How Indians started drinking milk (and what it has cost us)
Many people think that milk is normal good food. But a large part of the world until recently never consumed the milk of other animals. Even today, Eastern Asia as a rule does not use milk. So, for some, milk is the greatest food, while for others, milk is one of the five white poisons.
T. Vijayendra, Frontier Weekly
Our food habits vary from place to place. What is normal in one region can be unusual or even illegal in another place. Many people think that milk is normal good food. But a large part of the world until recently never consumed the milk of other animals. Even today, Eastern Asia as a rule does not use milk. So, for some, milk is the greatest food – there is a phrase in India which says that a good land is one where rivers of milk and ghee flow. On the other hand some nutritionists consider milk as one of the five white poisons. These perceptions lead to prejudices about the other and offer a basis to racism, communal politics and hate politics. We will show that there is an ecological basis for these different perceptions and what is right for one place could be wrong for another place and vice versa.
Everyone knows what milk is. Milk is a substance that mammals produce to feed their babies. When the babies grow, milk production stops. However, with human species it is more than just this. While they share this aspect with other mammals, they also consume the milk of other domestic animals, such as cow, buffalo, goat, camel etc. And not only babies, but adults also use it. (Herein after the word milk means only milk from domestic animals and not mother’s milk).
The consumption of milk by the human species is relatively new in our evolution. It began with domestication of animals and with animal husbandry, which was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Even then, it did not spread all over the earth. Historically, the milk of domestic animals was mainly used in West Asia and spread to Europe in the West and up to North West India in the East. Large parts of the world, until recently did not use milk. Thus, the American Continent, the African Continent, Australia and East Asia did not use milk. East Asia even today does not use milk. It appears that, historically, the area of milk consumption coincided largely with wheat producing regions of the world. It is only in the last two hundred years, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and colonialism, the milk consumption spread all over the world.
But didn’t rice growing regions need/have bulls and livestock in general? If they did, how come they were not using milk in olden days in South India and in East Asia? My guess is that wheat growing regions are also grass lands and the cattle gave more milk. In rice growing regions the milk was less, draught animals were very important and most of the milk went to the calves – both cows and water buffaloes. A little milk was used for festivals and by upper castes. This is mainly for India. Also we forget that historically India was neither a wheat growing nor a rice growing region. Wheat was restricted to North West and Malwa region of Central India. Rest of India was mainly a millet country with rice growing in low lying regions and Eastern coastal region.
In China and other East Asians regions other reasons may be operating because the whole region never ever used milk for human consumption. But of course water buffaloes were important there as draught animals – both for agriculture and transport. Also ruminants were important as digester of crop residue and the dung was important as fertiliser. The fact is milk is not the most important product of these animals as it is considered in Europe. In Europe and Russia the draught animal is horse and camel in West Asia. So there the cow is used mainly for milk and beef.
As mentioned above, the use of milk in India spread up to North West India. At the beginning of the Iron Age (roughly around 1000 B.C.E.) agriculture spread all over India in a big way. It needed bullocks and so the cows were domesticated for production of bullocks and when the milk production was low it was mainly given to young calves and very little or none was taken from the cows. Thus, while milk was known in large parts of India, its use was restricted. It was only in North West India, where the cows gave more milk, was milk used in larger quantities. This tradition exists in food habits. Thus, even today in the Punjab, we have lassi and parathas as common food and fresh white butter is served in small cups with the food.
Another thing that happened in India at that time was the emergence of Jainism with its ‘extremist’ emphasis on non-violence. They introduced vegetarianism in India. While it is theoretically possible to survive only on plant food (as indeed vegans today do), in practice most vegetarians in India use milk and milk products. Now, there is not enough milk to support everyone on a vegetarian diet. So we get a vegetarian map of India based on the availability of milk. The Eastern region has practically no vegetarians. In the South, only Brahmins and trading castes are vegetarians, with some exceptions. Only in the North West region there are castes other than Brahmins and traders who are vegetarians. Many peasant castes here are vegetarians. In the Central region, it is a bit mixed. In the Malwa, Nimar and Bundelkhand regions, many peasant castes are vegetarians. In the Eastern part of Central India, it is like the South – only Brahmins and traders are vegetarians. This map is not very accurate and since 1970s great changes have occurred in India which has changed the availability of milk and wheat drastically.
India is a tropical country and so the day temperature is fairly high. Milk is very sensitive to heat and goes bad quickly. It has to be heated almost immediately and if you keep it till evening you have to heat it again. While milk was not important in the Indian context, whatever little milk was available was converted to curd and churned for the butter. The butter was made into clarified ghee. The butter milk, which retains the proteins, was given away to the poor. The ghee, rich in fat, was for the urban and rich consumers. Unlike milk, ghee has longer shelf life and being far lesser in quantity could be transported to distances. The processing route is different in Europe, which is a colder region. Here milk is centrifuged to get cream which can be made into butter or cheese.
Around 1970, we had Operation Flood which ushered in the milk revolution. It started in Gujarat with the Amul project. Essentially it introduced Western milk processing technology in India. Milk from villages is collected at local collecting centre and transported to the nearest centre which houses a chilling plant. Then, through a cold chain, the milk is homogenised and packed. Excess milk is converted into butter, cheese and ice cream. While on the one hand this project increased the milk production and increased its supply to the cities, it depleted the villages of all milk, including the free buttermilk which the poor used to get. In return, all that the rural people got was some money. This process involved enormous use of energy in refrigerating and so the price of milk and its products increased and only the city could afford to pay for it.
Now, there are good reasons to conclude that this technology is not suitable to India. In the West, where large tracts of high quality grass lands were made available for animals, as well a supply of surplus cereals, specialised milk and meat breeds were developed. In India, the major fodder was straw (bhusa from wheat) and not green grass. In feed, what was fed was more of by-products like the bran, oil cake, broken rice, etc. Thus animals were mostly for draught and wherever little surpluses were available, dual purpose breeds developed and more surpluses lead to specialised milch breeds. The same applies to poultry, where lack of surplus feed has limited it to the scavenging breeds and surpluses in the West led to cage-fed specialised egg and meat breeds.
As we have seen above, Gujarat is traditionally rich in milk and so the project succeeded even if it deprived the rural poor from the supply of free buttermilk. However, it also spread to other parts of India and today in most Indian cities you can get packets of milk irrespective of the region’s ability to produce such a huge quantity of milk. Karnataka Milk Federation has become the second largest milk producer after Gujarat even though, as we have seen above, it is not so rich in milk potential. So, where does this extra milk come from?
The short answer is: ‘at the cost of ecology and the poor’. Loans are given to the poor to look after a buffalo or a cow, government subsidy is given for artificial insemination, special grain and grass is grown to feed these animals at the cost of other uses of land, children of the poor miss school so as to look after the animal, and so on. All of this may not happen in one place, but, on the whole, this is the picture we get. After all ‘nothing comes from nothing’ and if a region has to grow something new in huge quantities, it has to be at the cost of something!
All food items are consumed by the city population, which does not produce anything. Whether the region per se is capable or not, they are guzzlers of everything and the waste they produce is a great pollutant. The production systems to cater to the cities are also guzzlers of resources and waste.
In conclusion, we can say that like many new technologies this also has resulted in three well known results: 1. Increase in production 2. Increase in the gap between the rich and the poor and 3. Increase in ecological degradation.
After the 70s, both agriculture and transport got rapidly mechanised. Tractors, bikes and auto rickshaws replaced the bullocks and bullock carts. This enhanced the role of the cow as a source of milk than its role as producers of good draught animals and it further led to the increased production of milk.
Secondly, there was a marked increase in the production of milk based sweets and sweet shops. Traditionally Indian homes, by and large prepared kheer or payas which is a rice and milk based sweet for festivals. Only cities had milk-based sweets available daily. All this changed with the availability of excess milk. In Hyderabad, it was further motivated by a ban on alcohol in the early 90s. It created the craving for sweets among habitual drinkers. While the ban was eventually removed, the consumption of sweets stayed and even increased with the rise in the prosperity of the middle class and increased milk supply. So much so, today Hyderabad is the diabetic capital of the world with more than 20 percent of its population being victims of it.
Now, milk-based sweets sold in the market are probably the worst food both in terms of nutrition (sugar) and in terms of waste of resources (one uses an enormous quantity of milk to produce the little ‘mawa’ and cottage cheese used in the production of these sweets). The diabetes, however, is also a result of consuming polished rice and a sedentary life style.
The Debate on Milk Today
Many people are aware of this issue, particularly those who are critical of the Green Revolution and the White (milk) Revolution and practice organic farming. The main criticism is that this milk is not ‘real’ milk – it is homogenised using milk from different animals, it is not fresh, it can be several hours, days and even months old and therefore it is not healthy. Finally, because it is refrigerated in its entire life cycle – from the point of collection to its end use, it uses enormous energy and has a very big carbon foot print.
There are four major stands in the debate:
1. Vegans: vegetarians who do not use milk. This is a fringe group mainly in the West. Their argument is that milk is mainly for the babies and adults should not use milk. Milk is also not good for human nutrition and health as can be seen by the example of the Chinese who do not use milk and therefore are free of some diseases.
2. Many like the East Asians are opposed to milk but are not vegetarians. This number historically has been a quarter of the world population.
3. Another argument against the use of milk is that it should be used only for cow’s progeny to produce good draught animals. The ruminants (cows and buffalo) are important because they are good digesters of excess biomass and convert it into dung, which has good potential in producing organic fertilisers.
4. In India, particularly, the vegetarians argue that we should have organic milk, that is fresh milk from free range animals and not this ‘factory’ produced milk. This is a valid argument for those regions which are historically rich in milk supply.
The Future of Milk
In the future, there will not be so much energy available. The modern milk industry in India is based on refrigeration, which is based on electricity. Electricity is dependent on scarce mineral resources which are all rapidly depleting. So this industry along with many ‘unnecessary’ industries will contract. Many milk federations will collapse. Draught animals will come back. Bicycles and draught animals will become important modes of transport.
So the world milk production will be drastically reduced both in quantity and in areas of milk production. It will be more like what prevailed 500 years ago. That is, it will be produced mainly in West Asia, Europe and North West India. Majority of the world population will not consume milk, just like in the past. The use of milk-based sweets and ice creams will come down drastically. We will move more towards the traditional, limited use of milk. Some of the modern critics of milk will also prevail and many more people will give up using milk and milk-based sweets. All the four major stands in the debate mentioned above will feel justified.
Apr 14, 2017
T. Vijayendra may be contacted at email@example.com