Glass half empty: the rise and fall of milk in B.C.

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How milk became the beverage of choice, and why young British Columbians are now moo-ving away from it

Graphic by Nat Inez. Design Director

Sitting in a Victoria café, Jordan Reichert, a local animal rights activist, speaks of growing up like many of us did: with the belief that drinking multiple glasses of milk daily was what we needed to grow and thrive.

“I grew up with that [mentality] until I was about 25, until one night … I watched the film Earthlings. I sat there at my computer [and] was so affected by it … so then and there I decided to go vegan,” Reichert says.

Earthlings is a film that exposes the sometimes cruel or inhumane aspects of the dairy and meat industries. Since the movie debuted in 2005, it has become popular with animal-rights activists and those who follow vegan or dairy-free diets.

Cowspiracy is another anti-dairy manifesto that shows the environmental side of the anti-dairy argument. But both films have drawn criticism by some for making generalizations about the entire dairy industry and sensationalizing information.

“There are certainly misconceptions that result from these documentaries,” says Christine Terpsma, the B.C. Dairy Association’s Communications Manager — although she does not find it surprising.

“Farmers make up less of the population now [than in the past] — this has led to a disconnect from the industry that can make it confusing for consumers, along with information on the internet that can potentially be unreliable.”

Yet it seems these films may be part of a larger societal shift in our consumption of, and cultural attitudes towards, cow’s milk.

The legacy of milk

For years now, Statistics Canada has shown a decline in milk consumption across Canada. In June 2018, they released data that showed milk consumption declining by three per cent compared to the same month in the previous year.

This has become more common over time, with other numbers from Statistics Canada showing that in the past 10 years, the average Canadian’s milk consumption declined by almost 16 litres annually — dropping in B.C. alone by over 14 litres per capita.

B.C., notably, also has the lowest annual milk consumption per capita of any province, at 64.68 litres in 2017. Reichert’s story seems to be a common one, especially amongst the “Got Milk” generation, of growing up drinking glasses of milk daily, seeing it as a necessity for years, then coming to a turning point and deciding to give up or avoid dairy.

“…In the past 10 years, the average Canadian’s milk consumption declined by almost 16 litres annually — dropping in B.C. alone by over 14 litres per capita.”

But this has not always been the case. It wasn’t long ago that milk reigned supreme as the prime suggested choice for a beverage with your meal, an accompaniment to cereal, and the key to a child growing up to be big and strong.

From the Canada Food Guide’s former suggested dairy servings to the “must drink more milk” ads many Millennials and Gen Z-ers remember from their childhoods — how did milk become the popular healthy beverage of choice, and why has it now become the drink people are increasingly avoiding?

After World War II, an excess of milk production and fluctuating costs pushed the Canadian government towards supply management. Alongside this, organizations representing dairy farmers gained a level of power and influence in government that most other organizations could only dream of.

A moo-tual agreement

Though the Canadian dairy industry is not subsidized, unlike their counterparts in the United States and Europe, Canada’s system of supply management and supports from the government has also been controversial. Last year, a new federal program to assist dairy farming was established called the Dairy Farm Investment Program, providing $250 million to Canadian Dairy Farmers, primarily as compensation for market concessions coming from CETA, a trade agreement with the European Union.

That same year, millions of litres of excess milk were produced in Ontario in just one month.

In B.C., the dairy industry and the provincial government have historically had close ties, with the Ministries of Agriculture and Education playing key roles in the promotion of dairy through jointly funding the addition of milk to the B.C. School Fruit and Vegetable nutritional program. The B.C. government’s budget in 2013 included one million dollars in new funding for the purposes of including milk into the pre-existing program in partnership with B.C. Dairy.

Sydney Massey, the B.C. Dairy Association’s Director of Nutrition Education, says this initiative, called “Plus Milk,” brings milk and milk products to classes about 12 times per year. The program is open to all kindergarten to grade five classes in public and First Nations schools in B.C. Massey estimates that about 70 per cent of these classes have opted in to the program, which has been funded by equal contributions from both the B.C. Dairy Association and the B.C. Ministry of Health.

This relationship is a two-way street — the B.C. government has supported the B.C. dairy industry in the past, but not without reciprocated support from B.C. Dairy producers. The Dairy Industry Research and Education Committee (DIREC), a committee of the B.C. Dairy Association, has a mandate of funding research and education projects that benefit dairy and crop farmers and the industry as a whole.

DIREC and the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture have jointly funded research and education projects in the past. Additionally, according to Elections B.C.’s Financial Reports and Political Contributions Database, the B.C. Dairy Association and individual dairy producing operations are listed as giving $23 610 in “political contributions” to provincial political parties since 2008. These break down as $11 300 to the B.C. NDP, $11 310 to the B.C. Liberals, and $1 000 to the Christian Heritage Party of B.C.

The dairy lobby has also shown up in municipal politics, though to a much smaller extent. In the municipalities of Agassiz and Kent, $2 900 was given to local candidates in 2014.

Terpsma explained that these are not showings of partisan support, but rather the donations listed are the costs of tickets to events and fundraisers for “worthy causes” hosted by these parties.

“[The B.C. Dairy Association] don’t give political contributions to parties directly, [we] are a non-partisan organisation,” she said.

“From time to time, we will attend events to represent and promote the dairy sector, to ensure politicians understand the dairy industry and can advocate for it. Any campaign contributions listed reflect attendance fees for these events.”

These funds should not be taken as a sign of a relationship between the B.C. Dairy Association and the provincial government, asserts Terpsma. Still, the tens of thousands of dollars spent on going to these events shows the vast lobbying resources of the dairy industry, and the potential influence it could have because of this.

Graphic by Nat Inez, Design Director

Lactose no longer tolerated

How, then, is an industry that has had so much political influence and monetary power seeing fewer and fewer people consuming milk, one of its main products? There isn’t necessarily one reason to point to, but rather many factors could be contributing to this phenomenon.

As many media outlets have reported, the Canada Food Guide was recently re-released with substantial updates, including a change from milk to water as the suggested drink to have with meals. Additionally, the required food group servings per day were eliminated. Previously, the guide suggested having multiple servings of dairy products daily.

Since then, the dairy industry has been on the defensive. Dairy Farmers of Canada released statements alongside the new Food Guide’s release, reaffirming the health benefits, “mounting scientific evidence … and abundant research” that support the claims that dairy can be a part of a healthy diet.

But dairy producers continue to receive more public pushback. Earlier this year, the Dairy Farmers of Canada were forced to pull an advertisement they had run that claimed there were “zero growth hormones in milk produced in Canada,” after complaints were made that the ad was misleading to the public. Indeed, this claim is technically impossible, as milk naturally contains growth hormones that cows produce.

In addition to changes in government policy that may have affected the relationship between dairy producers and the government, changes in society and culture are also contributing factors to the decline in demand for milk in B.C.

Reichert credits a few things to this — the internet and social media are particularly prominent. People now have access to much more information than ever before; advertising and money can only affect so much of what one sees on the internet. And when information comes out that is critical of the dairy industry or depicts the dairy industry in a negative light, there is little that can be done to stop someone from seeing or reading it.

There are also more opportunities for community on the internet, Reichert notes, both in creating spaces for online communities and in aiding coordination of local communities. He says that for many people who are trying to avoid or give up dairy, having a community to support and encourage them is one of the most important factors to stop from going back to consuming dairy.

Reichert also notes a distinct culture in B.C., and particularly on Vancouver Island.

“We don’t buy into the mainstream necessarily,” Reichert says. “We want to be perceived as more environmentally and socially responsible. When something comes up saying these choices are better for the environment and for animals, people are more inclined to take action.”

He also credits the rise in vegan, vegetarian, and non-dairy restaurants and menu items for showing people who may be sceptical of meat and dairy alternatives that these options can be enjoyable.

Victoria has a growing vegan food scene. There’s long-time local favourites like ReBar and Green Cuisine, and also new restaurants like The Very Good Butchers — recently featured on Dragon’s Den.

“In our first year, we grossed over one million dollars,” says Sarah Mayer, The Very Good Butchers’ Social Media Manager. “We’re continuously growing, and can’t keep up with our demand month-to-month … There’s a massive growth in interest in veganism.”

Though Mayer says many of their customers are not vegan, she estimates around 20 per cent of them tarted to transition away from dairy and/or meat as a result of finding plant-based options they enjoy.

Soon, there will be even more options, as two popular Vancouver vegan restaurants, Meet and Virtuous Pie, will be opening locations in Victoria.

No tears for spilt milk

It is important to note that not everyone that avoids milk is a vegan or vegetarian, and that the decrease in milk consumption cannot be solely explained by the increase in vegan options and the strong vegan communities in B.C.’s Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. This is something Terpsma emphasizes.

“Statistically, we have not seen a decrease in dairy consumption,” she says. “Fluid milk consumption has decreased, but demand for butter, milk, cheese, and yogurt has expanded.”

Statistics Canada information confirms Terpsma’s figures — while fluid milk and ice cream consumption has declined, butter, milk, and cheese consumption has increased.

“It wasn’t long ago that milk reigned supreme as the prime suggested choice for a beverage with your meal…”

When Reichert and Mayer were asked why milk specifically is decreasing, neither gave a definitive answer, but they had some theories.

Mayer speculates that it has to do with the idea that milk is more closely linked in people’s minds with cows. While milk comes directly from cows, things like cheese, yogurt, and butter are one step further away, and people can more easily separate the product from the producer.

Reichert attributes the decrease in part to the “old-fashioned, old-world” way he believes milk is seen, but also believes much of it is due to the relative ease of producing milk alternatives and the influx of milk alternatives on the market.

This seems to be a likely hypothesis. The texture and taste of milk is much easier to replicate than that of cheese or yogurt, and can be produced with a wider range of ingredients — milk alternatives can come from almonds, soy, hemp seeds, rice, peas, oats, coconut, and cashews. This is evident in the aisles of grocery stores; most mainstream grocery stores will have at least four milk alternatives, while it’s still rare to see more than one or two options of cheese and yogurt alternatives.

Despite the challenge of societal changes, evolving government regulations, and shifts in demands for milk, the B.C. Dairy Association is still fighting to keep milk on the table.

“Our job … is to promote and increase the consumption of milk,” says Kristine Louie, the B.C. Dairy Association’s acting Director of Marketing. Louie spoke to the new tactics and avenues they are focussing their efforts on, particularly a shift in advertising from a focus on print to online, social media, or community-based advertising.  

One of Louie’s new campaigns launched this week, with an ad on the B.C. Dairy’s social media accounts and YouTube channel.

The ad shows a father and daughter with glasses of milk, blowing milk bubbles and laughing. The bubbles fill their kitchen and overflow out the window and onto the sidewalk outside, much to the shock of a man walking along the sidewalk, while the father and daughter continue to laugh. The words “Pour a little happiness” flash on screen alongside the B.C. Milk and Dairy Farmers of Canada logos, and the focus returns to the man on the street.

The man, carrying a takeout coffee and sporting a “man bun” and a hipster-style outfit complete with Blundstone-esque shoes stares up at the window and continues to look shocked and appalled.

This is only the beginning of B.C. Dairy’s new ad campaign — but will it do anything to change the minds of B.C.’s soy milk latte-drinking, “man bun”-sporting, Blundstone-wearing hipster residents? If the trends we’ve seen continue, it seems milk’s popularity may already be past its expiry date.