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.

buffalo-1436170_1920

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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World School Milk Day

The last Wednesday of September is World School Milk Day, a day that is observed in schools around the world to celebrate school milk and teach children about the benefits of drinking milk. Most people have probably never heard of this celebration but it would be difficult to overstate its significance. School milk programs are arguably the single most important driver of dairy consumption. To be clear: milk consumption is not merely increasing around the world, rather, milk consumption is being adopted as a wholly new behavior, and along with it, the idea that children must drink milk to grow and be healthy.

Many populations with no prior culture of milk myplate_blueconsumption are now fully buying into this idea. That dairy should be eaten everyday and even constitute its own food group, as is the case in the American dietary guidelines, is a predominantly Western view. Like many things Western, it is rapidly becoming the global norm.

School milk programs are crucial to this global cultural and dietary shift. These programs, whereby children receive free or discounted milk at school, are a means to subsidize the dairy industry and provide an immediate outlet for their products. The short-term benefits for the dairy industry are evident, but their long-term effects are more significant.

Those involved in what can be rightly called the School Milk Industry, which includes actors such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Dairy Federation, speak clearly of the long-term goal. The importance of school milk programs is that it targets children. The taste buds, food culture and beliefs about nutrition of children are still an open slate, so by habituating them to drink milk one can create a future consumer base.

Milk is not only marketed as a food that is good or healthy—it’s marketed as something that is essential to children’s health, and by extension, to the healthy development of nations. The distinction is crucial, because if one particular food is necessary for growth, it means that other healthy foods are not quite healthy enough to fulfill the same functions. The implication of the rhetoric around school milk programs is that traditional foods are not up to the task of ensuring the growth and development of children. This rhetoric reinforces the homogenization of diets and agricultural systems that accompany the corporate globalization of our food systems.

World School Milk Day 2015 - Malaysia
World School Milk Day 2015 – Malaysia

In many regions with new school milk programs, lactose intolerance is the norm. One would think that unpleasant symptoms caused by drinking milk would put a damper on the rush to create a milk-drinking culture, but in fact, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. This situation highlights the power of the West to define dietary norms, which is relevant to countless other foods, from soda to hamburgers. Even when one is lactose intolerant, the conviction that milk is necessary is so strong that instead of going without milk, the solution must be found elsewhere. A number of strategies are proposed by health professionals: lactase supplements, smaller and more frequent servings, lactose-free milk, etc. These strategies reflect and reinforce the belief that just as diets without milk (i.e. most traditional diets) are deficient, lactose-intolerant bodies (i.e. most bodies) are pathological. School milk programs powerfully assert the normativity of milk and of lactase persistence*.

We should counter-celebrate World School Milk Day by appreciating and sharing information about the myriad of plant foods enjoyed around the world that are rich in calcium. Let’s teach children about their nutritional value and encourage them to be stewards of the biodiversity on which these foods depend. Let’s truly work to build the health of children, not the profits of the dairy industry.

* Lactase persistence is the condition where one’s body continues to produce lactase, the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, through adulthood. Lactase persistence is most common in cultures that have long consumed milk, for example those of northern Europe.

This post also appeared on seedthecommons.org.

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The Narrative of Lack

IMG_20160128_122541877I met a vegan couple, one of them from Mexico and the other from the US, at Te Quiero Verde, a vegetarian restaurant with this awesome mural. The American has been involved in animal rights and other activism since the 90s. Upon hearing about my project, he told me the following story about the effects of food aid in Haiti, where he worked for several years.

In the middle of the last century, Haiti produced and consumed its own rice. At some point, it even exported rice as aid. And then, following a natural disaster, it started being flooded with American rice, which killed off local rice production as Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. The American rice was milled white rice with little nutritional value, while Haitian rice was brown. The effect of killing off local production was therefore not only economic but directly nutritional as well. And thus, in supposedly addressing a problem another one was created, leaving Haitians more in need of measures to address malnutrition.

Food aid can not be thought of in disjunction from the economic system in which it takes place. As critics have long pointed out, it has often been built on a donor-based logic, which means that the primary function of food aid is to fulfill the needs of donors – for example rice or milk producers – as opposed to the needs of the recipients. As expected however, rhetoric around food aid focuses on the recipients – their starvation, their malnutrition, their poverty. It is portrayed as a generous donation to address a pressing need in the recipient population.

Part of my work here is to look at the effects of food aid – in changing local markets, one also changes local food cultures. But analyzing the effects of aid also involves taking a critical eye to the narrative of lack. Is it real? Is it created? Is it being effectively addressed through aid? Is it the result of a larger systemic issue? If so, how does aid fit into the factors that created the need?

In the case of Haiti, aid wiped out an important source of nutrition and replaced it with empty calories. At some point in the cycle, the lost nutrients will need to be recuperated, perhaps with more aid. Where malnutrition exists it has a story and a cause, yet the marketing of aid is predicated on the implicit notion that malnutrition, hunger or poverty are default states.

When thinking about the distribution of milk to children, it’s interesting to take stock of the other foods that make up, or could make up, their diets. The idea that milk is an essential source of calcium is for many an almost unshakable truth – vegans who claim they get their calcium from almonds or broccoli are often met with doubtful looks. The same belief exists in Mexico. My conversations with women have yielded that they are exposed to the constant message – from medical professionals and commercials – that milk is a necessary source of calcium for them and their children.

Ironically, the basis itself of Mexican food is the tortilla, which is traditionally highly rich in calcium. For thousands of years, tortillas have been made with a process called nixtamalization, whereby the grains of corn are soaked in a lye solution for an entire day. The corn is then rinsed and ground and tortillas are made with the resulting wet mass. Nixtamilization drastically improves the nutritional profile of corn in several ways, among which, by adding calcium. In recent decades, traditional tortillerias have been mostly replaced by those selling Maseca tortillas, a brand owned by the large Mexican multinational Gruma. The move from an artesanal to an industrial process has resulted in a tortilla that is less calcium-rich. (Of course, people have also started consuming large amounts of other products churned out by Big Ag – coke, sabritas, etc – none of them nutritionally dense).

An approach that would truly benefit recipients would be to nurture and build on the existent basis – and the basis here is extremely rich. The state of Chiapas actually gets its name from the chia seed, another calcium powerhouse. An abundance of greens have also traditionally been grown in milpas and harvested in the wild, but their consumption is declining.* While milk and other industrial foods are ushered into marginal communities as food aid, traditional food systems are being dismantled by the market forces that create malnourished kids.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the implications of a narrative that positions milk as essential in a context where it is not traditionally consumed.

Imagine growing up in the West. You’ve rarely, if ever, come across yucca. As an adult, you suddenly start to see it everywhere. It is promoted to the middle-class through commercials and gracefully bestowed on the poor to ensure their health. Medical staff insist that mothers absolutely must feed their children yucca everyday. It would seem that until that moment in history, nothing your family grew or ate for generations, nothing you could find in a store growing up, was nourishment enough to ensure your children would be well-fed.

The promotion of milk is linked to another implicit narrative of lack. Many foods are said to be healthy – some have been even labeled “superfoods”. To position a food as necessary is something else altogether. As milk becomes increasingly central to public health discourse and social assistance programs around the world, it subtly delegitimizes traditional foods as possible sources of nutrition and health. The idea may be unarticulated but clear: before the Spanish brought their cows and culture, there was no way for children in Chiapas to have strong bones and develop healthily. Luckily for them, Nestlé, Lala and others continue their benevolent crusade.

*This was the recent topic of the Masters thesis of an acquaintance, I’ll devote another post to her work.

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