Exercise choice, but shun activism- it hurts the farmer, it hurts the poor, it hurts nutritional security, and it hurts common sense. Let your choice be an INFORMED one, based on facts and science not merely on belief and sentiments. And please do allow the others too to exercise this right of choice, especially the overwhelming numbers who like, and are conditioned to begin, and maybe even end, their day with a glass of milk; curd, paneer, ice cream et.al. served their way during the day. And please do understand, against the backdrop of widely prevailing hunger and malnutrition, very few are able to even exercise a choice of food, leave aside the dream of emulating food elitism such as veganism. You believe in it, go ahead but don’t impose it. Now let us get some facts straight.

A joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, the Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally adopted food standards and related texts presented in a uniform manner. These food standards and related texts aim at protecting consumers’ health and ensuring fair practices in the food trade. The publication of the Codex Alimentarius is intended to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods to assist in their harmonization and in doing so to facilitate international trade. The United Nations General Assembly has urged nations to adopt these standards. India is one of the 189 members of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and hence adopts the standards and definitions expounded for hundreds of food commodities. The Codex Alimentarius standards define Milk as “the normal mammary secretion of milking animals obtained from one or more milkings without either addition to it or extraction from it, intended for consumption as liquid milk or for further processing.” Milk product is “a product obtained by any processing of milk, which may contain food additives, and other ingredients functionally necessary for the processing.”

While, in the absence of a specific legal instrument, there appears no strong impediment to calling or naming any other drink as milk, the scientific and legal definition of milk accepted internationally makes it abundantly clear that milk is only and only an animal product. What is sold in the name of milk from plant based or other alternatives is NOT milk. What you consume in the name of soy/oat/almond/rice etc. milk is at best a beverage impersonating milk. No doubt these beverages are getting popular by the day amongst the well off in the developed countries and the urban elite in our country, yet their nutritional benefits in comparison to milk remain suspect. Moreover, the choice for these milk analogues in particular, and veganism in general, is governed more by the sentiment towards climate change and global warming rather than established facts and data. Livestock is only one of the several sources of atmospheric methane. Innumerable global studies conclude that of all the greenhouse gases attributed to anthropogenic activities, the contribution of livestock is 14.5% only, and this includes emissions from transportation of produce from farm to table, the footprint from growing animal feed; animals’ digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk into foods. It is evident that the figure has been upped to 14.5% artificially. Therefore, we all would be well advised to shun the ever growing tendency to blame the farmers, including livestock farmers, for everything that  goes wrong with the urban air quality. In fact, we should celebrate their remarkable achievement of producing food without overwhelming our limited resources. And have we paused to question or assess the environmental cost of soya, oats, rice, almond etc. farming?

We are not only the world’s largest but also the most efficient milk producer. In the harvest season, the farm price of tomatoes, potatoes and onions can go down to 10-20% of the lean season price; a case in point is the berserk pattern of onion prices which have ranged from Rs 10 to 100 per kilogram in the last one year. On the other hand, in the case of milk, the flush season price rarely goes below 90% of the lean season price, a price fluctuation that is hardly ever perceptible. And this is not only a rarity in the commodity price market but reflective of great efficiency across the production, procurement, processing and marketing value chain of milk. Further, what is encouraging is that the production of milk has been increasing over the decades without any significant diversion of land or water from agricultural crops to dairy. In leading milk producing states, there is an encouraging shift taking place; some farmers are restructuring their herds and replacing the unproductive animals with productive ones, feeding them fodder produced on their own land.

The primary milk producer, especially in the cooperative fold, could receive as much as 70% of what the consumer pays, quite a contrast to what the remuneration of a crop farmer is where the intermediaries corner the bulk of consumer revenues. The food processing industry is paying only about 40% or even less of the Atta price to the farmers. The practice at the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (GCMMF), popularly known as Amul, has always been to buy the raw material (milk) as costly as possible and sell as cheap as is possible to ensure that increased milk production finds a market. This is because the milk suppliers are also the owners of GCMMF. This model has been successfully replicated in many other states. The market is developed based on the quantum of raw material received. And the products are sold at such a price that the entire stock gets sold at the end of the day at a minimum difference between the buying and selling price. The urban consumer typically pays a price between Rupees 45 to 60 per litre of milk, the farmer’s share in this being an upward of Rupees 30. On the other hand the price of one litre soy “milk” is around Rupees 120 to 150, while the oat and almond “milk” are sold for anywhere between Rupees 225 and 300 per litre. Not even a pittance of the insanely wide profit margin gets transferred to the farmer. Branding and marketing consumes more of the costs than the raw material.

For the consumer, however, the quality of the product is more important than the welfare of the producer. Let us then compare the real and the clone on quality parameters. Milk has only one ingredient — MILK, which contains valuable nutrients that help support a growing body, including calcium and protein besides a host of other vital minerals. Soyabean, oats, almonds, rice etc. have their own valuable nutritional properties but when converted into the beverage deceptively labelled “milk”, they contain chemical additives including unhealthy quantities of sugar. Other ingredients generally are emulsifier, common salt, artificial flavouring substances etc. It is also worth noting that manufacture of plant-based milk requires large quantities of water which, itself, is an environmental concern.

People generally consume almond milk in the mistaken belief that it is a superior source of protein. While the wonderful health benefits of almonds are universally acknowledged, they certainly are not as protein rich as milk. One glass of almond beverage contains one to two grams of protein, far less than the eight to ten grams found in the glass of cow/buffalo milk. Soy milk is close to cow/buffalo milk in protein content but as it is usually loaded with sugars the benefits of protein get counterbalanced. Choose these drinks for sure, but make the choice based on knowledge, not on fads. There need be no competition between Milk and these analogues. But just don’t call them milk, as they are not. They may be healthy and tasty, so why not gain acceptance on their own virtues rather than piggy riding on the evocative term milk.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has, in September, finally directed that the label of milk cannot be used for these plant based beverages and advised the food safety departments of the states to investigate and identify specific instances where dairy terminologies have been used on non-dairy or plant-based food products. As per accepted standards under the regulation, products such as plant-based beverages are neither milk nor milk products. Therefore, as they do not adhere to the Codex Alimentarius definition, the use of dairy terms for them has now been prohibited. Proof of the pudding is in eating; so one has to wait and watch how effectively this regulation is enforced.

Pray, when did the term “lactose intolerant” enter our lexicon. “Even after having worked in the Indian dairy sector for over 40 years, I really did not hear of lactose intolerance in India. The only comment that I ever heard on the subject was that the eastern India being closer to other East Asian countries, may have had some issues with lactose tolerance, which may have led to Chhana based sweets. Chhana making gets rid of most of the lactose containing whey. However, I never came across any study that raised the issue of lactose intolerance in general,” says Dr Ram Aneja, former Managing Director of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and one of the most respected dairy professionals in the country. A dietary fad has made some inroads, and like all fads it should wither away before it could cause any serious damage to our vibrant dairy. Besides the economy, such food fads, based on misinformation or shallow knowledge, are a threat to public health too.

It is appreciable to express concern about environmental conservation; it is still laudable to effectively demonstrate this concern. Likewise, health and nutrition should be the guiding factors in food product choice. Let these concerns find expression based on robust science and facts, and NOT misinformation. Dairy is the backbone of our rural economy and livelihoods. Contributing more than 22% of the global milk production, we have been for years, are at present and shall remain for decades to come, the undisputed global dairy leader. Leadership hasn’t come easy, we had to fight the international governance regime too. Until the year 1999, milk was defined only as the mammary secretion of cows; and here we are with half our milk production coming from buffalo. It was a well fought battle by India that led to the Codex Alimentarius amending the definition to include all milking animals. Milk, for us, is not only a food commodity but also a symbol of rural empowerment and social equity; a half litre pouch containing the output of dozens if not hundreds and thousands of cattle and buffalos; and the toil of innumerable livestock farmers, primarily women, be they rich or poor. Let this strength not be dented by the usurpers.