The Problem With Milk

Thanks to my good friend Manuel Garcia Jr., I got a head’s up about a documentary titled “The Milk System” that arrived with zero publicity:

Everything you talk about, Louis N. Proyect, is here: the contradictions of capitalism, surplus value and the robbing of it, the precariousness of the actual producers of the surplus value, the necessity of continuous industrial growth, to “keep in place” despite being in a finite world, and thus consuming foreign resources by economic imperialism and ecological murder.

Manuel, as always, was right on the money. The film was made by Andreas Pichler, who grew up on a dairy farm atop a bucolic hillside that looked like the scenery in “The Sound of Music”. Wearing lederhosen, his job as a child was to walk the cows back and forth from pasture and to milk them. Conscious of sweeping changes in the dairy industry (the word industry is apropos), he decided to make a documentary that will help us understand why the big farms are getting rich as they torment animals and rob the soil.

The Guardian ran an article that is fairly ubiquitous by now. Although it applies to Wisconsin, it might as well apply to the German farms Pichler visited and to my own region in upstate New York where dairy farming once thrived just like the hotel industry. Both are now practically dead. The Guardian’s headline says it all: “Small farms vanish every day in America’s dairyland: ‘There ain’t no future in dairy.’” The article subhead sums up exactly what Pichler discovered: “Farming families are facing a choice: compete with high-production outfits, if they can, or abandon generations of dairy farming.”

The film covers all the ills that result from “high-production”. To start with, when you have 3,000 cows rather than 30, a young boy like Andreas could not walk them back and forth from the pasture. Instead, they are confined to small spaces with robotic milking machines carrying out his chore. Through such “economies of scale”, the generation of oceans of manure becomes a major environmental threat in the same way that water tainted by fracking’s toxic chemicals can leech into groundwater no matter the precautions taken.

The construction of huge factory dairy farms took off when the EU pushed through measures that redirected dairy farms from local production to becoming a powerhouse in world exports. In fact, the dairy industry was estimated to be worth about 720 billion dollars globally in 2019, which is now projected to grow to 1,032 billion dollars by 2024. This is big business. For a global industry to succeed, the pasture is an anachronism. Once the EU embarked on this path, farmers bought up massive amounts of soybeans from Argentina that added excess nitrogen to European soil while leaving Argentina’s fields starved for nutrients.

As might be expected, the cow was no longer viewed as a farm animal but as input to an industrial process. Not only was the poor beast separated from the natural world, it began to lose all connections to the breeds from which it came. Scientists were always working on genetic modifications that could allow a cow to remain pregnant almost perpetually. Watching a cow barely able to walk because of oversized udders is just one of the visuals in “The Milk System” that will enrage you.

Dairy farming is becoming concentrated in four or five mega-corporations globally that use battalions of lobbyists to clear their deregulated path to the worldwide sales of milk products in new markets. As was the case with the automobile industry, China became one of the EU’s prime targets. They discovered that Chinese families could be easily exploited for sales because they believed that being tall would help their children succeed in business where height was an asset. Since milk has the reputation of making the child who drinks it taller, they scoffed it up even it was genes that regulated height. The EU made billions through exports to China until the Chinese figured out that they could beat the West at its own game. It built an industrial dairy farm that dwarfed anything in Europe and that included a guided tour that passed by a replicas of old-fashioned farms in the USA with plastic models of the farmer at his job. They had a bizarre resemblance to Museum of Natural History dioramas.

In addition to his tour through industrial dairy farms, Pichler introduces us to an organic farmer who does quite well selling home-made cheeses to artisanal stores. He will never get rich but is more than compensated by the knowledge that he is improving the soil, producing a better class of milk and allowing his cattle to enjoy the good life.

When we were in high school in Sullivan County, New York, the Jewish kids had parents who made a living through the tourist industry. The rich parents owned hotels. My father, a greengrocer and by no means rich, made his money in the summertime when people living in bungalows ordered fruit and vegetables that I delivered in a green Chevy pickup truck. Those days are long-gone even if the beauty of the countryside remains. If you weren’t Jewish, there was a good shot that your father owned a dairy farm with cows that were led back and forth from the pasture each day. (I remember trying to steer cows back to a barn at a dude ranch but they didn’t listen.) The milk was bottled locally and sold in nearby stores. At the time, we were enjoyed the fruits of organic farming although nobody knew it.

In 2018, CBS news reported on the travails of such farmers:

Farmer Tom Bose is the local supervisor who is working to help the six Sullivan farmers.

“Probably the most difficult time I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Bose. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, horrible.”

Farm advocates say a good picture of the state of agriculture in Sullivan County can be found on Cattail Road where a barn is seen, collapsing, on one of the 60 dairy farms that have gone bust in the last 40 years.

Global forces are hitting local farms, everything from increased production in China, to Walmart bottling its own milk in Indiana. Tastes are changing too. The average American drinks 37% less milk today than in 1970.

I wonder about changing tastes. Most people who cut out dairy have been conned into believing that fats cause heart attacks and strokes even as science has debunked this needless fear. I believe that milk will make a comeback especially when soy or almond milk suck so bad.

“The Milk System” is available as VOD from Netflix, Amazon Prime and freely from Vimeo.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.