THE BLOG
05/06/2014 11:43 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014

Will 'Milk Life' Go Global? Big Dairy Sets Its Sights on Asia

Could the U.S. dairy processors' new slogan, "milk life," make it big in Asia? If dairy multinationals like Nestlé and Danone have their way, the answer might be yes.

As the market for dairy products in industrialized countries nears saturation, the U.S. dairy industry, along with its counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, have begun to look for new consumers in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other Asian countries. With a steadily growing population, rising incomes, rapid urbanization, and greater exposure to Western consumer products and lifestyles, Asia is Big Dairy's new target.

This untapped "emerging" market consists of nearly three billion new potential dairy consumers, according to research by Tetra Pak, manufacturers of aseptic packaging. Among those on the list are the rural and urban poor and school children, despite the facts that lactose intolerance is widespread throughout East Asia and countries in the region have little tradition of drinking milk or eating other dairy products. (A large majority of the East Asian population--an estimated 98 percent--has difficulty digesting lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.)

In some parts of Asia, a dairy industry is being ignited where one didn't exist before. Cambodia, for instance, milked its first cow when a mega dairy operation opened there in 2011. In other countries, smaller-scale dairy production is being displaced by dairy CAFOs (aptly, if brutally, named "concentrated animal feeding operations") often housing thousands of cows, akin to the dairy behemoths common in California's Central Valley and other parts of the U.S.

Meanwhile, an increased number of packaged and processed milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream products are appearing in retail spaces and advertising campaigns are underway throughout Asia. Some of the larger dairy corporations have begun to depict local, unpackaged milk as unhygienic, tapping into consumer fears about food safety (a particularly potent concern in China).

In several countries, Nestlé and Tetra Pak have become major players in school milk programs and nutrition education. In Thailand and Vietnam, for instance, demand for milk from school initiatives is an important driver of increased domestic production.

Many Asian government officials see rising dairy consumption as a net good (despite the occurrences of lactose intolerance and concerns in industrialized countries about the health impacts of high milk and dairy intake). They also see industrial milk operations as resource efficient and economically sound, and the CAFO model has a great deal of money and marketing behind it.

But CAFOs are so new in most of Asia that policymakers and civil society has yet to discover their downsides: ground and surface-water pollution, smog, pungent odors, huge manure lagoons, crowded, cruel conditions for the cows, as well as low wages and safety risk for workers. As a result, they're spreading quickly throughout the region.

Vietnam is one example. Residents have developed a taste for dairy products only recently, but the nation now has one of the world's highest rates of growth in annual milk consumption. And a new joint venture by the TH Milk Joint Stock Company is building what may end up being the world's largest dairy CAFO. Located in a rural area in the north of the country, not far from a national park that is home to endangered species, the CAFO has 45,000 cows in production. When it's completed in 2017, that population is set to triple, rising to 137,000 cows.

The ecological footprint will be significant, to say the least. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a dairy operation with 2,500 cows in the U.S. create as much waste as a city of 400,000 people. That means a Vietnamese CAFO could produce as much waste as 22 million people-about as many as live in the metropolitan area of New Delhi, India's capital city.

Meanwhile, in China, dairy production and consumption are expanding fast. In 2002, the nation had three million dairy cows. Ten years later it had eight million and 30 percent of dairy operations in China now house 100 cows or more. Many of the existing dairy CAFOs in China have been built with support from the government and private sector investment.

Now, a new $140 million deal between China Modern Dairy, which introduced dairy CAFOs to China, and U.S.-based Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co (KKR & Co.), will build two operations housing 100,000 cows each.

As industry experts acknowledge, however, the majority of Chinese dairy CAFOs lack adequate waste treatment facilities. That means the cows' manure is contaminating local water supplies, attracting insects, and releasing strong odors, to the detriment of neighboring communities' health, livelihoods, and quality of life

India, on the other hand, is home to about 300 million cows and buffalos, most of them milk-producing. The nation has sought for decades to encourage development of its dairy sector as a means of providing income for poor rural communities, and specifically women. But the shape and scale of Indian dairy is changing, from pro-poor to pro-commercialization. Despite being sacred in the Hindu tradition, many Indian cows are now confined in semi-industrial operations, where they are chained indoors for much of the day.

CAFOs are also gaining a foothold in India. Although plans for a 40,000-cow operation in the state of Andhra Pradesh were recently scuttled over animal welfare and environmental concerns, other large dairies are planned. One South Asian dairy corporation, Global Dairy Health, wants to "take over India's milk production" and envisions 100 CAFOs across the country within a decade and a half, each housing 3,000 cows.

Even as the CAFO model gains traction in Asia, researchers and advocates in industrialized countries have begun to document the often-devastating consequences these facilities can have in the developed world on the environment, rural economies, animal welfare, workers, and public health. Groundwater pollution has been a persistent complaint lodged against California's "mega-dairies" and a study found they are a major contributor to the smog that bedevils Los Angeles and the surrounding area.

Another recent study of the sustainability of the U.S. dairy industry by climate change, economics, agronomy, and animal welfare researchers concluded that despite the efficiencies achieved in milk production, "the current structure of the industry lacks the resilience to adapt to changing social and environmental landscapes." The authors also commented on the wide gap between the industry's practices and public perceptions, and a consequent drop in the public's trust.

The ever-popular advertising slogan, "Got milk?" was catchy, but it didn't work. During its 20-plus year run, Americans drank less milk, not more (hence "milk life," designed to make milk part of Americans' daily routines again, and to brand it as a healthy food.) In 1975, the average American consumed 260 pounds of milk each year. Now it's less than 200, which is still an enormous amount, and well outpaces sugar consumption. Americans have also started drinking more non-dairy milks, like soy, almond, and rice milk, many of which, ironically, originate in Asian countries.

Is the growth of Big Dairy inevitable in Asia? Not necessarily. Governments, international agencies, and non-governmental organizations in the region have an opportunity to alter current trends and craft policies that eliminate land giveaways, tax holidays, or low-cost loans for dairy CAFOs and tax or fine polluters. Governments can also incentivize plant-based foods and redirect subsidies for large-scale dairy operations to indigenous and sustainable agricultural enterprises, including for non-dairy milks.

Prohibiting dairy industry-supported school curricula, and creating public education initiatives for healthy eating could also make a dent. Food and agriculture groups, researchers, and policy-makers in the US and other industrialized nations should also share information and perspectives on dairy CAFOs with those in Asia. Long-term food security should be Asia's priority: Not a "milk life" but the "good life."

This article was first published by Civil Eats on April 1, 2014 and is adapted from Brighter Green's new report, Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia.