Dairy’s Contribution to Institutional Racism in AotearoA
article by Chris Huriwai
Chris Huriwai (Ngāpuhi, Ngati Porou) is a vegan animal rights activist.
Colonisation is blamed for many things these days. However, it didn’t just bring white faces to the shores of Aotearoa. It also brought with it a certain white liquid that’s become synonymous with our country’s cultural identity – an ironic ubiquity that’s systemically undermining the hauora of tangata whenua and directly opposes core values within te ao Māori.
Miraka o te kau, cows’ milk from a domesticated bovine: taken from a mother cow with the intention of being sold and fed to humans, instead of being used to nurture that animal’s young – which would be the natural process not only for cows, but for all other mammals that become mothers, including humans. Despite only existing in Aotearoa for about 200 years, cows’ milk and its products, to me, have been central to life growing up in Aotearoa. However, it’s been a disturbing journey coming to understand the milk in my Weet-Bix isn’t as wholesome as we’re led to believe. Our diet as Māori, and the natural resources of Aotearoa, have been colonised and commodified, for the benefit of a select few. This has centred the production and consumption of Western foods to the detriment of undeniably our most precious taonga – taonga that, most importantly, spiritually and physically enrich and enable us to prosper as a collective iwi, but that our country’s international reputation and in turn our economic structure also currently rely on. These are taonga that bolster many of our primary exports, including dairy itself.
Aotearoa’s modern-day dairy industry threatens us in many ways, but it primarily threatens the hauora of our people and the hauora of te taiao. Ironically, these issues have detrimental flow-on effects that are overshadowing the perceived short-term and isolated benefits of the industry that we’ve come to refer to today as the ‘backbone of the New Zealand economy’. We forget that according to Reserve Bank figures, our agricultural sector is over $60B in debt. Whoops!
The fact that dairy farming was introduced by Europeans isn’t a fair reason, in and of itself, to call for a boycott. We happily embrace a range of modern practices and conveniences that are only available due to European colonialism which you won’t hear many of us complaining about. However, given the objective information we have regarding dairy farming and its products, a boycott from Kiwis, and Māori in particular, is justified. We as Māori should be concerned: modern dairy farming as an industry, and cows’ milk as a product, exemplifies blatant disregard for our tikanga and directly contributes to the cultural insensitivity that enables and perpetuates systemic racism within Aotearoa.
The Māori diet has never been set in stone. It has been adapting constantly as Aotearoa herself continually changes. Upon arriving on the shores of Aotearoa, our ancestors would have changed their Polynesian diet to match their new environment, embracing the abundance of kai that Aotearoa provided, and adapting to their circumstances. Change came again with settlers and colonisation, with a notable change being the introduction of domesticated animals such as pigs, sheep, and cows. Cows’ milk would have been introduced sometime after 1814, when the British settler Samuel Marsden was gifted the country’s first Durhams, a breed of cattle that originated in Northern England. With so much change happening within just the last 200 years, it’s not only possible, but in my opinion necessary for Māori to, once again, adapt to our current environment. We should make the necessary changes to ensure overall prosperity, not only for ourselves as tangata whenua, but for Papatūānuku and all who wish to inhabit this space. May we set the example for future generations.
This raises the question: Can we change? Should we stop drinking cows’ milk? Where did Māori get their calcium before 1814? Did they have weak brittle bones because of its absence? Perhaps the accounts in Pākehā journals of Māori being a healthy, strong, and tall population were wrong…? The truth is that we already had access to ample amounts of calcium. After all, calcium isn’t just found in cows’ milk. This mineral is found in rich soil; it is then taken up by plants, which are eaten by Earth-dwelling animals and insects, or recycled back into its own environment. Of course, cows do not make calcium; they simply take calcium from their environment by eating sources of leafy greens (including grass) and then converting a percentage of what they do not use into their mammary secretions to deliver to their young – or in the case of modern dairy cows, to deliver mainly to China. Why not skip the middle cow and go directly to the source of the calcium, just like our ancestors would have? The notion that calcium comes from cows and not from soil is an embedded cultural narrative. It needs to cease. It is less a matter of accepting change and more a matter of accepting that we have been duped into adopting practices our ancestors never needed.
One problem with the adoption of cows’ milk in the Māori diet is that most of us struggle – like most other non-Europeans – to consume the carbohydrate in cows’ milk known as lactose. We are producing a ‘food’ that disproportionately affects the diversity of non-European ethnic groups within Aotearoa. Not coincidentally, the ethnic group most comfortable digesting the dairy carbohydrate are those hailing from Northern England, the home of the Durhams. This is because the natural state of human physiology doesn’t agree with the substance that nature designed not only for infants but for infants of an entirely different species to us. It is theorised that Europeans began developing the genetic mutation that allowed them to consume lactose with fewer ill side-effects around 7,000 years ago – ‘a few’ years ahead of Māori contact with them. Lactose intolerance is usually described as an illness that you’d be unlucky to inherit. However, it’s estimated that the majority of the human population – possibly as many as 65% – is lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance occurs when our bodies reduce the production of the required enzyme for lactose digestion. This might suggest that lactose intolerance is physiologically natural. Less well-known is that the condition which enables an individual to produce that enzyme, which in turn allows the continued digestion of lactose, known as ‘lactase persistence’, is considered a genetic mutation. Lactase is the enzyme which allows lactose to be split into its composite monosaccharides, glucose and galactose, which, unlike the disaccharide lactose, can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream.
The production of lactase has been observed to dissipate in the human body after we are weaned from our mothers’ breastmilk, and it continues to decline into adulthood. This makes sense, as there are no other forms of lactose in the foods that the majority of our worldly ancestors would have consumed, making the continued production of such an enzyme a complete waste of physiological resources. Without this enzyme, individuals consuming lactose in dairy products may have symptoms such as bloating, cramps, and diarrhoea. Studies measuring the prevalence of lactose intolerance among Māori (between 30-64%) support the idea that populations with little or no historic consumption of dairy lack the genetic mutation to continue producing the enzyme needed to digest it. Given that in the 21st century, many Māori have non-Māori whakapapa as well, it’s reasonable to suggest that we’d see a much higher figure than 64% of pre-colonial Māori with lactose intolerance. Is the solution to simply breed out Māori genes? Don’t lynch me! That’s not my suggestion! The real solution is to ditch dairy – to cut it out of our diets completely.
In terms of health issues, lactose intolerance is just the start. Consider it the canary in the coal mine in terms of warning us against consuming such ‘food’. For example, our country’s number one killer is heart disease: as Māori, we suffer double the rate of mortality from heart disease when compared to non-Māori. Of course, dairy isn’t solely responsible for this, however multiple major health organisations, including the NZ Heart Foundation, agree that reducing saturated fat is the primary dietary change we can make to reduce such risk – and according to the Ministry of Health, dairy is the primary source of saturated fat in our diets. However, it’s obviously much less political to say ‘reduce saturated fat’ than outright encourage people to reduce their intake of dairy, after all, dairy is ‘the backbone of our economy’. It isn’t that health advisors never advise us about the consumption of certain ‘foods’. When we want to encourage people to consume calcium-rich foods, for example, it’s considered acceptable to ask the public to drink more cows’ milk. So why is it that when we’re advocating for a dietary switch that will reduce disease, we change the message and talk about nutrients instead of naming the actual foods that deliver those nutrients into our bodies? This is confusing the consumer. It requires us to have our own comprehensive knowledge about kai and nutrition, rather than making it as clear as possible, which should be the responsibility of our health institutions. Aren’t those organisations morally obligated to advocate for a diet that’s proven to reduce such risks? After all, it’s scientifically proven that the only diet to reverse heart disease is a diet that stipulates, among other things, the complete avoidance of dairy products.
Diabetes is another major illness among Māori. It is almost twice as common among Māori, compared to non-Māori. It’s a condition that largely goes hand-in-hand with heart disease, and it has the same nutritional prescription: adopting a low-fat, high-whole carbohydrate diet. I’m especially disturbed by the adoption of the ‘low-carb, high-fat’ or ‘keto’ diet, which encourages Māori to forgo our ancestral staples: kūmara, rīwai, and taro. The validity of removing dairy from our diets and maintaining a high carbohydrate intake is expressed in the Gisborne-based BROAD study, a randomised control trial which utilised a plant-based diet that focused on low-fat foods. The study results show all of the type 2 diabetic participants in the intervention group improved their risk markers for type 2 diabetes, lost weight, and lowered their cholesterol – while those in the control group (who maintained their standard Western diet) increased their risk for diabetes. 30% of the participants were able to come off of their medication completely, and the study’s authors note that, to their knowledge, the experiment achieved the highest sustained weight loss ever recorded in such a trial that did not restrict portion size or caloric intake, nor mandate exercise.
Now, the illness that took my own grandfather, prostate cancer, is one for which Māori have the highest rates of mortality. Our premiere cancer advocacy group, the NZ Cancer Foundation, explicitly states that they acknowledge the link between a potential increased risk of prostate cancer with the consumption of dairy products. Yet they continue to encourage the consumption of cows’ milk for beneficial isolated nutrients, such as calcium, protein, and vitamin B12 (among others) – all of which are attainable through alternative, healthier sources. The NZ Prostate Cancer Foundation also acknowledges this link, but despite the red flag they also continue to promote milk consumption because of... calcium, which is, in fact, the exact nutrient that, when consumed in excess, is linked to prostate cancer. We forget that food is a packaged deal. Nutrients like calcium sound great in isolation, but cows’ milk also comes with: saturated fat, animal protein which boosts the production of the growth hormone IGF-1, dietary cholesterol, and of course mammalian hormones.
Given the disproportionate effects of cows’ milk on Māori and other ethnic minorities, this poses the question, why do we have institutions advocating that all of us consume it, when it leads to so many of us potentially having a reduced quality of life compared to our European counterparts? White-centricism? The NZ heart foundation continues to promote the consumption of cows’ milk (including cheese) in their ‘healthy’ eating plan, and the Ministry of Health recommends at least two servings of dairy (or a dairy alternative like soy that’s fortified with calcium) per day – dairy is so highly regarded that it is 1 of the 4 recommended food groups. But why not prioritise recommending healthier alternatives that have adequate and sometimes more calcium than cows’ milk? For example, dark leafy greens such as kale, or legumes like black beans? Why not pūhā?! These are incredibly nutritious foods that are noted as being among those we should be consuming more of by a number of internationally-acclaimed nutrition specialists and broad, exhaustive, long-term epidemiology. Yet because of industry marketing, and possibly unconscious adherence to the status quo, the only food many people seem to be aware of that contains calcium in any significant amount is cows’ milk. Reversing the white-centric mindset here relies on normalising the idea that calcium isn’t only found in cows’ milk. It isn’t even clear that we actually need the currently-recommended intake of calcium – which is 1000mg for adults. Are we thinking critically? Are these dietary recommendations in the interest of public health, or private gain? Where is this calcium deficiency that’s scared us into believing we’re so required to push for a minimum of two servings of cows’ milk per day?
We also have initiatives funded by the government and industry – such as Kick-Start Breakfast, and Fonterra Milk for Schools – which justify the promotion and distribution of cows’ milk on the grounds that increasing its availability will help (supposedly) encourage habits that push those participating, and their whānau, towards that arbitrary intake target of dairy set by the Ministry of Health. This is all regardless of there being little to no evidence that consuming cows’ milk has any overall long-term beneficial effect on the precise health issues these initiatives target, the clearest example being bone health. We have no studies in Aotearoa displaying a reduction in bone fracture due to the consumption of cows’ milk. If you visit Fonterra’s website, you’ll find a short-term (one year-long, with no follow up) study that they have to support their claim of increased bone strength, which shows a marginal increase of bone density in the study participants. However, given there is no follow-up data, it is unclear that consuming cows' milk has any tangible long-term impact on bone health. The idea that we need dairy for bone strength is based on little to no evidence. In fact, Fonterra’s claim that consuming cows’ milk promotes bone health is undermined by international studies showing that this short-term bone density increase dissipates as children age, highlighting the importance for Fonterra to rely on more than simply a short-term study for their claim. Furthermore, despite this industry-endorsed ‘link’ between cows’ milk and bone health, according to epidemiology the countries with the highest intake of calcium, ironically, have the highest rates of osteoporosis (weak bones), whereas countries with the lowest intake of calcium have the lowest rates of osteoporosis – making the point that perhaps calcium shouldn’t be the primary focus when considering bone health.
Above calcium intake from cows’ milk, the leading contributing factor for bone strength according to Harvard is weight-bearing exercises, with vitamin D potentially being as important as calcium intake. As for Fonterra’s Healthy Kids Pledge to reduce childhood obesity, they seem to be forgetting to inform programme participants that a single serving of Fonterra school milk, free to children, actually contains more calories than what almost all of us consider to be the epitome of poor dietary choices, Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola has 42 calories per 100ml, whereas Milk For Schools milk has 46.3 calories per 100ml). No wonder our tamariki love the stuff! As for Kick-Start, they lose points in this area as well, given that their healthy eating food chart equates two-three servings of dairy and cheese as being more important in a child’s diet than one serving of beans and lentils – with various beans having in fact higher levels of calcium than cows’ milk (142mg for cooked winged beans vs 123mg-125mg for cows’ milk), while both beans and lentils have higher levels of protein per serving.
Another example of systemic racism is that Fonterra’s Milk for Schools and Kick-Start Breakfast programmes, which both offer free milk to school students in Aotearoa, fail to offer other dairy-alternatives to accommodate lactose intolerance. So kids either go without (which is probably a blessing in disguise), or they endure the ill side-effects instead of standing out from their peers as the only (or, the few among many, depending on the geographic area) who opt out. With Māori experiencing higher rates of inequality, childhood obesity, poverty, and poor nutrition (which these initiatives supposedly aim to reduce), are we not, again, morally obligated to continue to adapt and act on modern scientific findings to provide initiatives that can comfortably be applied to all our people, Pākehā, Māori, or otherwise? These school programmes are particularly troubling in the wider social context. Cows’ milk for calcium! Is this not indoctrination? Remember, what we teach our children also influences their whānau, hapū, me ngā iwi o te motu.
The health of the people, te hauora o ngā iwi, is reflected by te hauora o te taiao, the health of the environment. This relates to kaitiakitanga, stewardship of the environment. When we accept and allow groups such as DairyNZ to speak about this concept, we reduce our own mana, because we fall short in our role as kaitiaki. There is no question that as kaitiaki we have failed Aotearoa. So why are we, the masses, not questioning this industry? Is there a degree of guilt? Are we all too complicit in our own consumption of domestic dairy products that we lack the conviction to raise the red flag in regards to what is being created by our internationally-exported dairy? This, by the way, makes up over 95% of the milk produced in Aotearoa – which essentially means that we are commodifying our natural resources and exporting them, leaving a tiny minority of us with money, and the rest of us with the cows’ tūtae. Some people may question my assertion that the dairy industry threatens our existence – but if we continue to maintain the status quo without an exit strategy from this polluting industry, our death is in sight. After all, what is more important than wai? The commodification of wai and the externalisation of excess nutrient pollution, cow urine and dung leaching and running off into waterways is what’s driving the wai māori issues we’re seeing in Aotearoa. We’re turning wai into gold – but the problem is, that gold has no mauri. And you can’t put a price on extracting it. I should take this opportunity to say that farmers aren’t entirely to blame here – in fact, most of the blame rests with groups like DairyNZ who encourage farmers to strive for productivity (i.e. to create more product) rather than efficiency or profitability (prioritising profit over volume), and Fonterra, for lacking the co-operative backbone to lay out a comprehensive vision for Kiwi farmers, risking their future livelihoods. I have no doubt there are many well-intentioned, would-be kaitiaki who work in the dairy industry, but without the ability to enact meaningful action and without a collaborative vision from within the sector, their efforts are about as useful as a male calf to a dairy farmer.
Figures from 2017 show that the dairy industry uses the equivalent water of 58.2 million people – where Aotearoa only has 4.7 million people. This is enough water to fill 5,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day, every day... or the human water use equivalent to the combined populations of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro. And figures from 2014 show that the agriculture sector is the top user of water. Splicing DairyNZ’s 2017 figures with figure.nz’s 2014 figures means that industrial dairy would make up well over 95% of wai used for irrigation (with only a 2% decrease in the dairy herd between 2014-2017).
I say again, what is more important than wai? Wai scarcity is a trending conversation for many countries across the globe, and being an island country surrounded by ocean, we need to view wai māori as a finite resource, and we need to pay particular attention to aquifer health. On the lower end of the spectrum, dairy cows create around fourteen times the amount of waste as an adult human. We currently have more dairy cows than humans in Aotearoa, 6.4 million, compared to 4.7 million. Farmers argue this point by saying that they capture the effluent in milking sheds reapply it to the land when needed instead of using external fertilisers; however, a cow will spend less than an hour a day within a milking shed (proud and efficient farmers claim that milking can take less than 20 minutes), and the rest of the animal’s waste while they’re on pasture has only one place to go. Fertiliser application has increased over 600% since 1990, while the country’s dairy herd has only doubled. Intensification is the main driver for that increased application, which highlights the fact that farmers are applying fertiliser to increase grass growth instead of maintaining a population of cattle that the land can sustainably support.
As stated in the Environment Aotearoa 2019 report, the impact of this increase in fertiliser application and the equivalent waste of 89.6 million humans coming from dairy cows is contributing to the modelled analysis showing 82% of river length in farmed areas have pathogen levels that pose risks to human health from recreational activities such as swimming. The reports also reveal that 94% of our urban waterways are unsafe for swimming. However, the overall length of waterways in Aotearoa within farming areas is around 40% of waterways while the length of waterways in urban areas is less than 1% of the length of waterways in Aotearoa. This refutes the narrative that simply because we have pollution in urban areas, the rural sector should somehow be excused. Of course this decline in wai quality doesn’t just affect us, it affects our indigenous aquatic species by choking our estuaries, the spawning ground for many native wai māori inhabitants, taonga that we as kaitiaki have an obligation to. Freshwater ecologist Mike Joy makes a great analogy: he says that, given Aotearoa has lost over 90% of its indigenous wetlands, which are the kidneys of our wai māori system, it’s as if we’re pouring an inherently unhealthy substance like sugary drinks into an already sick, defenceless person. (And much of the remaining wetlands are choked with sediment, excess nutrients, and invasive weeds.) If our wai māori system can be thought of as a body, it is dying, and we are the ones who are killing it. Papatūānuku is dying, and we are the ones who are killing her.
I recommend that our dietary guideline developers take the same approach as Canada, who in 2019 took a scientific approach, free from industry input, completely removing dairy as a food group from its healthy eating guide and instead lumped dairy products into the broad protein category, while also emphasising the importance of increasing intake of fruit, vegetable, and plant-based sources of protein. As well as influencing people’s dietary habits, increased pollution to wai is stripping food sovereignty from tangata whenua due to excess nutrients filling our wai with agricultural runoff. This is increasing our dependence on colonial food cultivation methods and profit-driven industries that care little for our people, and creating a narrative around the supposed necessity of cows’ milk instead of prioritising sources of food that are culturally appropriate and safe for all of us. As Te Tiriti o Waitangi lays out, Māori have proprietary rights over wai. We’ve already had our land stolen, and now what we’re left with, that which nourishes and connects us all, is being squandered.
Published: February, 2020