The rise of the wellness and sustainable agriculture movements has created a national conversation about deliberate, proactive food consumption — consumption that has, over recent years, steered away from dairy milk. It’s in this sense that Mark Bittman’s explosive 2012 New York Times piece, “Got Milk? You Don’t Need It” served so clearly as a premonition for the contemporary struggles facing New York dairy farmers.
Bittman wondered if drinking milk in America was part of a fad perpetuated by lobbying dairy associations, ill-informed doctors and the Department of Agriculture. It wasn’t long into my teens that I began to hear a similar tune: Dairy’s health benefits are overstated and its environmental impact is serious. So when I arrived on campus freshman year, idealism and meal plan in hand, I began to substitute almond milk for cow milk. Many of my friends did the same, though some opted for soy.
Our actions describe a national trend: The U.S. conventional milk market sales decreased by more than 6 percent between 2016 and 2017, while annual almond milk sales have shot up, along with other milk alternatives. But falling market share isn’t the end of the story. It doesn’t take an economics major to know that the choices we make about what to buy impact those doing the selling. During the same 2016 to 2017 period, 24 mainly family-run, multigenerational dairy farms closed in the Southern Tier.
To be clear, the low-price environment that has tracked closures nationally is driven by a variety of factors; the effects of our changing preferences are compounded by recent retaliatory tariffs on dairy exports, as well as increased global milk supply. But the greater purpose of this piece is not to deride President Donald Trump’s trade war, it’s to ask: Do we fully understand and appreciate the backyard footprint of our consumption choices? I don’t know if we do, because it wasn’t until I learned about this issue last month that I considered more than just grand ideals about wellness and sustainability while at Wegmans.
Fact: The global dairy industry accounts for nearly 3 percent of all climate-warming emissions. Health-wise, dairy products are Americans’ biggest source of saturated fat, and physicians have called out a link between heavy dairy consumption and Type 1 diabetes. But it doesn’t take a nutritionist to know that most foods are better consumed in moderation, including sugar-packed chocolate or vanilla-flavored almond milks. Though we should hold off on making false equivocations, almond milk, too, isn’t gloriously sustainable, and the rapid growth of the water-dense industry is having lasting and damaging implications for California’s environment and ecology.
To be clear, the choices we make about what to put into our bodies are deeply personal and should remain so. But we are part of the Southern Tier community, even if just for four years, and I think farm closures here should matter more to us than farm openings in California. Each represents the loss of more than just businesses, but of longstanding community institutions — institutions that have historically bankrolled local municipalities and school districts. Closures, too, represent the loss of a way of life. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported an uptick of suicides among hurting New York state farmers. I won’t argue that it is not natural for industries to evolve, but if you didn’t know about your local impact, now you do.
Jacalyn Goldzweig-Panitz is a senior majoring in political science.