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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Cruelty Finds Justification

A pig is a dog is a cow is a cat.

Pig being transported to slaughter. Photo Credit: Toronto Pig Save.

Nothing justifies sending a terrified animal to slaughter. Yet through the increased popularity of the food movement (which is positive in some ways), animal cruelty has a renewed appeal.

It’s not that the food movement is “worse” or that they are more attached to meat consumption than your average person (save in the case of people who are themselves linked to animal husbandry through family/community tradition). Rather, the food movement legitimizes and anchors society’s natural resistance to change. But, their main arguments are nonsense:

Necessity
We are often told that what we’re being sold is necessary because it’s harder to argue against necessity than against preference. A good example is milk; the dairy industry got us by instilling the fear that without milk, our kids were missing something essential to their normal development. So these days, the argument is that we NEED cows to save the soil, we NEED manure to grow sustainably, we NEED beehives to pollinate the crops and so on. Don’t believe it. They are tapping into our Eurocentric biases to make cruelty appear unavoidable and enlightened.

Terrified pigs before slaughter

Culture
Another favorite of enlightened foodies and food activists. Why yes, liberating animals does go against almost all of our cultures, there’s no denying it. And we don’t have to deny it, because culture should not trump ethics and tradition should not be dogma. A double win of doing away with this nonsense justification is that we can also stop treating people of color (especially the “Native American hunter in touch with nature”) as Noble Savages, which is another manifestation of racism.

Only industrial animal agriculture is harmful
This is where the food movement and the animal rights movement are speaking at crosshairs. It’s true that factory farming is not representative of all animal husbandry, and that traditional forms may well be much better… for the environment. But this is not about the environment. If someone were breeding and killing puppies on their land, we wouldn’t say “That’s wonderful because this sustainable puppy farm sequesters carbon and supports biodiversity”. These pigs feel happiness, pain, joy and extreme terror just like dogs do. There is no rational justification for treating them differently.

Why Do We Love One, but Eat the Others? by Pawel Kuczynski
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Carnism as Cultural Appreciation

The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley sells what foodies consider the right type of meat: grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone-free, happy animals, all that jazz. They offer daily sandwiches with ingredients like roasted corn tapenade, soft-boiled duck eggs, herbed aioli and nepitella (I had to look it up too). They also offer butchery classes, where those who are seduced by the esthetic of artisanship can learn to hack away at the corpses of pigs, chickens, fish, even deer. Happily, these classes have been the object of protests by animal liberation activists.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.40.38 PMOn July 10, The Local Butcher Shop posted this picture to Facebook with the caption “Bastille Day is this Friday, July 14th, and we’ve got you Francophiles covered: French onion soup, garlicky Toulouse sausage, Boudin Noir (blood sausage), Crépinettes, pork rillons, duck rillettes, duck confit, whole rabbits & chickens. Call us to place an order! Vive la France!”

I really hope that in 20 years we will look back on this gleeful barbarianism in disbelief. And even while the food movement has been turning ex-vegans into carnists, the renewed vigor of the animal liberation movement has me hopeful. Last week in San Francisco I participated in our city’s first March to Close All Slaughterhouses, and intrepid open rescue networks as well as a slaughterhouse vigil movement are compelling the world to finally empathize with farm animals.

There is nothing surprising to me about using Francophilia to sell meat. In recent years the vegan movement seems to have exploded in Europe, but when I was a kid in Europe it truly was more difficult to be veg*n, and when I would visit the Bay Area, it felt like such a breeze. Then a reversal started around the time I moved to the Bay Area (2010), largely due in my opinion to different streaks of identity politics. One was the idea that Europeans are more nuanced and sophisticated, and so instead of rejecting all animal products, they eat the right kind.

Under Bush, many Americans felt self-conscious and strove to imitate Europeans in an effort to distinguish themselves from all the other “dumb Americans”. Appreciation of local cheeses and artisanal sausages soon conveniently fell into this fold. Veganism was another example of misplaced zeal from Americans who, untethered to tradition and lacking nuance, swing from the extremes of fast food to fat free. San Franciscans especially seemed to have something to prove. After traveling to New York and witnessing an amazing vegan scene, I moved to San Francisco to see vegan businesses shutting down, ex-vegans popping up en masse, and carnism as a new enlightenment.

The problem was that people accepted a framing of the issue that is wrong. Veganism is not about refraining from a type of food entirely versus consuming with distinction and moderation. It’s about rejecting the entire notion that certain animals are food. When I lived in Europe, not a week went by without someone dropping the thought-terminating cliché “faut manger de tout” (“one must eat of everything”). I don’t have much of a problem with that message per se; the question is, what constitutes “everything”? The word everything is used as a synonym for “every food”. In my opinion, animals are not food. In the opinion of those people, certain animals are. Discussions should have centered on this difference, instead they were dismissed.

When a European travels to Asia and sees dogs raised for food, they don’t nod appreciatively and say that some dog meat in moderation is a wise food choice. No, they constantly lament the fate of the dogs (I speak from the experience of having traveled in Asia with Europeans). They wouldn’t be very open-minded if a local told them “faut manger de tout”. Where vegans departed from the mainstream is that we questioned why society doesn’t afford the same empathy to those defined (in the West) as “farm animals” as it does to dogs. Not coming up with a good answer, we changed our ways.

Veganism is about changing our social norms and social relations with other animals, and I think Bay Area folks should have been proud of our willingness to do this.

Now the Bay Area is stirring again. As a result of the above-mentioned protests, The Local Butcher Shop agreed to post an animal liberationist message on their window front; a likely first in the history of all butcher shops. The Bay Area is marching towards animal liberation; let’s be unwavering this time.

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Earth Day at Alemany Farm

 

“In the spirit of earth day bring reusable cups…” but let’s go ahead and roast a pig.

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When Seed the Commons organized the first People’s Harvest Forum, I invited one of the founders of Alemany Farm to come speak about land and urban gardening in San Francisco. I explained that this was a forum that promoted veganic farming, and he was ok with veganics as long as it isn’t promoted exclusively, or in his own words, as long as it was “without dogma”.

Compassion is such a very dogmatic thing, of course. No, wait, it’s only dogmatic when it’s the compassion of the minority. The compassion that the majority has for dogs and cats is not seen as “dogmatic” (even though the majority second-guesses themselves much less). When vegans apply our ethics to our actions in the very same way that the majority does, we get dismissed as dogmatic.

This is a double standard that serves to insult us and to detract from the challenge that we present to dominant social norms. Because the question that needs to be answered is this: why should we treat a cow or pig differently than a dog? If there is no good answer to this question, it follows that we should farm veganically, and it is no more dogmatic than farming without dogs or cats. To maintain the status quo of animal commodification, the question is skirted.

We must liberate the class of animals known as “farm animals”. People will resist and insult and try to avoid ever engaging in a discussion on why farm animals are uniquely suited to their lot. This is normal. We are fighting to change social norms, and it’s always an arduous task. Humans protect the status quo and especially their own privilege. Those who farm, roast or eat pigs want to protect their entitlement to pigs’ lives and bodies, and all the better if they can be self-congratulatory about it. At Alemany Farm, they justify their celebration of domination with the trope of the “circle of life”, but nobody uses this argument to justify cruelty to animals that are deemed to matter.

All of these clichés – “the circle of life”, the rejection of dogma, the wisdom of moderation – have the veneer of sophistication, but they simply provide a knee-jerk defense of the way things are. I grew up in Switzerland, land of the middle ground. Rejecting “extremes” and lauding moderation is a national pastime. It’s not enlightenment, it’s conservatism. When people urge for moderation, they conveniently draw the contours of that moderation around what is normal to them. But if we persevere, veganism and veganic farming will become the new normal.

I’ve heard people – especially vegans – moan that vegans aren’t active enough around the political or social justice issues of our food system. I knew a vegan who used to volunteer at Alemany Farm and who left because every year they would roast the dead body of a sentient, intelligent, sensitive being. We should not have to betray our ethics to be able to engage in important community activism.

As vegans, we must set up our own urban and community gardens. Urban agriculture is too important for us to hold back until we achieve widespread animal liberation. Let’s reclaim the streets, grow our own food systems with a vegan ethic, and help build up a genuine people’s movement for land reform and a better world.

 

 

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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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Veganic en marche

I spoke about the importance of building the veganic movement at the Compassionate Living potluck this weekend and I will give a few more talks on this topic in the next months. It is wonderful to see interest in this issue catching on. When I decided to focus on veganics a few years ago, there was very little information on social media and even less interest. In Fall 2015, while organizing the first People’s Harvest Forum, I went to a local animal rights meetup to present on what I was doing and why, and I told them that even from a strictly animal rights perspective, activists need to prioritize veganic farming. As the food movement gained popularity, the image of animal-based sustainable agriculture that it put forth was serving to delegitimize veganism. But it seemed niche and abstract to speak about how food is grown, only relevant to food activists or gardening hobbyists, and there was no interest. Less than two years later, the same group is now organizing their own discussions on veganics.

It’s a good time to clarify what my advocacy of veganic farming is about. My message is not that animal agriculture can never be sustainable or that veganic is the only way to achieve the goals of the food movement. It’s great to debunk misinformation around the sustainability of organic and small-scale animal agriculture; I do a bit of that in my presentations and I plan to do more. However, I am primarily coming at this from a different angle. I aim to show that agroecology can exist within a vegan framework. We do not have to choose between agroecology and animal liberation, and we should neither stand for the delegitimization of veganism that occurs when only one version of organic is made visible, nor reject the positives of this movement because we believe it is incompatible with our ethics.

Within various approaches to growing food, veganic can be thought of as an approach onto itself, distinct from others:

Conventional
Organic
Agroecology
Regenerative
Veganic

But we can also think of it this way:

Non-vegan Vegan
Conventional Conventional
Organic Organic
Agroecology Agroecology
Regenerative Regenerative

Coming from this latter view, my priority is not to convince people that veganic is more sustainable than other organic approaches, and I do not want to reinforce the notion that agroecology and veganic are discrete categories. When veganism becomes mainstream, all types of farming will exclude cows, chickens, pigs and other so-called farm animals. Of course, we’ll no longer qualify this as vegan, just as we don’t use a qualifier to signal that we exclude dogs from our farming or cooking. As vegans, we don’t need to wait for the majority to get there. We can work within a vegan framework, where agroeocology is automatically vegan agroecology, permaculture is automatically vegan permaculture, and so on.

For some, what is written above is counter-intuitive because… don’t organic farming, agroecology, permaculture, and certainly regenerative agriculture necessarily include farm animals? It is this misconception that vegans must address. The Eurocentric image of idyllic farmland with cows frolicking around green pastures, and the erasure of models that do not center farm animals, reassures consumers and activists that animal exploitation is good and proper. They also imply, in a way that is often subtle but always powerful, that the only alternative to small-scale animal-based agriculture is a food system dominated by Monsanto and run on fossil fuels.

The thing is, this false dichotomy is now effectively a real dichotomy as far as consumers are concerned. Many vegans rightfully prefer to buy organic over conventional, but their dollars are supporting the factory farm system.* There is an immediate need to grow the veganic movement from this perspective, but more urgent and far-reaching is to work at a cultural level. We need to deconstruct and change the narrative. This is the project I’ve taken on.

For more information on veganic farming, check out Veganic World.

* For more details, read my interview with veganic farmer Matt Loisel.

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