The Political Economy of Milk
By James H. Maroney, Jr.
Gala Books, Ltd
Several good points are made in this book starting with the prologue, where Mr. Maroney points out the inconsistency and hypocrisy of improving student performance with Ritalin while disapproving of performance-enhancing drugs for athletes. This leads to the question of what are acceptable choices for making it easier to achieve the results you’re looking for. There are a lot of options that may look good in the short run but lead to unintended consequences, both in health and economics.
Subsidies sound like a great idea, at least superficially. If some group of producers doesn’t make enough money, the government gives them more. When you start to think this through more carefully, several problems pop up. Where is the money really ultimately coming from? Are subsidies addressing the underlying problem? Even if you find a way to sweep those problems under the rug or rationalize them in some way, subsidies set off a chain of events that exacerbate the problem. A business where you are paid more, but not producing more, is going to attract more people into that business and the easy money. That is going to lead to surpluses which will push prices down. Then the producers will need more subsidies to stay in the game. The spiral continues. The situation now in Vermont and probably everywhere else in the country is that farmers have to sell their milk for less than the cost of production. Clearly, nobody can keep that up forever. The smaller farms are the first to fold or be bought up by larger farms. Everybody tries to get bigger as a way of getting ahead of the curve and we end up with a few very large milk producers and still razor-thin profit margins.
James Bovard said, “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” The author points out that in a democracy where less than 2 percent of the population farms and everybody eats, the majority will like the lower prices and the small minority of producers won’t get much help from democratically elected officials. This may be over-simplified in the land of corporate lobbyists, but there is no doubt that you can quickly lose a lot of money by going into commercial milk production. The book explains this vicious cycle nicely. Another result of this cycle is that quality is routinely overwhelmed by economic considerations. The price tag on a bottle of milk looks nice and cheap but how cheap is it really? The tag on the bottle doesn’t include the price to the cows, the environment, and the health of the general population. Cheap food leads to more medical bills. A recent study indicated that 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies were triggered mainly by overwhelming medical bills. That doesn’t sound so cheap to me.
So what is the author’s solution? Organic milk. Organic milk is not subsidized (therefore not overproduced) and appeals to a more affluent market. This may have sounded like a good idea a year or two ago, but since organic milk demand has dropped and some Vermont organic producers have folded, maybe there are still a few bugs to work out. A few other things bother me. One is that organic milk is still an adulterated product, still pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized, usually homogenized and grain-fed, so the cost to health is still there and that catches up with everybody sooner or later. If he would have gone beyond organic and all the way to raw milk, this would have been a much better book.
Maroney also suggests that the end product of organic production is not really any different from commercial milk, just produced differently. He bases this on government restrictions on antibiotics and FDA claims that hormones don’t affect the milk. Besides being untrue, there are a few other disturbing points. Organic milk may be produced differently but I just visited an organic creamery at a very opportune time. A calf had just been born hours earlier. When the calf reached the ripe old age of about four hours a farm hand came along, grabbed the calf and unceremoniously dumped it on an ATV and started to drive it away. Momma cow was understandably upset and tried to follow, only to be smacked in the head a few times and physically blocked from following. It was quite disturbing to watch. This was done because the creamery was more interested in getting all the milk they could from the cows rather than in the well-being of the animals. The point is, even organic is not always as humane and environmentally friendly as the average city-dweller might think.
There is another problem. If we gullibly accept the premise that organic is identical to commercial, that implies that the grand solution amounts to essentially re-labeling the milk to appeal to a more upscale customer. I can’t say I’m impressed with the integrity of that position. In many ways, the book is good, but these fatal flaws force me to give it a thumbs down.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.