Not all milk is created equal

17 September 2021

A milk that travels hundreds of kilometers after being pasteurized, with the use of microbial rennet, perhaps even transgenic, grafted with industrial ferments to give us a trivial cheese devoid of personality; cheese which is sold, of course, to consumers who are uninformed and driven solely by price: is this a value chain? No, this is an industrial production process.

A value chain must be consistent and respect of all the stages of the process: from the land and the plants that grow in it, to the animals that eat them and give us the milk, to the processes of treating that milk.

Diet

The milk value chain begins with the pastures. Does anyone think that the cows who gives us milk for the cheeses we find on the supermarket shelves feed on fresh grass and hay? They’d be wrong. A grass-based diet is a luxury these days. The cows on large farms are fed with a small portion of hay; the majority of their diet is a mix of cereals and legumes, mostly genetically-modified soya, industrial by-products and supplements. A hyperenergetic ration necessary to provoke the production of lots of milk, often given to them in a semi-liquid mash called unifeed. Imagine eating the same smoothie every day without being able to choose, without even being able to chew. Cows, like all animals, have their preferences, as herders who work well know; cows need to ruminate and chew. When they’re free to graze on pasture, the choose the best grasses, and search out medicinal plants when they feel sick.

milk

Even the hay commonly given to cows raised on industrial farms rarely contains the essence of the land: it’s normally bought hundreds of kilometers away, or from abroad. What’s more, the fields are sown with just one or two fodder crops, while a natural meadow – or stable meadow as they’re technically defined – may be home to 20 to 100 plant species, especially at high altitudes.

Promoting pasture-raised milk could change the destiny of many alpine areas, and help us to confront the climate crisis.

Promoting pasture-raised milk could change the destiny of many alpine areas, and even help us to confront the most serious problem of our times: the climate crisis. Well-kept pastures have a positive effect on the environment from multiple points of view. In the first instance the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by farms is often completely offset by the capacity of these systems to absorb C02 (the so-called “carbon uptake”). That is, lands rich in vegetation absorb and sequester carbon in equal or greater measure than that which is emitted during the productive process. It’s a form of natural compensation, which can “cancel” the impact of the farm on the planet, and which in some cases can render them carbon “creditors”.

A study conducted by Indaco2 on a Slow Food Presidium farm for Macagn, near Biella, found that CO2 emissions were 83% lower than those created by a similar, but industrial, cheese. Emissions which are totally compensated for by the vegetal ecosystem of the alpine pastures.

Taking care of the pastures allows us to conserve the landscape, to protect the biodiversity of both flora and fauna; it makes mountain areas livable, rather than being wild and abandoned bushland; it reduces the hydrogeological risks and the danger of devastating wildfires.

Advantages for our health

Promoting pasture-raised dairy products is an extraordinary opportunity for mountain economies in difficulty, but they’re also good for our health. Milk and cheese that come from animals that feed on a diet of fresh grass and hay are rich in micronutrients and have a greater ratio of fatty polyunsaturated acids omega-3 and omega-6.

Pasture is fundamental, but it’s also important to manage the processing of the milk well too. First of all it shouldn’t be pasteurized, but should coagulate thanks to the native microflora and not with the help of industrial ferments. Industrial giants produce these microbial cultures that, added to milk, facilitate the cheesemaking process and reduce the risk of defects in the cheese. It would seem like an important support for producers, but the consequence is the trivialization of flavors, and a victory for the market over terroir and artisanal know-how.

For this reason Slow Food has launched a campaign that ties together the promotion of pastures and native animal breeds, the defense of raw milk and a battle against the use of industrial ferments in cheesemaking.

Formazza

Our agricultural biodiversity is a rich heritage

Italy is the most biodiverse country in Europe and the diversity of Italian cheeses is greater than countries more famous for their dairy heritage, like France. Traveling along the peninsula one discovers unique traditional techniques (from stretched curd in the south to cooked curd, to blue and washed-rind cheeses…), cheeses made with cow’s milk, sheep, goat, buffalo, cheeses from the high mountains and cheeses from the Mediterranean macchia. Behind every product there’s an economy, an area, a story, a gastronomy.

With such an incredible inherited wealth, focusing on the industrial homogenization would be a short-sighted and irresponsible choice.

For over 30 years Slow Food has been working to protect and promote this diversity. Cheese, with its market dedicated to artisanal dairy products from across the world, is the best opportunity to explore it.

Piero Sardo