Do Grown-Ups Really Need to Drink Milk?

Personal Health

Should grown-ups be drinking milk at all, much less the milk of another species?

Mammals are named after the milk-producing glands that developed as a way to feed babies, but only humans continue drinking mammary secretions after infancy -- and no other species drinks the milk of another. Today, dairy consumption is at the center of several interconnected social, economic, and health crises. Maybe it's time to reconsider our relationship with dairy.

"Every time the milk truck pulls in, more money leaves the farm," says Philip Ranny, a seventh-generation Vermont dairy farmer so in debt he's decided to sell his herd. Across the country, farmers are going bankrupt, cashing in their IRAs, and selling their herds to slaughter because a crash in the price of milk has left them earning less for their milk than it costs to produce it.

And while wholesale prices have dropped by half, retail prices have remained relatively steady. That's been good business for distributors like Dean Foods, which controls about 70 percent of the milk production in Vermont. Its dairy subsidiary reported $182 million in operating income in the first quarter of 2009, 39% more than it earned in the first quarter of 2008, when wholesale milk prices were strong.

Increased supply and decreased demand are both weighing on the price. One factor that affects both sides of the equation is rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone that increases milk production when injected into cows. While rBGH has helped increase supply by boosting production, it's hurt demand by shutting export markets like Canada and the EU, which don't allow milk from rBGH cows for health concerns.

So controversial even Monsanto got out of the business (selling the patent to drug maker Eli Lilly), rBGH causes increased levels of carcinogenic Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) in milk. Due to domestic consumer rejection of rBGH milk, many retailers, like Starbucks and Chipotle's, have pledged not to use rBGH in their products. When large distributers pool milk from rBGH and non-rBGH cows, it disqualifies the whole lot from export.

Public fear of rBGH has helped sales of organic milk, which is required by law to be rBGH-free. But organic dairies have problems of their own.

About 20 large industrial dairies, milking 1,500-7,000 cows each, produce roughly 40% of the nation's organic milk. Under the Bush administration, USDA repeatedly looked the other way as large corporate agribusinesses violated federal standards while jumping on the organic bandwagon.

The poster child for this regulatory failure is Aurora Farms, which operates five factory farms in Colorado and Texas and supplies the store-brand organic milk to Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway, Costco and other national chains. In 2007, Aurora was found to have "willfully" violated numerous organic regulations by USDA investigators, but the company appallingly mild sanctions -- including zero dollars in fines -- from USDA appointees who rejected staff recommendations calling for revocation of Aurora's organic certification.

On July 16 in West Salem, Wisconsin, nearly 200 organic dairy farmers and supporters gathered at the La Crosse County Fair to grab the attention of one of the fair's marquee attendees, USDA chief Tom Vilsack. They urged Vilsack to take action against factory farms that are saturating the organic market with non-organic milk, taking advantage of organic's price advantage without incurring the expenses associated by following the rules -- like feeding certified organic grain to their cattle.

"I commit to you that we will enforce the rules," Vilsack told the crowd. But even if Vilsack becomes the guardian angel of organic dairy, the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about will continue farting its dairy-fueled stink-bombs.

A recent episode of the Diane Rehm Show, a nationally broadcast left-leaning radio program, assembled a politician, a dairy industry advocate, a farm advocate, and a USDA undersecretary to discuss problems facing dairy. Most of the conversation focused on federally-funded bailout options for the dairy industry, but one caller made a futile attempt to frame the problem in a larger context. Voicing concerns that milk isn't good for adults and that dairy production creates a lot of greenhouse gas, she was disconnected mid-sentence.

After a moment of audible snickers among the guests, Ruth Saunders of the International Dairy Foods Association gave a limp response: "the dietary guidelines for Americans have always had as one of their key recommendations three daily servings [of dairy]."

Saunders didn't mention that these recommendations largely exist because of intensive lobbying efforts by organizations like hers. But scientific research that's not in the pocket of Big Dairy tells a different story. According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "approximately 75% of the world's population loses the ability to completely digest lactose after infancy." And Harvard researcher Ganmaa Davaasambuu, M.D., Ph.D., has found that dairy intake correlates with ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and other so-called "hormone-dependent" tumors because of the high levels of estrogen in cows' milk -- especially in milk from pregnant cows, which are routinely milked in large dairy operations.

Meanwhile, the disconnected caller had a valid point about the cattle industry's greenhouse gas emissions, which constitute 2% of the national output. When fed soy-rich diets, as most large dairy herds are, cows belch methane, which traps 20 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide.

While the lifestyle-changing crisis afflicting dairy farmers is creating heartbreaking stories, perhaps for the greater good this is an opportunity in disguise. There are other ways to make a living off the land, and instead of federal price supports, maybe that money should be spent on re-tooling dairy farms. Despite what the food pyramid says, we don't need milk after we're babies. Maybe it's time to wean ourselves from cow tits and grow up.

If not quitting cold turkey, perhaps we should turn it down a notch or two and consider limiting dairy products to special occasions, rather than as a daily staple. If we return the dairy industry to it's small-scale, alfalfa-fed roots, where producers have personal and respectful relationships with their animals and make fine artisanal products like cheese or yogurt, perhaps there's a place for such delicacies. A splash of cream in your coffee, or a pad of butter in your mushrooms, might not kill the world. But maybe the days of standing in front of the open fridge chugging milk from the bottle will come to an end.

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