the world consumes dairy products. Milk contains lactose, a sugar, and most of the world is lactose intolerant.
Rates of intolerance are lowest in Western Europe (and in societies of European immigrants such as Australia and the Americas), moderate in Africa, and highest in Asia. (Interestingly, adult Asian cats are also lactose intolerant, but European cats are not.) Lactose intolerant people can often eat yogurt, which is a common product in the Middle East and Southern Europe, where levels of lactose intolerance are higher.
It makes sense in a nomadic society to milk your animals – cows, sheep, goats, camels or horses – because they can feed you without being killed! Bleeding animals, as the Masai do – and Scottish crofters did – is another more dramatic way of benefitting from your livestock while keeping them alive. The key is not to be greedy, not to bleed the animals to the point where they are too weakened to survive.
Which brings us back rather nicely to the big supermarket chains and their relationship with dairy farmers.
Dairy farming has always been hard work. In peasant Europe, milking the cows (or goats or sheep) was traditionally women’s work, and if the products – butter, cheeses, cream – were sold at the local market, the women benefited. (The pigs benefited too, from the whey.) Since women brought the only money into a subsistence household, they decided how that money was spent.
But only the hardest cheeses can travel any distance without deteriorating. In the 18th century, a small herd of cows in Green Park supplied milk to wealthy Londoners, but commercial dairying, especially bulk milk supplies, had to wait for the development of longer, faster transport routes to reach the larger markets. Normandy was already sending butter and cheeses to Paris along the Seine by the early 19th century, but usually it took canals and railways for specialised dairying areas to develop. As dairying became commercial, men took over its management, if not the workload.
Dairying is not just hard; the hours are implacable. Cows without calves must be milked, twice a day, or they will go dry. We expect milk on the table every day of the year, but nature has seasons that only the cheese makers remember: milk has most butterfat in the spring, when there are new born calves to feed.
In Australia, raising livestock was easier than in Europe, because the climate is warm enough for the animals to live in the fields all year around. But dairying remained a hard job. In 1915, the government published a booklet encouraging British immigrants to the dairy industry. It noted euphemistically that
‘The farmer with children old enough to assist him is at a great advantage, and some of the most successful dairy farms in the Commonwealth are worked mainly by the owners and their families. But where the herd is too large, or the family too small, the milking machine… has been pressed into use, with satisfactory results.’
The reality was that dairy farmers could only make a living by using their children as cheap labour – and the larger the family, the better.
Milking cows is a very intimate affair, and not surprisingly, diseases cross in both directions. In the 1790s, Edward Jenner noticed that dairymaids were noted for their beauty. No doubt this was partly because they were relatively well fed, with all that milk around, but they were also free of smallpox scars because cowpox had given them immunity to the more dangerous disease.
In the 1950s, the Australian government (and no doubt others) tested all school children for tuberculosis. Many of my friends from dairying areas tested positive, because they had been infected with brucellosis, the bovine equivalent. They may also have had Q-fever, a disease that concentrates in the placentas of old cows, and was common amongst abattoir workers.
Mechanisation has changed dairying enormously, though nothing can change the tyranny of the milking timetable. And milk is now safe, with pasteurisation and tuberculosis testing. In one of her cookbooks, Elizabeth David recalled how dangerous raw milk seemed, even in the 1930s. Today, the greater danger is not to consumers, but to producers. And to the calves, of course.
Australia: The Dairy Country (1915)
Lactose Intolerance, in The Cambridge World History of Food
Matthias Schulz, ‘How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe‘ in Der Spiegel, 15 October 2010, for an interesting but contentious new theory on lactose intolerance in the neolithic era.