The problem with milk

One of the most difficult things seems to be getting everything to work harmoniously as one tries to live sustainably. Since last year I’ve tried to veganise my life as best I can (since watching the film Cowspiracy last year), although being totally vegan in India is a bit challenging. So much of life centres around the cow. At home I got my family to switch from Nandini milk packets to Akshayakalpa, a farm just outside of Bangalore that supplies excellent quality organic milk. Here’s the problem: it comes in plastic packets just like all the other brands.

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Depending on where you lived, Indians generally grew up with milk reaching their doorstep each morning either in a glass bottle (which of course would be refilled and reused) or the milk man would come with a huge steel container and fill up your steel cans (see below) with milk for the day. Today it generally comes either in a Tetrapak or a plastic packet. While there are ways of recycling both products (Tetrapaks are also upcycled into various clever and useful products by Anu Life and Joy at Work), neither one is particularly healthy for our environment because of its plastic content, which can leach into the milk you’re drinking to stay healthy. That plastic content mimics the female hormone estrogen, which can wreak havoc on one’s body whether you’re male or female:

Most plastic products, from sippy cups to food wraps, can release chemicals that act like the sex hormone estrogen, according to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

And here is just one of the many hazards of taking that excess estrogen into your body:

Estrogen plays a key role in everything from bone growth to ovulation to heart function. Too much or too little, particularly in utero or during early childhood, can alter brain and organ development, leading to disease later in life. Elevated estrogen levels generally increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

Ironically, in the UK it seems that consumers imagine plastic to be safer than glass, which is leading one of its last dairy companies to deal in class to shift substances this year. Meanwhile, in the U.S. it appears that milk in glass bottles is making a come back for many reasons including the fact that it tastes better!

But what to do? If the delivery system is such that one has no choice but to buy milk in some kind of plastic product, then which brand should you choose? The Food Sovereignty Alliance makes it clear that the milk industry in India is adulterating our dairy products in a variety of ways, not the least of which affects our health and the livelihoods of the farmers:

At school it’s much easier to procure milk in the healthy, old-fashioned or traditional way because I get it directly from the milk coop in the village next to my school (see below). There the cows are local, indigenous breeds (not the Jersey or Holstein variety that cause so many problems in this region, not the least of which is its inability to find enough food to graze on because it’s meant for a different climate).

One of the main problems is that India continues to regress by blindly following in the footsteps of the West–especially when it comes to food in urban centres. With cows this can mean all sorts of problems, not the least of which are the addition of antibiotics and rBGH to cows, which of course also affects the humans drinking or eating these products. Perhaps returning to a time when India thought (or maybe didn’t need to think about it because it was second nature) about the relationship between sustainability, health, and livelihoods may be a better way forward.

Cant there be a way to align organic dairy products with environmentally sustainable packaging and right livelihood across the dairy sector? If only nation-wide coops and dairy companies like Amul could be as clever with their overall vision as they are with the puns in their ads. Perhaps we need some inspiration from Shyam Benegal’s film Manthan.

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