Milked: White Lies in Dairy land
Directed by Amy Taylor (2022)
MILKED is a feature documentary that exposes the whitewash of New Zealand’s multi-billion-dollar dairy industry. Māori activist Chris Huriwai travels around the country searching for the truth about how this source of national pride has become the biggest threat to the environment and to the farmers it exploits.
New Zealand is the world’s largest dairy exporter, and Fonterra, a former farmer’s cooperative that opened up shares to non-farmer investors in 2012.
According to several environmentalists interviewed in the film, dairy intensification is rapidly depleting New Zealand’s topsoil (by 193 million tonnes annually), while despoiling its streams, rivers, lakes and land with cancer-causing nitrates that will make it difficult for farmers to transition to other crops. New Zealand is also a major contributor to deforestation in South East Asia owing to the two million tonnes of palm kernel it imports per year (for its supposedly “grass fed” dairy herds).
Health researchers estimate high nitrate concentrations in drinking water are linked to 800,000 new bowel cancer cases every year.
Despite research showing milk-based calcium doesn’t reduce fractures,* Fonterra heavily markets milk as an essential source of calcium. Even more worrying research documents a link between high estrogen levels in milk** and higher rates of breast and prostate cancer. High milk intake is also linked to chronic digestive and skin problems in many non-European populations (including New Zealand Māori), who lack the enzyme necessary (lactase) to digest lactose (milk sugar).
Milk is heavily marketed to Māori, who have highest level of milk consumption in the world – and 80% more prostate cancer than New Zealand Europeans. Ironically Fonterra also heavily markets their dairy exports to China, India and South East Asia, where nearly 100% of residents also lack the ability to digest lactose.
Fonterra officials refused to to be interviewed for this documentary. However numerous farmers, including a representative of Federated Farmers, were willing to talk to Hurawai. Despite working from 3:30 am to 7 pm seven days a week, New Zealand’s dairy farmers are struggling to repay roughly $38 billion of debt. Totally demoralized by increasing costs for fuel, fertilizer and palm kernel, 167 have committed suicide in the past ten years.
Hurawai also interviews several former dairy farmers who have escaped the rat race by transitioning to new crops. The most promising seems to be hemp. Although hemp absorbs four times as much CO2 as pine, the New Zealand government (owing to heavy Fonterra lobbying), refuses to open its carbon emission trading scheme to hemp farmers.
The end of the film suggests that New Zealand farmers may be forced to transition away from dairy if Silicon Valley successfully scales up its ability to produce milk and other dairy products cheaply via fermentation (with genetically modified bacteria). As natural dairy products are far more expensive to produce, this could collapse New Zealand’s dairy industry over night.
*Including one study showing that fractures increase with higher calcium intake.
**A lactating cow produces high levels of estrogen.
**China mainly imports milk powder from New Zealand, which it uses in infant formula. This enables new mothers to migrate from rural China to work in urban factories, while their infants are cared for by older family members in their villages.
Film can be viewed free at Water Bear: https://join.waterbear.com/milked