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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 August 2007, 14:13 GMT 15:13 UK
China drinks its milk
Cut-out cow advertising milk

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

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.

I have a dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, sufficient milk each day
Wen Jiabao
Chinese Premier

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.

Milk advert

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.

Lactose intolerance
Bad climate for Friesians
Lack of refrigeration
Possible health risks

"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."

Dairy unit in China
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 risk.

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.

Chinese demand
Australian drought
British floods
Strict quota system

"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."

Here is a selection of your comments.

Increased demand from China (amongst many factors) has already pushed dairy commodity prices up. We manufacture pizzas for the supermarkets and the cost of cheese has increased by up to 50% in the past month. Wholesale prices for Cheddar cheese have hit about 3000 per tonne - 6 weeks ago it was just under 2000. Consumers may eventually see an increase in retail prices when and if the retailers finally agree to pay manufacturers more.
Simon, Callander, Scotland

I was brought up in Hong Kong and this cultural shift to adopting an increased dairy intake happened exactly 20 years ago in Hong Kong. Milk is scientifically proven to be beneficial to the human body especially children. However, like most things we consume, excessive amounts will have an adverse effect.

On a slightly different note, this whole notion of "China sneezes and the whole world catches a cold" - which has become the latest cliche in BBC News - the demonization of China, I believe is really starting to take its toll in Western countries. China's reputation as a mass consuming juggernaut will soon become - from the eyes of the Western public - the world's biggest enemy.
Egon, London

The healthest diet is a balanced diet, everything in moderation and the inclusion of dairy products ensures you take in enough vitamins and minerals - especially calcium - to ward off osteoporis in later life. The very fact that the new generation of Chinese are taller and stronger than any previous generation of Chinese is down to the better diets available to the people of China today. The Chinese believe strongly in daily exercise and biking everywhere so not for them the threat of obesity found in the Western world. The greater choice of Dairy products to the chinese people will open up a healthier diet to them all - all human babies are natually fed on milk - and the Chinese Premier realises that fact
Rachel, UK

What absolutly fantastic news for our farmers the sooner they can tear up their contracts with the supermarkets the better. Hopefully now they will get the true price of milk and the cost of their labour. I hope they bleed the supermarket through the nose next time they have to renew their contract because if the supermarkets wont pay it the Chinees will bless them. 50p a pint say I and before you lot start crying in it if you can pay almost 2.00 a pint of beer then you can stump up the true cost of milk. Its virtually sold as a loss leader to bring you into the shop.
Paul. H, Leigh

Having read (Prof Jane Plant's book) about the increase in breast cancer in Chinese/Japanese women who follow the "new" western diet and having lost my grandmother and mother to breast cancer (with an aunt undergoing treatment right now too) I have been dairy-free for over 6 years. I hope this change to Chinese culture does not mean they pay a higher/alternative health price in the long run.
Rachel, Midhurst

To Joanne Jackson and others: they shouldn't have described cheese as 'rotten cow's milk'. Cheese was used and became popular thousands of years ago as as a method of conserving the valuable nutrients of milk; making a longlife version, not rotten at all! Could we think of it as 'portable milk' perhaps? Cheese is a very natural and healthy food, as it has higher protein % than milk, and no sugar or carbs. Obviously eat in moderation as everything - but will the new chinese market know that? there may well be an obesity issue in a few years, if the young people eat like westerners do! In the meantime, my pint of milk and cheddar have increased in price. Boo hoo!
R W, London, UK

Why are people blaming milk for cancer and obesity? Milk has been a major part of our diet for about 100,000 years. And its mostly been pure, unpasturied, full fat milk. Obesity has only become a problem in the past 30 years when we drink mainly semi or full skimmed milk and we dont drink as much of it.

Health wise, I drink at least 1 pint of full fat milk a day and always have done. Im taller than average, average weight, never had a major health problem, last minor health problem was a short cold 4 years ago. I love milk!
Stuart Evans, Wigan

Being one of those lactose intolerant Asians, I think it is a horrible move on China's part. If you look at the health statistics of the general Asian population, there is a significant positive difference as compared to the white counterparts. I attribute this to stable families and A HEALTHY DIET. The traditional Chinese diet, not that American fried fake Chinese food, is corrupted (with milk), I fear the culture and health would be spoiled as well. If China imposes milk, which is full of fats, it will turn Chinese children into fat American clones. The West is not always the best.
Thanh Chiem, Dallas, TX, United States

I visited China extensively in 1987, just before Tienanmen. The almost total absence of milk products was really strange, until we got to the far south west (Kunming) when suddenly drinking yoghurt was available in third of a pint bottles (remember school milk bottles, I know where they all went). It was delicious, so the Chinese aren't exactly new-comers to milk! But culural fashions change. I think I am addicted to ginger, since my visit!
awswimmer, Bristol, UK

Alex from Milton Keynes - There is not a shred of evidence linking the intake of milk to breast cancer. In fact milk contains Vitamin D, which is known to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. A good review of influence, or rather lack of influence, of milk on cancer risk can be found in the journal "Cancer" in June 2006 by Michels and colleagues. Sorry to be off topic but it is important that ill informed statements regarding such emotive and important issues are challenged!
Chris McNeil, Aberdeen

Surely somewhere in the middle is a balance? I agree that too much animal fat in your diet isn't good. But at the same time, dairy products are delicious and the calcium in them is good for bones and teeth. Perhaps if we in the West ate a little less milk, cheese and meat, and more wholegrains and fresh vegetables, we'd have fewer allergies and less incidence of certain cancers. At the same time, why shouldn't Chinese people enjoy dairy food? It would help their bone development and add variety to their diets. The lesson for us all is about moderation and learning to share resources.
Pippa, London

The increased dairy product prices, due to demand from China and helped by the USA switching corn production to biofuels, is wrecking our economy and environment. New Zealand risks becoming too dependent on the windfall provided to dairy farmers as other land users struggle to compete. New Zealand is on track to becoming one enormous stinking dairy farm.
Steve, Geraldine, New Zealand

I fully agree with Alex from Milton Keynes. I too am cutting down on dairy products because a) their health benefits are laughable - you can get the same and more nutritional values from vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, b) far from being pure, dairy products contain all the medicines that cows are getting these day (on top of that, they are munching on grass loaded with pesticides) and c) our planet can do with a lot less cattle - they already give off so many toxins due to farting and belching, that even a year's worth of long-haul jumbo jets pales by comparison. In short, China, please don't do this to yourself, the cows or our planet.
Martina Watson, East Horsley, Surrey

As a born and raised Chinese myself, there are great deal of misunderstandings in this article. First of all and everything, it is never stimulated by western diet, in fact it was Japan. During 1950-1980 (cannot remember exact figure), Japanese gov't pushed a range of policy that every child must drink a bottle of milk every morning. Hence by 20 yrs Japanese youth average height significantly increased. I hear almost every mother/grandma in China telling their kids this story.

Second, soybean milk in china is commonly believed a strong and better alternative (no, not the soybean milk you can buy from local TESCO) Hence "breakfast milk" actually refers to both of them. Many Chinese mothers believe Dairy Milk makes kids feel sleepy during daytime, but Soybean Milk doesn't, and the latter is good for IQ dev.
Henry Yan, London

I've always found it odd that as a culture they never invented cheese, but instead came up with "century eggs". Either way the world will have to brace itself because this means more dairy farming which will mean more global warming, and the amount of pesticides and fertilisers users in dairy production will go up further when it really needs to come the other way fast.
paul, cardiff

"The majority of Chinese adults suffer a deficiency of lactase." Deficiency? Hardly. Us Westerners are bizarre genetic freaks. In most other animals, lactase stops being produced in childhood. In some bizarre evolutionary twist, and against all the odds, we've ended up being able to drink the stuff
Niall, Edinburgh, Scotland

We tend to push milk and other dairy products on our children for the calcium. But this is available in many other foods (in smaller quantities), fish, broccoli and bread to name three. I'm not sure why the Chinese believe that milk is the answer if they want to emulate the physical strength they perceive in the rest of the world.
Jo, Hexham, Northumberland

How is it that the people that were telling us that milk was so good for you in the fifties, are now saying the same thing through false teeth. In my view this is just another boost for already a billion pound industry, that the human food chain does'nt need nor are ower digestive systems designed to take.
Craig McIntyre, Leeds

In China, there have been an increasingly wide range of dairy products in large supermarket in recent years. Things like soft cheese, various flavoured yogurt, fat-free milk and soya milk (which most chinese prefer) are fairly common in local store as well. Considering milk as one of the best, simplest and most delicious sources of calcium. I think we do need more for our future generations.
Lanlan, Beijing, China

As a British-born Chinese, I was recently checked by the doctors and it seems I'm one of the rare breeds who are lactose tolerant. However, having had milk incoroporated into my diet since birth, I've found that drinking it often not only makes the digestive system more unsettled, it disrupts the skin and makes you feel bloated.

If the Chinese are doing it on the promise of bigger, stronger bones, there are more efficient sources of protein and calcium available.
Jeff, Manchester

I have just come back from Beijing and noticed that since i was last there a year ago this advertising has increased along with milk being available even in some bars. I even met a Chinese girl who liked cheese more than me!! The world is full of suprises.
Lee Burn, Portsmouth

I wonder how many of your correspondents have seen elderly Chinese ladies, bent virtually double with osteoporosis as I have in Hong Kong over the last twenty years - the traditional Chinese diet did not provide enough calcium and this is one of the reasons it is good that the Chinese people are now incorporating dairy products. There have always been cows in China - beef has always been a part of the diet. They just haven't eaten milk/cheese/yoghurt, which they now realise are good for them.

Not only is increased consumption of milk extremely bad news for the health of Chinese people, it is also bad news for our environment - the rearing of dairy cows requires vast amounts of land (leading to the destruction of natural habitats) and water (which is already a scarcity in rapidly desertifying Northern and Eastern China) and it also creates huge amounts of methane due to flatulence (no joke!), which is a major contributor to global warming. For the sake of their own health and that of our planet the Chinese should not adopt the dreadful western practise of consuming that which is designed for baby cows, not fully grown humans!
Jacob Leland, London, England

Lactose intolerance is said to be normal for humans - so the lactose intolerance of the Chinese should be thought of as normal. It is only cultures that have hundreds of years of dairy farming where the population has largely (but not entirely) developed tolerance of lactose. The idea that lactose intolerance is the norm correlates with the fact that it is only the young of lactating species that consume milk from their mothers.
Mark Porthouse, Chard, England

I and my (Chinese) wife occasionally go to China to see her family. She likes going there, because she misses the diet there and the fact that she is not confronted with all the dairy based products in the shops and restaurants. I don't like it because I always find it difficult to find the foods I am accustomed to. Sounds like the next trip there could be better for me and worse for her!
David, Hastings, UK

Don't be surprised to see attempts at massive battery farming of cows, who are fed all sorts of non-appetising stuff. Thereafter, watch the diseases spread like wildfire! When a nation the size of China wants to consume something, the associated industry will struggle to cope. This is an interesting time indeed, especially as profits dictate so much at the expense of quality these days.
Cotic Basso

Lets forget about the consumer and let's talk about the farmer. How much will he be making out of China's increase in consumption? Hardly anything (it was 17p a litre) and because of this the UK will soon be an importer of milk. Great!!
Rob Ellingworth, London, UK

Let me know when Accrington Stanley sign a chinese striker...
Stephen Southern, Newcastle

My son was living proof that dairy is not necessary. He weighed 7 1/2 pounds at birth and is now 6'2" tall with large bones. I ate plenty of greens, some seaweed and my protein intake was largely vegetarian. The theory was that large amounts of animal protein create an imbalance that we try to rebalance with dairy. Asians are living prooof that dairy is not needed to make human milk. Grains are. I ate plenty of brown rice and my milk was very good and sweet , not bitter as it can be when too much animal food is eaten. I nursed him for 1 1/2 years on this diet. I ate fish once a week.

His first food was brown rice porridge with the chaff ground out with an italian food mill for making tomato sauce. It was hard work but he is healthy, has taken antibiotics less than 5 times in his life (he is 20 now), His health is so good it is withstanding the bad food of college life. When I craved a milkshake during pregnancy I ate broccoli instead. The Asian diet is much healtheir than ours. Watch out China for the American Food vendors propaganda to see their wares. Your kids will have more earaches and problems requiring antibiotics. Also dairy has a lot of cemicals and hormones in it if it is not organic. Rice is the food of the advanced human being and the best staple a human can eat.
Suzanne, Santa Fe NM

Over many centuries the Chinese have been living proof that cow's milk is NOT a staple food for adults. The increase in breast cancer with dairy product consumption tells its own story. I hope the Chinese see the error of their ways and realise that there is nothing smart about aping the western diet. My own dairy intake has greatly decreased over the past few years and my general health has improved: less sinusitis, less catarrah and fewer colds. Don't believe me? Try it yourself!
Alex, Milton Keynes, UK

Having lived and worked in China I think the one great benefit of regularly drinking milk in China will be a dramatic improvement in children's teeth. Certainly the Chinese I have met do not have good teeth.
Robin Morgan, Crawley

The worst case of Acne that ever presented was a immigrant Chinese teenager. I discovered he had stopped eating his traditional diet and the homecooked food for Western food. His face was full of boils and disfigured. As most people in Canada are immigrants the change in diet is very hard. This boy wanted to 'fit in' with his peers. He told me he had tried to commit suicide because of his appearance. I said if you eat only a traditional Chinese diet for 6 weeks I will help you. I knew the ice cream, milk shakes and other teen foods were at the source. Yes his face cleared up. In 30 years I have seen many skin problems and most are relieved by milk removal from the diet.
Patricia, Toronto Canada

Ironic isn't it. The chinese have the best cuisine in the world and yet increased wealth drives them to eat more meat and milk products which will harm their health. Not everything in the west is better. Just as those who are educated in the west are trying to reduce meat and dairy, so those who are uneducated in the east are trying to eat more of it.
Roger, London

I think the chinese love for milk is really taking a toll on the price of dairy products already. Just a few days ago i went into the supermarket to get some things just to discover that a litre of milk which usually cost 55 cents now cost about 66 cent. Was wondering about it all until it was told me that it had something to do with the chinese. This i must say is not a good development for my wallet!
Dio, Aachen,Germany

It is nice to hear that the Chinese are now catching up on drinking milk. I love milk and my children drink milk too. There is always a gallon of milk in my refrigerator. Milk according experts contains calcium which is good for healthy bones. Welcome to the milk world China.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

Ugh - I never thought of cheese as 'rotten cow's milk' before. Thanks, that's my favourite snack food down the pan as the expression will stick with me now!
Joanne Jackson, Leeds

10 years ago I was taking some Chinese customers out for lunch. One of the starters was a huge platter full of traditional varieties of Greek cheese. I will never forget the look on their faces, as the smell of cheese almost made them physically sick. The same thing happened to me when I went to China and tried a fruit called durian which smells like sewage.
Elias Kostopoulos, Athens, Greece

Given the fact that Westerners have been having this diet for hundreds or thousands of years and its now the norm yet in china its the opposite i cant see this being good. if any peoples have been used to a diet for a long time/multiple generations then suddenly switching to one common thousands of miles away can only cause problems. i wouldn't be surprised if it causes obesity and higher breast cancer its like feeding cows dead sheep there just not designed/used to it.

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