Dairy is our largest exporter, dominates our landscape and is our greatest contribution to the diet of the world. In the past we have been justifiably proud of this industry, but the relentless push for increased volume is changing it forever. At what point is our milk no longer really milk?
As dairy prices have risen our industry has bolstered its focus on increasing the flow of milk. Yet we could end up shooting ourselves in the foot. The Chinese have already put us on notice following the recent botulism scare, and the Guardian has picked up on the emerging crisis in our rivers with its article headlined 100% Pure Fantasy. But there are other consequences of the volume rush, including watering down our milk and New Zealand farming methods edging towards the much-maligned feedlot model.
Let's start with the watering down: permeate and lactose are being added to a lot of our milk. Permeate is the natural sugars found in milk (known as lactose) left over from the cheese-making process.
Smaller milk processors claim the big guys are using permeate or other lactose to "pad" out milk production, but our big milk processors claim to use permeate so that they can "standardise protein levels throughout the year". Disappointingly, this claim does stand up to scrutiny.
Yes, milk protein levels fluctuate throughout the year "peaking" at more than 4.4 per cent in April and May before dropping to almost 3.6 per cent in winter. The overall average amount of protein in milk works out at about 3.8 per cent over the year. Protein is pretty important for building muscle and quelling our appetite, but protein is doubly important in milk because it also carries calcium with it.
So what is the protein content of a standard bottle of Meadow Fresh milk? Is it the average for milk over the year (3.8 per cent)? No, it is 3.1 per cent, some 18 per cent lower than the average litre of milk the processor gets from the cow. Trim milk varieties have proportionally more protein, but this is only because the cream (which is mostly fat) has been removed. The standard milk we buy is not the same as what comes from the cow.
The reason they choose a protein level of 3.1 per cent is to keep it just above the rather arbitrary regulated lower limit for protein levels in milk (3 per cent). In other words this is where they would have to legally stop calling it milk. Be under no illusion, the industry seeks to minimise the amount of protein they have to leave in the milk because they can get more profit separating it out and selling it to American bodybuilders. If the regulator was to say the minimum for standard milk was 2 per cent protein, do you think that's not what you'd get? Producers should have to tell the truth on the label - for example declaring the added lactose or permeate, or calling it "diluted" or "imitation" milk. Given the regulator is asleep at its post, let's hope a company can find a marketing edge in selling the real stuff.
Now to the feedlot model. One way to boost production is to have more cows, but the more cows you have, the greater the risk that you can't grow enough grass to feed them. Enter supplementary feed: the much maligned palm kernel expeller (PKE). Forget about the orang-utans, PKE is a waste product from the palm oil industry that farmers can get on the cheap. The more worrying aspect is the mounting evidence that cows eating PKE produce a totally different kind of milk.
Most Kiwis are shocked when they go overseas and discover butter is a white, tasteless fat rather than the characteristic yellow hue we find here. That difference comes because American and European cows are fed grain. Grass-fed milk contains more fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants, which give our butter its sunny colour. It also contains more beneficial fats such as Omega 3 (which come from grass) and five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid. Contrast this with PKE-fed milk, which is instead rich in palmitic acid (regarded as one of the worst kinds of saturated fat) and palmitelaidic trans fats, which may increase the risk of heart attacks.
In short, the profile of fats in our meat and milk can be completely different depending on what our cattle eat. As we understand these different fats better, it seems that cattle are built to deal with a diet of grass, and when we force-feed them other things there are subtle, unexpected and at times dangerous side effects both for them and, more particularly, for us.
Supplementary feed is all very well during times like this year's drought, but the more cows you have the greater the risk you will have to use it. Our calculations suggest that by 2011, PKE use had grown to make up about 7 per cent of what our cows eat.
The industry argues that it can't get a price premium for quality, so to maximise profits all it can do is churn out more milk (i.e. sacks of powder). Well we have news for them. A dairy farm Gareth is involved with in Brazil uses Kiwi ingenuity to deliver high-quality dairy products from pasture fed dairy herds. They get a 15 per cent premium in the local market - the only firm there that does so. The future of New Zealand's dairy industry should lie in quality, not quantity.
Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmonsof the Morgan Foundation.
From their book Appetite for Destruction: Food the Good the Bad and the Fatal.