The passage of time in the United States reflects the different stages that the production models of the different sectors have followed, including the dairy sector. It has gone from the stage of traditional consumption (small-scale production, extensive technique, and trade on a local or regional scale) to the model of intensive consumption (large milk production factories and trade on a national and international scale). Today we can see a glimpse of a third stage, the ecological transition.
Milk consumption in the mid-1960s was booming until reaching a peak in the late 1980s or early 1990s. In this time interval, milk consumption went from about 60 liters per year per person to 115 liters per year per person, an increase in consumption of almost double. However, starting in the 1990s, a progressive decline in consumption began, reaching the figure of 68 liters per person per year in 2018. On the other hand, the consumption of dairy products, mainly yogurts, and cheeses, has continued continuously. growth to date. Despite this, a significant decrease in consumption between 2007 and 2010 is noteworthy, coinciding with the start of the economic crisis in 2007. In the interval between 1965 and 2018, the consumption of dairy products went from 5 kg per year per person to more than 35 kg.
The population has also grown during this time interval, so milk production has had to practically double in this period, from a decline in consumption in recent years. In the case of milk consumption per inhabitant, the decline may be justified by various factors, including the different studies on the negative effects of milk in adults and animal treatment (and additives, such as hormones and medications ) in intensive dairy farms. These studies generate a lot of controversies, since, on the one hand, some explain how indigestible milk can be in adults (especially whole milk) and others explain the importance of its calcium and phosphorus contributions. Due to this, the consumption of milk of vegetable origin has grown, such as soy, almond, or rice milk, and of animal origin with care over livestock and production, such as organic milk.
The dairy industry, specifically the sector that produces milk for consumption, has been changing its techniques over the years. Formerly, the extraction was carried out manually, and little by little, it was extended to mechanical extraction, using a greater quantity of milk in less time. With demographic growth and advances in technology and biotechnology, intensive livestock techniques began to become popular around the 1960s, following a line of continuous development to the present day. This production model consists of maximizing production at the lowest possible cost. For this, the breeding of animals is carried out under conditions of overpopulation, that is, more individuals than correspond per unit area, so they lack adequate space. Due to these conditions, the use of a large number of antibiotics and pesticides is required to combat diseases and their spread. In addition, to maximize production, the use of hormones is abused, which allows animals to develop earlier and reach higher rates of milk production (in the case of cows).
As a result of this, different opinions and studies have arisen about the safety and ethics of this form of production, alleging that these pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones can end up reaching the final consumers, that is, us. However, this does not imply that this type of milk contains substances that are harmful to health since despite not using the most ethically appropriate techniques, they must pass rigorous quality and food safety tests.
Due to growing social awareness, products with the prefixes Bio and Eco are reaching the markets, which guarantees that the production of the product has been carried out following strict sustainability standards.
In the case of organic milk, the quality of life of the animal and the environment is guaranteed. For this, the producers are obliged to feed the cows with 100% natural grasses and forages, without pesticides or genetically modified organisms. In addition, the cows must have land of at least 2 hectares to graze, this pasture being again free of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or pesticides. Each cow must have at least 6 m of surface to rest and they cannot be given hormones to produce more milk. Also, those cows that have had to be treated with medication for more than 3 months, will have to go through a conversion period of 6 months to be able to produce organic milk again. These are only some of the requirements that are imposed on farmers who want to be certified as producers of organic milk.
The total production of milk by this method is considerably lower than the intensive one since a higher quality product and animal welfare are sought. Production costs also increase and, as is logical, it is reflected in the final price of the product. Despite this and in general, the price is within the reach of all pockets, so if you are considering going over to the ecological side, this is a good opportunity.
Buying a package of milk today is not as simple a task as it was a few years ago. And it is not only because of the variety of brands or types of milk but because today’s consumer goes further in his relationship with the company and wants to know everything about the product: in what conditions the animals live, how they are fed, how they treat their illnesses? And the small rancher, enjoys good conditions, can he improve his business, and enjoys a good quality of life with that work?
According to a report on trends in food and beverages for 2018, prepared by the global consulting firm Mintel, the brand that wants to sell its natural products will have to meet this information demand from the consumer if it wants to earn their trust. Along these lines, another report from the same consultancy points to a significant increase in the last two years of food and beverage products that added labels indicating that they did not contain additives or preservatives or that they were of organic origin. And is that consumers are increasingly concerned about being sure that what they eat or drink has passed the necessary quality controls.
Therefore, when talking about milk, it is important to be clear about the differences between organic milk, grass-fed milk, and animal welfare, concepts that can lead to confusion and that allude, however, to products with important basic differences. When we talk about grass-fed milk, we refer to classic and traditional milk that advocates that the cows graze outdoors, while the classic milk that claims animal welfare responds to a demand for respect by the consumer for the quality of life of the dairy cow. Both alternatives obtain certificates from private organizations that on many occasions only certify what is already regulated by regulations. Organic milk, however, goes a step further in all aspects: to cite an example, this milk comes from a cow that only eats grass, forage, or grain-free of fertilizers and genetically modified organisms, and food from certified organic farming.
With more than 15 years in the English market, organic milk is the most complete and sustainable alternative, since it combines criteria of animal welfare, grazing, and an exclusively natural animal feed. But in addition, it is important to highlight that it is the only one with official regulation superior to what is claimed for grazing milk and animal welfare, through the Regulation on the production and labeling of ecological products of the European Union.
In that sense, there are various aspects to take into account when assessing these typologies. For example, to generate new opportunities for the agricultural and livestock sector in rural areas, the impact is minimal in the case of grazing milk and animal welfare, from traditional livestock farms that hardly undergo any modification. On the contrary, organic milk is committed to the sustainability of the livestock sector through the search for formulas to offer added value to the farmer.
On the other hand, regarding the comprehensive care of the animal, the European regulation to which organic production is subject guarantees that animals enjoy the best care and conditions, setting, for example, a maximum of two cows per hectare of land to ensure animal welfare. This regulation also establishes that the animals can graze in the open air whenever possible -depending on the weather conditions-, as well as the use by ranchers of management techniques to avoid stress on the cows.
The search for these optimal conditions for the animal in the case of organic production also has a clear effect on health, with less frequency of diseases and a better immune response to possible infections. And in the case of diseases, the possibility of alternative treatments to antibiotics is always sought, which are only used as a last resort, and in that case, the treated cow’s milk is discarded for a while.
Faced with these and other innovative measures, dairy milk and animal welfare are limited to following the regulations in force for all milk manufacturers, allowing the use of antibiotics in each necessary case. In addition, the accreditation and promotion of their practices are in the hands of private certifications.
Well-fed in freedom, always with organically produced pastures, fodder and fodder compared to the limited grazing schedule or the use of fertilizers of other types, organic dairy cows enjoy all the necessary care that allows them to produce that final product that they all seek: the healthiest glass of milk with which we lick our lips with the awareness of knowing that to achieve it, in addition, things have been done well.