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China drinks its milk

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By Finlo Rohrer

China's growing love of dairy products is threatening to push UK prices up. But why are the Chinese drinking more milk and why does it affect the whole world?

It used to be said that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold, but the expression is being increasingly tailored to the rise of China.

Rarely a week passes when some new phenomenon related to the growth of the eastern giant is not remarked upon. In the globalised economy, fads in the most populous nation can cause seismic shifts elsewhere.

And this link is why rising consumption of dairy products in China could cause the price of a supermarket pizza and a host of other items in the UK to rise.

The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao says he has a dream. And this dream sounds like something from a 1950s public education film.

"I have a dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, sufficient milk each day."

Catching up

Specifically, he wants to make sure everyone gets one jin, or half a kilogram, which is a fair amount for a nation usually characterised as lactose intolerant.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China's consumption of milk has gone from 26 kilocalories per person per day in 2002 to 43 in 2005. Westerners consume many times more, but their demand is stable.

A billboard in Beijing shows a small grinning child clutching a carton of milk, with champion hurdler Liu Xiang towering above holding a similar carton. The message is simple - drink milk and grow up to be a big, strapping athlete.

It doesn't quite square with a dietary tradition that, among the vast majority of Chinese at least, has never featured significant quantities of milk.

Newspaper columnist Xinran, author of What the Chinese Don't Eat, says the "dairification" of China may in part be due to those, particularly uneducated former peasants, who aspire to Western lifestyles but view them through a strange prism.

"Until China opened up, Chinese people had no idea about international standards. This is why people in the 1980s believed McDonald's was the best Western food," she says.

"They believe that Westerners had a better life based on meat and milk. They think white people or black people [in the West] are physically stronger."

And the mere fact of meat and milk becoming available, married to growing prosperity, after such a long period of scarcity will have changed patterns of consumption.

Ice cream

"Milk and meat was very expensive [and rationed] before the 1980s. Even if you had this [ration] ticket you still had to join a long queue."

Professor James Watson, of Harvard University, an anthropologist specialising in diet, dismisses the notion that an admiration for the West is behind changes, insisting availability is the key.

"It doesn't indicate they are becoming more Western, it just means they like ice cream.

"When I first went to Hong Kong in the 1960s, I would bring in little pieces of New Zealand cheese. At one point the landlord, a Cantonese guy, saw the cheese and got violently ill just by the sight. It grossed him out, as much the idea of eating rotten cow's milk as anything. Now his grandchildren are eating pizza and processed cheese."

As well as planning for more milk consumption, the Chinese government is making every effort to increase production, recently rising to the third biggest producer in the world behind the US and India.

The businesses are doing dairy on a massive scale using imported Friesian cows.

Government push

Nuffield farm scholar Emma Hockridge visited Chinese dairy facilities on a research trip.

"There does seem to be a really strong government push to eat more cheese and dairy. There is very much an aspirational Western diet.

"It is quite a new industry for China, but they are trying to be very technical about it. I saw 3,000 cows kept in pretty bad conditions. It did seem that they were trying to mimic the Western-style dairy unit. The whole climate isn't really suited to dairy farming - there's very high humidity."

China has massive herds and up-to-date equipment

And despite the efforts of the Chinese government, when production fails to meet demand the consequence is higher global prices. Germany, a big exporter of milk, has already seen prices rise. In Britain the phenomenon will be slower to take effect as farmers are locked into contracts that keep an agreed price.

The one confusing factor is that of lactose intolerance. The majority of Chinese adults suffer a deficiency of lactase, the enzyme needed to break down the lactose in milk and the common trigger for lactose intolerance.

Cheese and processed milk products are low in lactose, there is lactose-free milk, and there are many adults that suffer no, or only limited, intolerance.

But as well as the intolerance issue, there has been research linking the switch to a Western diet to a rise in breast cancer.

Breakfast change

And while fast food has been blamed for rising obesity in China, Mr Watson believes the switch to dairy is the more likely cause.

Jim Begg, head of Dairy UK, says it is clear the average UK consumer will be affected by China's newfound love of milk.

"It is true and it's real. The world's markets, commodity markets, are booming and it's being driven by the demand of China.

"In China you have significant population growth and urbanisation and at the same time the government are supporting the drive for increased dairy consumption for school-children. It just shows what can happen when governments really get behind milk."

And those British consumers tutting as rises in prices would do well to remember the root of China's love of dairy, Prof Watson says.

"When Hong Kong was opened up by the British, one of the first things they did was to ship in some cows.

"It was very important to the development of Hong Kong. Dairy spread in south China from colonial outposts."

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