Category Archives: dairy

Environmental Impacts of Exporting Dry Milk Powder

Photo by Ansel Adams. The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service.

In the volumes of agricultural reading that I do, I have not run across a more scathing article about industrial agriculture than a recent feature story in High Country News. The article was about the environmental damage that has been done to water and waterways in Idaho due to its burgeoning dairy industry. The economic gains which are derived from this industry are, unfortunately, often outside the local Idaho communities which are negatively impacted, and sometimes even go to foreign-owned companies. This goes on largely for the purpose of exporting dry milk powder to nations such as China. If you think of Idaho as having pristine rivers, or as being immune to Big Ag, think again.

The article, “Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River – As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffers.“, was written by Richard Manning. I do encourage you to read it. The overall issues, as I see it, are repeated across other states and also relate to other aspects of Big Ag. You name the subject. You name the state.

There is an environmental price to pay in subsidizing milk production for export abroad. What about New Zealand, the “Saudi Arabia of Milk”, are they experiencing problems with their waterways, too, just as Idaho? And, the EU is readying to ramp up its milk exports, too, after a 30-year milk-export quota expires this coming March 31st. Here, in the U.S., the new 2014 farm bill has greatly increased its subsidized protection of our dairy industry which probably means growth will continue in this lucrative milk powder export market.

When China thirsts for a safe milk product, the world responds.

1. Here is a graph of our growing exports of dairy/dry milk from the USDA:

U.S. commercial exports of dairy products have grown since 1995, accounting for an increasing share of the total commercial disappearance of U.S milk production. On a milk-equivalent skim-solids basis (a method of adding up quantities of diverse milk products based on their skim-solids content), U.S. commercial exports grew on average 11.8 percent per year between 1995 and 2013, with their share of total commercial disappearance rising from 3.4 percent in 1995 to 18.7 percent in 2013. Commercial exports of nonfat dry milk (NDM) and skim milk powder (SMP) played a major role in this increase. In recent years, major U.S. markets for NDM and SMP have been Mexico, China, Philippines, and Indonesia. Domestic commercial disappearance serves as a proxy for U.S. consumption, calculated as a residual after accounting for production, on-farm use, imports, exports, and changes in stocks. The commercial data also exclude USDA net removals (price support purchases plus subsidized exports minus sales to the commercial market) which were significant in earlier years but a minor factor since 2004.


U.S. Milk Powder Exports

Source: USDA, FAS, GATS. HS code: 0402,
Milk Concentrated. (Iowa State – Choices)

Article from Choices discussing global dairy subsidies:

3. From the FT, an article about milk exports, including 2 great graphs:

Hot 5: China’s Dairy. Rodale Study. MIT Battery. Farmland Rents Return. Biodynamic Farming.

1. China is Industrializing its Dairy

China is in the process of importing 100,000 dairy cows from Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay for the company Modern Dairy which is funded by the U.S. company KKR and other private investors. Existing dairy cows in China are half as productive as those in the U.S. and the nation would like to become self-sufficient in dairy. Consumption of dairy products is rising along with the level of affluence in China’s population.

2. Rodale Study Shows that Organic Farming of Corn Outperforms Conventional In Drought Years

The above photo is from the Rodale Institute Study “Organic Farming Outperforms Conventional, Chemical Farming Based on a 30-year side-by-side trial”. It shows corn in the legume-based (left) and conventional (right) plots six weeks after planting during the 1995 drought. The conventional corn is showing signs of water stress.

Organic corn yields were 31% higher than conventional in years of drought. These drought yields are remarkable when compared to genetically engineered “drought tolerant” varieties which saw increases of only 6.7% to 13.3% over conventional (non-drought resistant) varietiies.

Also, corn and soybean crops in the organic systems tolerated much higher levels of weed competition than their conventional counterparts, while producing equivalent yields. This is especially significant given the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds in conventional systems, and speaks to the increased health and productivity of the organic soil (supporting both weeds and crop yields).

To review the Rodale study, go here.

3. MIT Professor Donald Sadoway Has Developed a Cheap Scaleable Battery Which Can Power 200 Homes With One Battery the Size of a Shipping Container

Battery technology advancement is critical for green energy and for farming in remote areas. As climate change increases the cost of storm damage to the electrical grid, less populated areas may become vulnerable to repair neglect, just as cell phone services are dropping calls in some rural areas. Micro-grids are proving cost-competitive for farmers in developing nations of India and Africa as I reported in news here earlier this week.

The problem at the heart of many sustainable-energy systems: How to store power so it can be delivered to the grid all the time, day and night, even when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining? At MIT, Donald Sadoway has been working on a grid-size battery system that stores energy using a three-layer liquid-metal core, based on floating layers of high-temperature molten metal and salt. He says that what has been a handicap for other types of batteries — namely, that they tend to get very hot during either charging or discharging — is actually a big plus for his liquid version.

With help from fans like Bill Gates, Sadoway and two of his students have spun off the Liquid Metals Battery Corporation (LMBC) to bring the battery to market. The company has received $13 million in government and industry funding.

“With a giant battery, we’d be able to address the problem of intermittency that prevents wind and solar from contributing to the grid in the same way that coal and gas and nuclear do today.”

Sadoway was named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2012.

4. Farmland Return on Investment Continues to Decline According to Rent-To-Value Ratio

The farmland rent-to-value (RTV) ratio, calculated as the cash rent per acre divided by the land value per acre, is a proxy for how quickly an asset will pay for itself. The roughly 45-year trend reveals a decreasing RTV ratio. If agricultural rents were the sole source of returns from farmland, the farmland would have paid for itself in about 14 years in 1951, but would take more than 33 years in 2007. The regions with the highest RTV ratios are the Northern Plains, Delta, Mountain, and Pacific regions. Since 1999, almost every USDA region has seen a decrease in RTV ratios. Farmland prices are more volatile than rents.

5. What is Biodynamic Farming?

The Biodynamic Farming concept originated with Austrian Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, who also started the Waldorf School education system. In farmers markets everywhere, I am seeing organic farms tout that they practice “biodynamic farming”.

Biodynamic farming:

  • Is holistic organic farming.
  • Works with the rhythms of nature.
  • Is self-sustaining.
  • Works under a theory of cosmic influences.
  • An astronomical sowing and planting calendar is used.
  • Unifies the relationship between soil, plants, and animals.
  • It requires many years to build healthy soil using manures and composts.
  • Healthy soil in return produces healthier, higher quality food.
  • It requires a diversified farm.
  • It works economically when producers and consumers fulfill each others needs. A good example is Community Supported Agriculture, or the CSA, which was developed by biodynamic farmers.

As an aside, note that one unsustainable aspect of modern organic farming that you may have noticed in the above video and on organic farms that you’ve visited, is the large amount of plastic used (and later discarded) for weed-blocking and greenhouses. Plastic is very important to organic farmers to save weeding labor, help with the soil’s moisture retention, and extend the season for produce.

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Are You Getting Your 33 Pounds of Cheese?


In 2009, U.S. cheese availability (a proxy for consumption) stood at 32.8 pounds per person. Mozzarella edged out cheddar as America’s favorite cheese, with the two cheeses together accounting for 63 percent of cheese availability in 2009. Per capita cheese availability has almost tripled since 1970, when it was 11.4 pounds per person. Cheese owes much of its growth to the spread of Italian and Mexican eateries in the U.S. and to innovative, convenient packaging, such as shredded cheese for recipes and string cheese for lunch boxes.