Milk, Dietary Racism and the Corporate Capture of the United Nations

When the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced last October that it planned to build closer ties with CropLife International, the trade body of the pesticide industry, civil society and environmental organizations jumped into action. Eleven international organizations sponsored a letter to the Director General of the FAO that opposed the announced partnership. It was signed by 352 civil society and indigenous organizations from 63 countries, and was accompanied by a letter of support from nearly 300 academics and scientists. Seed the Commons, the organization that I co-founded and that opposes the corporate takeover of food systems, signed on.

Then the United Nations convened the UN Food Systems Summit for September 2021, and it became evident that despite last year’s outcry, the UN’s alliances with the private sector were deepening and that they would be putting forth corporate false solutions rather than the People’s solutions we urgently need. Around the world, activists decided to boycott the summit (read Here is why we are boycotting the UN Food Systems Summit by two peasant leaders). The pre-summit that took place last July was met with mass mobilizations, both online and in person. Again, Seed the Commons threw our hat into the ring.

We decided to opt out of the UN Food Systems Summit’s mechanism for input from civil society and instead to join others in organizing around our opposition and building more legitimate platforms to discuss the transformation of our food systems. In response to the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit that took place in July, we participated in the Global Virtual Rally Against the Corporate Capture of Food Systems, a day of political and artistic interventions that kicked off a week of global mobilizations. The pushback is already bearing fruit; we are seeing the crumbling of the legitimacy of the UN Food Systems Summit. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has notably withdrawn from the summit, stating “The world urgently needed a food systems summit, but not this Summit”.

I am happy for the small part I played in this, but the true extent of industry ties of the UN is still not sufficiently appreciated and challenged. Last year’s announced partnership between the FAO and Croplife made waves, but it was not the first time the FAO has prioritized industry ties over the health of people. The United Nations, through the FAO and other agencies, has a long history of propping up the dairy industry. Unlike with pesticides, the innocuous – haloed even – reputation of milk has meant that this has largely gone unchallenged.

The ties between the United Nations and the dairy industry go almost as far back as the founding of the United Nations itself; more specifically, to the founding of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Today UNICEF is known as the UN agency that oversees child-related programs and advocacy, but at its start, its mandate was much narrower. Originally named the United Nations Children’s Emergency Relief Fund, UNICEF was created at the first United Nations General Assembly to provide emergency relief (specifically milk, vitamins and cod-liver oil) to children in war-torn Europe. Milk distribution was so synonymous with the work of UNICEF that its first logo was a child drinking milk over the map of the world, and at the time it was nicknamed a “giant organizational udder”. Another common nickname was “milkman of the world”, and UNICEF not only distributed milk but helped rebuild – and sometimes simply build – the infrastructure that allowed local communities to have access to milk. While its initial focus was on Europe, this quickly expanded to the rest of the world, starting in Asia. Milk consumption is not traditional to most of the places targeted by this expansion, so it was no longer a question of rebuilding what had been lost through war but of bringing in something entirely new, which tied into the developmental focus that the United Nations would start to adopt.

Food assistance programs hold the appeal of wholesome, altruistic giving, but their reality is usually more complex. These programs are often donor-based, i.e., organized around the benefit of donors rather than recipients. The first way that food aid benefits donors is by creating an outlet for their products. This short-term benefit can then become long-term, as the effective dumping of foodstuffs can help dismantle local food systems and shift dietary habits, creating new markets for donors and helping to integrate local food systems into the global food regime. The case of milk is no different. Distributing milk to school children provides a direct outlet for milk producers and others involved in milk distribution. In the days of the “giant organizational udder”, skim milk purchased by UNICEF was sourced from American farmers, who were provided an immediate outlet for their surplus stock. From the standpoint of industry growth, children are the ideal recipients of food assistance programs. They are the easiest leverage point over a society’s food culture, as their tastes and habits are still to be formed. And in effect, food cultures have shifted drastically since the early days of the UN and the targeting of children has been a key strategy in making this happen.

It is common knowledge that food systems and cultures have undergone westernization and globalization over the past century, but an oft overlooked part of this has been the globalization of milk consumption. We don’t tend to think of this in the same way that we do the wholesale adoption of pizza, burgers and processed foods, but for many populations it constitutes no less an adoption of Western norms. And more so than fast-food and processed foods, dairy has benefitted from government support and subsidies. The regular marketing of dairy has been compounded by its de facto imposition in children’s daily lives.

A key driver of the globalization of milk consumption has been the creation of school milk programs, which are typically based on some sort of public-private partnership. Parties involved usually include schools, governments and producers, and often also international development agencies, NGOs and multinationals such as Nestlé, Danone and Tetra Laval. Predictably, school milk programs are beneficial to their suppliers. Today in the United States, milk must be served with school lunches for these to be eligible for reimbursement by the USDA, which forces the public school system into a primary outlet for the American dairy industry.

The beneficiaries of these programs are not only dairy farmers but all of those along the supply chain–especially the multinationals that have vertically integrated the supply chains. One of the main players in the global school milk industry is Tetra Pak, which produces packaging for milk cartons. Tetra Pak’s website proudly features the school milk programs they help start in the Global South; they get to sell their products and look like good Samaritans too.

So the short term benefits for the dairy industry are obvious, but the long term impacts are perhaps more important, especially in emerging markets. The food preferences and habits of children have yet to be formed; feeding them milk every day serves to create consumers for the future. The explosion of school milk programs of recent decades has largely taken place in countries and populations with very little prior milk consumption. Serving milk in school normalizes milk consumption, instills the notion that it is a default or even necessary part of a healthy diet, and in effect, can change a food culture in one generation.

Since its foray into milk distribution in its early days, the UN has continued to be a broker for the dairy industry. In more recent years, the FAO has played a key role in supporting what has become a veritable global school milk industry. The logistical support and legitimacy that it provides has increased the access of the dairy industry to a captive consumer base: children.

In 2000, the FAO founded World School Milk Day, which takes place every last Wednesday of September. For one day, with little cost to the dairy industry, schools around the world sing the praises of milk to children. It is celebrated in a growing number of countries every year and is basically a global public relations day. Activities vary but they all highlight the purported benefits of milk, aim to build enthusiasm among children and legitimize the notion of serving milk through schools. In sum, the FAO created a whole “World Day of” to celebrate an institution the purpose of which is to instill habits in children that line the pockets of the dairy industry. Other ways that the FAO has supported the expansion of school milk programs have included helping to organize the International School Milk Conferences and the facilitation of communication among school milk stakeholders.

The perception of milk as children’s food par excellence is becoming universal, but milk was not in fact part of the dietary habits of much of humanity until very recently. The spread of this Western dietary norm has been aided by the marketing of milk as something that is not merely healthy, but necessary to children’s growth and development. The notion of necessity carries with it the belief that a diet without milk – even if varied and calorically sufficient – can only be considered lacking. The association between milk consumption and Western, American or white people is further encouragement to feed children milk, so that their groups can grow to be as strong, tall, successful or developed as those of traditional milk drinkers.

Unlike other Western foods that have gone global, milk is uniquely perceived as key to proper development. This is why it can attract subsidies through food assistance programs rather than depending solely on regular private marketing channels. But the notion that milk is necessary for the development of healthy children should raise the question: how were children from non-milk drinking cultures managing to grow up before?

The sense of necessity that has been ascribed to milk both stems from and propagates Eurocentrism. And by instilling the notion that a diet without milk is nutritionally incomplete, children and their parents are being taught to forget and devalue the diversity of foods from the food cultures they come from–at the same time that these are being lost under the expansion of a globalized corporate food regime. If a diet without milk as lacking, then many traditional non-Western diets are inherently deficient. This is a message that is repeatedly conveyed in the marketing of milk to children.

Eurocentrism recasts not only how we read human cultures but also human bodies. People who are from non-milk drinking cultures are majority lactose intolerant, meaning that they cannot easily digest milk or most dairy products. While this is not a pathology, it is often perceived as such. Indeed, lactose intolerance is the default condition of most humans and mammals. As mammals, we produce the enzyme lactase to aid in the digestion of lactose that we get from our mother’s milk. Lactase production drops after weaning for those who are lactose intolerant, but among humans, some populations developed dairying and in those groups lactose tolerance became an important trait to pass on. Over time, these populations became majority lactose tolerant (or lactase persistent, as they continued to produce lactase past the age of weaning), but they remain the deviation from the norm at the level of our species. Lactose intolerance is normal and healthy, but it has been pathologized due to a Eurocentric view that is now being exported.

The pathologization of lactose intolerance, coupled with the marketing of milk as necessary, imply that when someone in Mexico or China or Vietnam or any of the emerging markets for dairy experiences gastrointestinal distress upon consuming milk, the problem is perceived to be the person, not the product they ingested. Painting diets without milk as deficient goes along with seeing bodies that can’t digest milk as defective. And because milk is deemed necessary, the “defect” of lactose intolerance has to be overcome or bypassed in some way–the solution can’t be to simply go without. Lactose intolerant people are commonly told that rather than ditch dairy, they should work around their impediment, for example by attempting solutions like drinking lactose-free milk, eating cheese (which has less lactose than milk), taking lactase pills, drinking smaller but more frequent portions of milk, and otherwise trying to build up their tolerance.

Let’s state some facts. Milk is not a healthy food, much less a necessary one. Its consumption is associated with higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. There is not a single nutrient in milk that cannot be easily found in other food sources. The dairy industry has been so effective in marketing milk for its calcium content that it is now commonly believed that milk is the only food source of calcium, or that dairy-free diets require supplementation or special planning to avoid being deficient. This could not be further from the truth. The website World’s Healthiest Foods, which has no vegan or anti-dairy agenda (and includes dairy in their lists of healthiest foods), lists tofu first of their top 10 “healthiest foods rich in calcium”. The diverse food cultures of this world are replete with calcium-rich foods, but they are erased or their importance downplayed by the one-size-fits-all approach to child nutrition of the school milk industry. At the same time, the biodiversity of our food systems – and by extension our diets – is being lost as they are integrated into a global corporate food regime.

In an article titled Is the FAO in the pocket of the pesticide industry?, Pesticide Action Network director Keith Tyrell wrote “This new deal would turn FAO into the marketing arm of the pesticide industry.” It is not a stretch to say that the FAO is already the marketing arm of the dairy industry.

All children are harmed by school milk programs, but children who are from majority lactose intolerant populations are harmed the most. Rather than advocate for the nutritional needs of children to be met with foods that are healthy, diverse and culturally appropriate, the FAO is backing up industry at the expense of eaters. That these eaters are amongst the world’s most vulnerable makes this reversal of priorities all the more egregious.

Last year, civil society responded swiftly to the announcement of the partnership between the FAO and CropLife because many of us immediately understand that such a partnership is a problem. The alliances with the dairy industry are more surreptitious and have gone virtually unchallenged because milk is so widely perceived as healthy, necessary and wholesome. But these perceptions are the result of Eurocentrism and industry propaganda, and it’s time they be updated. It’s also time that we demand that the UN stop propping up the dairy industry, starting with the role of the FAO in the expansion of school milk programs.

Readers might be thinking that the comparison between FAO’s involvement in school milk and its partnership with CropLife is unwarranted because in the case of the former, small farmers are being supported. But the main beneficiaries of school milk programs are multinationals, and even if they were small farmers, supporting them should not come at the expense of children’s health.

 In my video intervention at the Global Virtual Rally to Transform Corporate Food Systems last July, I spoke of how corporate capture is aided by a narrative of lack. By painting a scarcity that doesn’t truly exist, or at least not by default, corporate actors sell us false solutions – like GMOs – to the false problems they have created. The marketing of milk follows the same playbook and further entrenches the power of multinationals and aids in the dismantlement of local food systems.

I also spoke of reclaiming sovereignty and building a People’s food system by putting forth our own narrative: one of abundance. They say that we can’t feed the planet unless they save us with their GMOs? We show that there is already more than enough food to feed every human alive and that small farmers are producing most of it. In my work with Seed the Commons, we did the same with milk. The dairy industry has erased the numerous foods that contribute calcium and protein to children’s diets, and convinced us that without their product, kids can’t grow or thrive. Like capitalists always do: they create the problem, whether material or perceived, and then sell us the solution. Part of countering this is to show that the problem is bogus.

On the last Wednesday of September 2017, Seed the Commons held a counter-celebration, probably the only event to have ever been held in opposition to the widely celebrated World School Milk Day. What we celebrated instead were the diverse food cultures of the world and the plant-based, calcium-rich foods that have nourished generations of children, especially those of some of the main populations that make up our city. We also launched our Get Milk Out campaign, which aims to get the SF Board of Education to pass a resolution opposing mandatory school milk, and to inspire and inform similar activism globally.

This year, World School Milk Day will fall on Wednesday September 29, less than a week after the UN Food Systems Summit on September 23. The announcement they sent out last month with the date and registration details was unironically titled “The ‘People’s Summit’ has arrived!”. (1) But the legitimate people’s summit – the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems – is being held separately on September 21-23.

Opposition to the UN Food Systems Summit and to World School Milk Day are pieces of the same pushback against the corporate takeover of food systems. I invite more activists to take a more far-reaching approach to food system change, which for many will require a willingness to rethink the role of foods and industries towards which they might hold a positive bias. It’s time to say no to the top-down imposition of milk on the children and food systems of the world. People are organizing outside of corporate-captured UN channels to put forth legitimate pathways towards abundance and resilience; we can further defend biological and cultural diversity by bringing back and reasserting the importance of the plethora of foods other than milk that have fed generations. Let’s reclaim the abundance that has been erased by corporate narratives, including that of the dairy industry.

 

(1) Learn more about what’s wrong with the UN Food Systems Summit and with calling it a “people’s summit” at this excellent site.

 

The participation in the mobilization against the UNFSS was the last project I took on before leaving my role of director of Seed the Commons this summer. This article first appeared on seedthecommons.org/blog.

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Why I Chose Mexico to Study Milk

It’s been two and a half years since I went to Mexico to start studying the globalization of milk consumption and this blog. My intention was to update it frequently but as soon as I returned to the US, I jumped into so much activity that writing this milk series took a back seat. Nonetheless, I did produce some posts here and on the Seed the Commons blog. I’ve also built awareness by speaking about the globalization of dairy at numerous venues, and I spearheaded the Seed the Commons campaign to #GetMilkOut of San Francisco school meals, which was launched on September 30, 2017. I am resuming the milk series with the hope of updating it more frequently, perhaps with shorter posts. For this one, I want to take a step back and speak about why I chose Mexico as my focal point.

I started this project to study a convergence of issues related to the globalization of dairy, including: the role of food aid in creating new markets for donors and integrating local food systems into a global capitalist market; the soft power of the West and the power of dominant groups to define what is normative; the social representations of non-European cultures, bodies, and ultimately of poverty, that justify a non-profit/development/humanitarian complex that furthers neocolonialism.

The first iteration of this project was a PhD I started in 2009, and I got the idea for it while I was working in the world of international human rights in 2007. I already knew that I wanted to explore the role played by the “non-profit industrial complex” and international institutions in maintaining a neocolonial world order, and I had an interest in food aid because I considered the usurpation of food systems central to this order. The idea to study milk distribution came about when I read an article about a joint program between Kraft and Save the Children: a school milk program in Mexico.

I read more about school milk programs, realizing how widespread they were becoming and how instrumental they were in changing food cultures around the world. The project crystallized and I decided to stick with Mexico for a number of reasons.

Poster Child for Neoliberalism and American Influence

The westernization of food cultures in the Global South, namely the increased consumption of animal products and processed foods, is largely the result of neoliberal policies and in this Mexico is a perfect case study. As the country that has ratified the largest number of free trade agreements, Mexico seemed like a poster child for the effects of free trade. The effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexican food systems are particularly well documented and are often spoken about in activist circles to illustrate the damage wrought by free trade agreements in the Global South.

That NAFTA involves the Unites States is also important, as Mexico’s close relationship with the United States is another area where it provides a magnified view of the direction the rest of the world is taking. “Westernization” often amounts to Americanization, and from food culture to economic policy, much of the world takes its lead from the US. NAFTA has been a boon for the American dairy industry, for which Mexico is the largest export market. Mexico not only has important economic and political ties with the US, but also a very close cultural proximity.

The history of milk distribution in Mexico is also linked to its relationships with other parts of the Global North. Dairy was introduced to Mexico by Spanish colonizers and its consumption started to rise significantly in first half of the 20th century. At this time, Nestlé opened the first dairy processing plant in Mexico and this Swiss company subsequently became involved in both the Mexican social sector and in the technical development of its livestock industry. Also during this time, the first milk distribution programs created new outlets for foreign dairy industries.

Layers of Cultural Imperialism

As Mexican diets and diseases become stereotypically American, the influence that the United States exerts onto its southern neighbor provides a great case study of the power of a dominant group to define dietary norms. However, dairy is not an altogether recent food in Mexico. The increase in dairy consumption over the course of centuries reveals other layers of cultural influence that are rooted in Mexico’s history of colonization. The story goes that the Spanish conquered Mexico and a culinary fusion of indigenous and Spanish foods gave rise to what we know today as Mexican food, but it would be more appropriate to view the adoption of Spanish foods as a gradual process. Some indigenous communities still eat predominantly indigenous foods and their adoption of Mexican (in the sense of modern-day Mestizo) food culture is a current, ongoing process.

Among my criteria for choosing a country were that milk would not be a traditional food and that a high percentage of the population would be lactose intolerant. Indigenous Mexicans fit the bill. And since the goal was to examine at the social dynamics by which a dominant group shapes the dietary norms of a subordinate group, the evolving and overlapping relationships of power between indigenous Mexicans and Europeans, Mexicans and Americans, and indigenous Mexicans with Mestizo culture make Mexico a very rich terrain.

The issue of lactose intolerance was important because it brings into salience the power dynamic between those receiving new foods and those promoting them (especially when these are authority figures such as doctors, nurses, aid workers, and teachers). While lactose intolerance is not as high in Mexico as in some other countries where milk consumption is being adopted as a new norm, it does play into the changes underway, as both indigenous and Mestizo populations produce strategies to deal with their impediment in consuming a food that they are told is necessary.

One-Eighty: from Plant-Based to Carnism Extraordinaire

Common representations of Mexican food are heavy with meat and cheese, but pre-Columbian Mexican food was almost entirely plant-based. Today, while consumption levels of meat and dairy remain lower in Mexico than in wealthy countries, they are quite elevated by Global South standards and are highly appreciated and culturally valued. As I set out to explore the social mechanisms of dietary change, I found Mexico fascinating because it presented the widest possible change.

There are many countries and populations where milk consumption has skyrocketed from next to nothing. However, in many of them animal domestication and/or the consumption of animal products had a longer history or were more culturally significant. The story of Mexico illustrates the true malleability of culture and even of social identity, and how these are shaped from above by those who dominate socially, politically and economically.

At the same time, the story of food in Mexico also shows us strategies of resistance. From Zapatistas replanting milpas on reclaimed lands to massive popular mobilizations against Monsanto and indigenous women selling donated milk in the market, Mexico is full of examples of people exerting the right to protect and determine their own food systems and culture. While milk is dumped onto communities around the world, the processes by which it is adopted or rejected can be quite complex. Mexico is the perfect place to unfold it all.

 

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Milking the Loss of Local Food

As Mexican food systems are incorporated into the global economy, rapid changes are underway in the dietary habits of the population. In The Narrative of Lack I spoke of dismantlement: indeed, local food systems can only be integrated into the global corporate food system through the dismantlement of their traditional structure and elements. For example, the move to a large-scale, centralized tortilla market is paired with the disappearance of biodiverse corn-based agricultural systems, small local retail outlets for traditional farmers, and the loss of their knowledge as they are forced to migrate towards other opportunities for subsistence.

Inside an OXXO, the largest convenience store chain in Mexico. OXXO is owned by Femsa, which also owns Coca-Cola Femsa.
Inside an OXXO, the largest convenience store chain in Mexico. OXXO is owned by Femsa, which also owns Coca-Cola Femsa.

Through a variety of mechanisms, globalization and corporatization of food systems have led to a drastic shift in dietary habits, characterized by an increased consumption of both highly processed foods and animal foods, and a decreased consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods. This leads to the “double burden” affecting an increasing number of countries in the Global South: malnutrition and obesity. Mexico is an unfortunate leader: its long-time epidemic of malnutrition is unabated while obesity and diabetes become ever more severe. It is in this context that milk is delivered to malnourished populations as a panacea. Around the world, milk is marketed both as a necessity and as the default children’s food – a symbol of basic needs met.

Poster of a campaign to build consumer awareness around the importance of milk.
Led by a partnership between a dairy rancher association and federal agencies, this campaign aims to build consumer awareness around the importance of milk for health.

Currently, the main nutritional selling point for milk is calcium and this marketing has been so successful that it has established the belief that other adequate sources of calcium do not exist. The irony is that in Mexico, other sources of calcium not only exist, they are front and center. Tortillas, the very staple of Mexican food, are traditionally made with corn that was processed in a way that renders them highly rich in calcium.[1] Yet, the disappearance of traditional tortillerias has led to a decrease in the nutritional quality of tortillas. Tortillas are also increasingly replaced by bread, which further limits calcium consumption.

While the narratives that accompany food aid often paint a lack that is either false or created, malnutrition is real. Zinc and iron deficiency are common amongst Mexican children[2], but social assistance is centered on milk, which has neither. This mismatch indicates at least two things: first, food distribution is more about benefiting donors than addressing the real needs of recipients; second, the symbolic appeal of milk is powerful indeed.

Widespread iron and zinc deficiency are due to politics of poverty and hunger and do not point to an inherent lack of these nutrients in traditional Mexican food systems. As with calcium, there are no a priori reasons Mexican children should be deficient in iron and zinc. On my trip to just one region of Chiapas last year, the existence of local, native sources of these nutrients became abundantly clear.

hierba mora
Hierba Mora, or Black Nightshade

Pozol is a hearty corn drink that indigenous Chiapanecans equate with strength, health and immunity. In the past it was consumed daily; now it is being replaced by milk and coke. Pumpkin seeds are native to Mexico and notoriously high in zinc. In Chiapas, a variety of indigenous and introduced greens have traditionally been harvested around milpas and in wild areas. People spoke to me in particular about hierba mora, a local green reputed to make one strong. Hierba mora is easy to prepare – like spinach or collard greens – and likely has a comparable nutritional profile.

These foods are disappearing from the diets of the population because of systemic changes to their food system. In San Cristobal, pumpkin seeds have become surprisingly expensive and beyond the means of many people, but one woman told me that growing up, tortillas with ground pumpkin seeds were a daily go-to snack. The nutritious greens that were once ubiquitous are being lost as many move to the city, unable to make a living as farmers. Those who continue to farm now use herbicides, killing off the greens that once grew spontaneously. Even in the countryside, people have access to less land, which limits both the amount and variety of food they can grow. The woman who spoke of pumpkin seed tortilla rolls told me that in her childhood, it was normal for every family to have an avocado tree, and now it’s a rarity. And though avocados abound in the farmers markets, they are not cheap. Fried foods and animal fats have largely replaced the healthy fats once easily available.

It is absolutely possible for these foods to be made accessible again with policies that help build local, biodiverse food systems. Indigenous and peasant movements are fighting for just that – their vision is based on recognition of the abundance to be found in their ecosystems and traditional knowledge. In contrast, the marketing of milk and many social assistance programs are based on the myth that they fill a void that exists by default.

The Encuesta Nacional de Nutrición (National Nutrition Survey) of 1999 found that half of Mexican children under two, and a third under five, were anemic. Interestingly, it also found that iron consumption levels were sufficient, but that children weren’t absorbing it properly. It is common knowledge that consuming vitamin C with plant-based sources of iron increases its bioavailability, and the report indeed points to low levels of vitamin C as a probable factor in the anemia rates.[3] In other words, eating more produce might have been a simple step towards decreasing anemia. To address the causes of malnutrition, we must turn our attention to a global economic system that mandates that produce be flown hundreds of miles to well-stocked grocery stores, while the children who live near where it is grown consume one of the world’s highest rates of soda.

Biodiversity and complex food cultures are not unique to Mexico; the traditional food systems of other countries also contain foods that are nutritious and calcium-rich. Yet in so many countries, school milk programs are implemented with the explicit purpose of creating a culture of milk consumption. This goal is always coupled with that of “teaching children healthy habits”. Around the world, we’re being lulled by a modern tune that says that this one singular food, traditionally consumed only by a minority of humans, is paramount for the development of human children.

Liconsa is being rapidly expanded in areas with the lowest Human Development Index, i.e. rural indigenous regions.
Liconsa is being rapidly expanded in areas with the lowest Human Development Index, i.e. rural indigenous regions.

Liconsa is a federal program that distributes milk to disadvantaged populations, such as low-income children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. It has existed since 1944 and its coverage is in continual expansion. Liconsa started to fortify its milk with iron in 2001[4], because why feed children foods that are naturally rich in iron and vitamin C when you can fortify nature’s perfect food and make it extra perfect? Studies that measure the effects of consuming fortified Liconsa milk find, unsurprisingly, that it is an effective way to redress anemia. However, childhood anemia was a noted problem in Mexico for decades[5] before Liconsa started fortifying its milk. The benefits of fortified foods for malnourished children are much touted today, but fortification is evidently a post-facto justification for the program. Milk distribution is not based on an objective assessment of needs but is instead legitimized through the representation of milk as the default nourishment for children.

When it comes to milk, a departure from Western norms is perceived as a lack instead of a simple difference. Most traditional food cultures do not include dairy, so naturally they are targeted for change. Children who don’t drink milk lack proper nourishment, or even just “food”, since milk is the generic children’s food. Conversely, any deficiency can be remedied with milk even when the milk needs to be supplemented so as to alter its nutritional makeup.

It is unsurprising that the lack of dairy in non-Western countries is seen as a growth opportunity for the dairy industry, but the support of governments and international institutions has been crucial to the industry’s success. A recurrent justification for investing in building local dairy markets is the discrepancy between consumption levels in the Global South and North, where the former are seen as having to catch up to the latter. Several East African countries reference a World Health Organization recommendation of a whopping 200 liters of milk per person per year[6], clearly looking to Western consumption levels as an ideal. For reference, per capita consumption in most Western European countries lies between 200 and 370 liters (data from 2007). Consumption levels in the Global South are markedly lower, with many countries in Asia and Africa consuming less than 40 liters per capita.[7]

Food aid does not address the structural problems that create hunger and malnutrition, but even within its limited framework, milk distribution shows that food aid is not always based on an objective assessment of recipients’ needs. Milk is not a good source of many nutrients and it is has been linked to myriad health problems. Worse, it is particularly detrimental to those who are lactose intolerant, which is the dominant trait in populations that don’t traditionally consume dairy. The people who are harmed the most by dairy are those who are seeing milk suddenly dumped into their communities as their governments urge them to drink up.[8]

We must of course address the root causes of hunger and build up local food systems, but some forms of food aid will still be necessary, for example in the short term and in emergency situations. And fundamentally, providing healthy meals to schoolchildren is a good idea. In these cases, the needs of recipients should be given priority and addressed objectively, away from industry input, cultural bias and emotional appeal. Currently, our representations of proper children’s food are shaped by Eurocentric norms and by the powerful association of milk with motherhood, childhood and nurturing. Through this biased lens, we allow for policies that harm those they purport to serve.

 

[1] In the process of nixtamalización, corn is soaked in a slaked lime solution, which can increase its calcium content by 750%, amongst other benefits.

[2] Morales-Ruán Mdel C, Villalpando S, García-Guerra A, Shamah-Levy T, Robledo-Pérez R, Avila-Arcos MA, Rivera JA. (2012, Mar-Apr) Iron, zinc, copper and magnesium nutritional status in Mexican children aged 1-11 years. Salud Publica Mex.

[3] Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica (2004) Impacto de la leche fortificada Liconsa en el estado de nutrición de los niños beneficiarios del Programa de Abasto Social. Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rosado JL, Bourges H, SainT-Martin B, (1995) Deficiencias de vitaminas y minerales en México. Una revisión crítica del estado de la información: I. Deficiencia de minerales. Salud Publica Mex.

[6] See for example this press release by the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources of the Republic of Rwanda. MINAGRI launches milk consumption campaign, viewed on June 8, 2017, http://www.minagri.gov.rw/index.php?id=469&L=0&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=720&cHash=fe3fc8e2c1f1c49dae901d2252682d93

[7] ChartsBin statistics collector team 2011, Current Worldwide Total Milk Consumption per capita, ChartsBin.com, viewed May 9, 2017, http://chartsbin.com/view/1491

[8] To learn more, read my post about the global importance of the School Milk Industry.

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The Strange Case of Milk

A friend sent me this video, in which the speaker aims to convince us that drinking milk is unnecessary and harmful. To convey the absurdity of our habit, he highlights an obvious fact that many fail to consider: milk is produced by mammals to feed their babies.

Milk is species-specific: camel milk is designed to meet the unique needs of a growing infant camel, cow’s milk meets the specific needs of calves, human milk those of baby humans. They are not interchangeable; nature has tailored the milk of each species to the unique needs, growth rate, and physiology of the infants of that species. A baby whale will not thrive on human milk. Likewise, milk is designed to meet the particular needs of infants, not adults. All mammals wean their young and move them on to other foods. Only humans graduate to the milk of another species.

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This novel behavior is so normalized that we rarely think about it. The function of lactation in a cow is evidently not to feed humans, and humans have not evolved to be shackled to a cow’s udder until death. Without a doubt, our behavior is unique in the animal kingdom.

The responses to the video show that most people were having none of its anti-dairy message. One commenter pointed out that while humans are indeed the only species to drink the milk of another species, we are also the only ones to skydive, race cars, or do other things that define our civilizations. If drinking milk is weird, so are most of the activities that make up human history.

calf-834528_1920When I first went vegan, I shared the perspective of the video’s speaker. I realized that we were the only animals to drink the milk of other species, as adults no less, that to do so we were robbing babies of the one food they need to be healthy, and the whole affair seemed bizarre. But my perspective has changed and I now tend to agree with the commenter.

To be sure, for humans to drink cow’s milk goes against the purpose of the milk from the perspective of cows and nature. What has shifted is that I think differently about the relationship between naturalness and weirdness. That a small group of humans at a recent point in our history domesticated certain animals to exploit their bodies and labor, and took their milk while they were at it, is not all that strange in light of the diverse and ingenuous ways that humans have expanded into and dominated their environments.

Humans who domesticated bovines, milked the females, and adapted by producing lactase past the age of weaning, benefited from it. The nutritional makeup of the milk wasn’t ideal, but nonetheless, they got calories out of it, with fat and protein and all that good stuff. Drinking milk is unethical, but it’s not weird by human standards. However, the idea that human children require milk is a strange conclusion to reach. We’ve been made to believe that cow’s milk is not just another source of calories, instead that it’s a unique beverage upon which human children are engineered to be dependent.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t told that the world is replete with foods containing protein and calcium and fat. What I was told was that I needed milk to grow and be healthy. As an adult, I was told by an endocrinologist that if I wasn’t drinking milk, I could be sure that I had countless deficiencies. Drinking cow’s milk may not be weird, but believing that humans require cow’s milk is very weird.

Yak_TajikistanLet’s think about the implications of this belief. Did humans evolve to be dependent on cows? Even though we domesticated them (and the few other animals who are milked) so very late in our history? Even though most human cultures never developed dairying at all? Why would we have to go through the arduous task of domesticating other animals to get the nutrients we need to grow to adulthood? Would this not have doomed our species early on? If the history of dairying shows us anything, it is how very adaptable humans are, whereas this belief paints a humanity that is stubbornly dependent on one very specific and difficult to procure food.

Through milk, we see an example of social norms being so entrenched that we never pause to render explicit the ideas that support them, and without doing this, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to reject them. The belief that cow’s milk is necessary to humans is absurd because it’s based on an absurd model of how nature works.

The representations of humans that underlie Western milk-drinking culture (Three glasses a day! The more the better! Lactose-free milk for the lactose-intolerant!) also point to a narrative of lack. I’ve written about a narrative of lack in regards to the colonization of Mexican food culture, but in this case, the ideas that humans are dependent on cows and that the world’s vast array of plant foods can’t provide our calcium affect us all. To unpack these narratives and unearth the representations that inform our habits may seem like a mere exercise in abstraction, but they have concrete effects on everything from our health to the policies that we support with our tax dollars. Deconstructing them is an important part of the effort to create a food system built around nourishing people, not lining shareholder pockets. As we unpack dominant ideas, we can consider whether they make sense, whom they serve, and what their alternatives might be.

Many myths of scarcity dominate our increasingly globalized food system: they serve to legitimize corporate takeover and westernization, loss of sovereignty and biodiversity. As I unravel them, I will also share stories of abundance. Like tortillas and chia seeds in Mexico, other countries are rich in foods, traditions and biodiversity that are overlooked, undervalued, erased and destroyed. If we want to defend them, we need to truly understand that there is something to defend and build upon. In the meantime, I posit that nature has offered humans an abundance of nutritious plants to eat, that we can thrive without the milk of other animals, and in fact, we’re best off without.

 

 

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White People in the Caribbean?

When I moved to the US, I was surprised by the common representations of Latinos held by Americans. Latinos are often thought of as racially homogenous and Latino is likened to a racial category. Like the United States, Latin America is racially diverse, so this is as ridiculous as thinking that the citizens of the US are racially homogenous.

In Latin America, like in the United States, Indigenous lands and peoples were colonized by Europeans. Like in the United States, Africans were brought as slaves to many regions. Like in the United States, Latin America continued to attract immigrants from different parts of the world after the end of the colonial era. Consequently, there are people who are of Indigenous, Black and European descent, with various combinations of the above depending on the specific history of their region and family. There are also people of Middle Eastern, Asian and other origins. So yes, there are white Latinos. There are even Asian Latinos.

In Mexico, the majority of the population is Mestizo, which refers to someone who is a mix of European and Indigenous. Since many of the Latinos in California are Mexican or Central American, they often are the face of “Latino”, to the extent that white and Black Latinos are sometimes not recognized as such. But even in Mexico, there are white and Afro-Mexican populations.

This conflation of ethnic and national categories with a racial one largely stems, in my opinion, from US-centrism. Part of this is the sense that diversity is the purview of the US and that all people south of the border are the same. US-centrism also shapes how the categories of “white” and “people of color” are conceptualized and delineated. I plan to devote a post to discussing the US-centrism of American racial categories and when and how it leads to confusion, but in the meantime, I want to leave y’all with this great commentary:

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