National Milk Day and the man who made it possible

November 23, 2019

Vikram Doctor, ET Bureau


November 26this celebrated as National Milk Day in India. This isn’t the same as World Milk Day, which is marked on June 1st, and was established by the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

The Indian date was fixed in 2014 when the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), the Indian Dairy Association (IDA), along with 22 state level milk federations agreed on this date to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s White Revolution. It was a testament to the impact one man has made on the milk supply of a country.

Another sign of the muscle that the dairy sector has achieved is the way in which its objections to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that is being formed by China, South-East Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand, played a driving role in India refusing to sign on. Joining RCEP would mean India accepting substantially increased imports of dairy products from New Zealand and Australia and India’s dairy industry dug in its heels – and the Indian government acceded.

The figures that have emerged from the 20th Livestock Census of India provide further testimony to Dr. Kurien’s achievement. It isn’t just the sheer numbers of cattle (192.4 million) and buffaloes (109.8 million), but their composition that shows the impact of the scientific dairying principles that the White Revolution instilled.

Among the cattle, for example, the numbers of male cattle have declined by 31% which shows that India’s cattle herd is increasingly focussed on efficient milk production. (Whether this has been achieved relatively humanely, by sex selective impregnation of cows, or by quietly abandoning males is unclear).

India buffaloes are better suited to the climatic conditions and types of forage available in large parts of the country. Yet as Dr. Kurien details in his autobiography, I Too Had a Dream, he had to deal with persistent scepticism from dairy experts about Amul’s use of buffaloes and whether it would be able to produce quality products from their milk – and he gleefully notes how he regularly proved them wrong.

The value placed by Dr. Kurien on buffaloes hasn’t been maintained by current dairymen, who only seem to want to showcase cow milk. But the Livestock Census shows that, despite being given much lower priority the numbers of buffaloes have grown by a steady 1.06 per cent, which is more than the 0.83 per cent growth in cattle. It seems there is a dairying logic to depending on buffaloes in India that overcomes a prejudice for cows.

Despite such testimonies to what was achieved by Dr. Kurien, and the many who worked with him, it will be interesting to see how much his contribution is actually lauded on National Milk Day. Because it has been increasingly clear of late that Dr. Kurien, and the scientific dairying that he espoused is no longer in favour with important political interests.

This came out, most shockingly, in an attack on him last year by Dileep Sanghani, a BJP leader and former minister from Gujarat, who alleged that Dr. Kurien had used funds from his dairy organisation to support Christian conversions in tribal areas in Gujarat. This was a bizarre charge given that Dr. Kurien was almost aggressively disinterested in religion.

The real problem that Dr. Kurien, and his model of dairy economics poses, comes from the hyper sensitive issue of cow slaughter. While the roots of this issue go back to preIndependence days, campaigning against cow slaughter as being against Indian culture was used, very successfully, by Hindu aligned groups to raise their political profile from the mid 1950s onwards. This reached a peak of sorts in the first attack ever made on India’s parliament in 1966 by a rampaging mob of cow protection supporters.

In the wake of this attack the government established a committee to decide on this issue, which included both proponents of a cow slaughter ban, and also firm opponents lead by Dr. Kurien. As he states in his memoir, “it was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilised for healthy and productive cattle.” Despite immense pressure, Dr. Kurien stood firm and after 12 years of meeting the committee was quietly disbanded.

Today, in the absence of a strong voice like Dr. Kurien’s, his rational arguments are being overturned, and the effect is starting to be seen. It is one reason for the larger growth in buffaloes – though this might have been expected to be larger, which in turn makes one suspect that the real impact will only show up in the next Livestock Census. It is also the obvious reason for the rapid decline in male cattle. If their value cannot be realised in sale and slaughter, and they also have to be kept alive, it is best that they aren’t born at all.

One of the most controversial statistics from the Livestock Census is likely to be the fact that native Indian cattle breeds have shown a decline of minus six percent, while cattle crossbred with foreign varieties have grown very rapidly by 26.9 per cent. Native Indian breeds, like the Gir, give markedly less milk than foreign varieties, like Holsteins, and one key change made by the White Revolution was encourage cattle crossbred with foreign varieties to increase milk production rapidly – and clearly this has happened in favour of Indian breeds, and there are rational arguments for this position. Indian breeds are better suited to local conditions (like buffaloes) and can survive without the specialised, and expensive diets required by foreign breeds. But the economics of dairying clearly focuses on the foreign breeds, especially if dairy farmers aren’t being allowed to realise the value of non-milking cattle by selling them for slaughter.

Essentially, India’s dairy industry is now being faced by demands for (a) no cattle slaughter, (b) more cows, particularly Indian breeds and (c) maintaining the high rates of production set by the White Revolution. The first and the last is being met, at least to some extent, as the Livestock Census shows, by increasing numbers of buffaloes, or by of high yield cross-bred cows. But meeting all three aims together seems impossible.

Increased numbers of native breeds could possibly be accommodated if dairy farmers were allowed to off-set their lower yield by selling them for slaughter. One telling proof of this comes from the fact that the one part of the world where Indian origin cattle are thriving is not India, but Brazil, where Indian breeds were taken because of their suitability to tropical conditions. The Brazilian cattle are meant for beef as much, or even more, than milk, and as such the economics of raising work, in a way they can’t in India with the cow slaughter ban.

Proponents of native breeds in India are prone to suggesting that this value could be made up by monetising products from their dung and urine. But given clear absence of major demand for such products – and the way in which some proponents exaggerate their case, for example by suggesting Indian cow urine contains gold – this value proposition seems hard to support.

A more concrete value proposition might be found in newly trendy A2 milk. This is a kind of milk that lacks a specific protein which, studies suggest, might make it healthier for consumption. The milk of many Western varieties contains this protein, but the milk of native Indian breeds – and other animals, like buffaloes and goats – lacks it. The New Zealand based A2 Milk Company popularised the concept, at least partly in the hope of breaking into the potentially lucrative Chinese market.

There are now a range of premium milk services in Indian metros, and most are now focussing on A2 milk. The value of this approach is that it makes consumers appreciate milk, and the real costs of producing it in a locally sustainable way. The problem is that by making milk a premium product it increasingly becomes unaffordable by those who really need it – the millions of poor Indians who desperately need the protein it provides, and who were the beneficiaries from the White Revolution.

There might be a solution to this whole milk mess, but one that comes from an entirely new side. The plant based milk industry is growing rapidly driven by the increasing consumer power of the vegan movement.

There are increasing takers for their arguments that animal milk is inherently cruel since it always involves depriving young animals of their natural source of nutrition. In actual practice too, they argue, there are numerous cruelties involved in commercial dairying that make milk a deeply unethical product.

The plant based milks produced by this movement were initially derived from nuts, which are so expensive as to make them impossible to develop as mass market products.

A new range of plant based milks are based on grains like oats and rice, which are more affordable, though the processing costs are still high. But the real breakthrough might come from companies like San Francisco based Perfect Day, led by two young Indian origin entrepreneurs, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi.

Other plant based milks have all involved creating mixing base ingredients with water at high speed to create milk-like emulsions of fats and suspensions of solids, and adding ingredients that prevent these separating over time. Perfect Day takes a fundamentally different approach, by using micro-organisms like yeast to create actual dairy proteins with the help of cow milk DNA. These can then be combined with water and other non-dairy ingredients to create a product that is as close to lab grow dairy as we are likely to get.

As it happens, proponents of plant based milks like this have also created a day to celebrate their products. Objecting to the FAO’s World Milk Day, they started a World Plant Milk Day in 2017, which they celebrated on August 22nd. Perhaps in time we might need to have a National Plant Milk Day in India to celebrate the only products that can resolve all the problems that the government is creating by moving away from the clarity of Dr. Kurien’s approach to milk.

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