When my kids and I spent two weeks on an organic farm in Costa Rica last month, we learned what real milk–fresh from the cow and flash pasteurized on the spot–tastes like. Now home again, we just can’t go back to the bland, denatured product that we find on our grocery shelves–and Anne Mendelson’s great article in the current Mother Earth News, “The Astonishing Story of Real Milk,” gives me hope that we won’t have to.
Anne explains that the milk we buy in the United States is the result of years of messing with how we breed and feed cows–for maximum profit. In the 1940s, she reports, a good milk cow produced about 4,500 pounds of milk per year. Today’s cows produce 20,000 pounds or more per year. “Modern industrial cows’ entire system is concentrated on making milk,” she writes, “frequently to the point of endangering life and limb.”
Because cows can’t produce more and better milk, dairy farmers settle for volume. The huge amount of milk produced by today’s “supercows” is diluted and less nutritious. Plus, cows are fed grains, especially corn, which destroys their appetites. Constantly thirsty, they drink more water–and make thinner milk. Injecting the cows with the hormone bovine somatotropin (BST), also called “bovine growth hormone” (BGH) increases their stress.
Buying organic is one way around the hormones, but Anne warns that “pious-sounding rhetoric and pictures of contented cows on milk cartons are no guarantee of humanely tended animals or more ‘natural’ milk.” The sad fact is, most organic milk comes from a few very large producers, is produced using the same methods as conventional milk, and travels thousands of miles to reach retail shelves. “Why should we support new-style versions of factory farming clad in airs of moral superiority?” she asks.
Anne won’t buy organic dairy products unless they have another solid selling point such as not being homogenized or coming from small local dairies. She urges everyone to seek alternatives to mass-produced conventional milk in places such as farmers markets or retail sources that encourage locally based agriculture–and she promises it’s not that hard.
“Finding honest milk from small dairies run by people who care about well-tended animals and fresh flavor is more possible than ever,” Anne writes. To find a dairy near you, search at Local Harvest or Eat Wild.