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Nutritional Need or Marketing Hype

by J. Lee Simons

One of the most successful ad campaigns ever launched in the United States features the ubiquitous milk moustache on celebrities’ upper lips with the simple caption “Got Milk?” Found on television, in magazines, and emblazoned across city bus banners, the ads put milk back in competition with an ever-widening array of soda pop and sports drinks options. However, in Third World countries, milk can mean the difference between survival and malnutrition. China believes that milk is one key to their nutritional survival.

Lanzhou, Gansu Province, China

Historical Backdrop

According to Paul Hyer, emeritus professor of history at BYU and China expert, the Chinese once lived on a beef and dairy diet. Hyer, who has lived in China on several occasions and traveled throughout the country, recalled that when he was a young man, the average life span in China was only twenty-six years—due, in part, to high infant mortality, often a result of poor nutrition.


“With the introduction of new crops and a Confucian emphasis on sons and large posterity, China’s population tripled in a hundred years,” Hyer explained. This turn of events brought a scarcity of food to the Chinese.

“The then-85-percent-agrarian society suffered from poor distribution and frequent droughts and famines. Inland diets became primarily plant-based. Rice was a staple in the south, and coastal areas relied heavily on fish,” said Hyer. The Chinese life span now stands at about sixty-eight years for men and seventy-three years for women, but their infant mortality rate, which was listed officially as 34.7 per thousand in 1981, is now estimated by the UN Children’s Fund at fifty-two per thousand live births1 compared to less than seven in the U.S. Poor nutrition remains a contributing factor.

Boosting Production

“Third World diets in general are often deficient in protein, and, in China, they are deficient to marginal, especially in young, growing children,” pointed out Richard O. Kellems, professor of animal nutrition in the Plant and Animal Sciences department at BYU. “If a family has a dairy cow, they have a daily supply of needed protein, particularly for their young children. Dairy cattle, unlike other farm animals, don’t have to be killed to provide high quality nutrients; they can be a source of nutrition over an extended period of time,” he said.

Kellems (second row, third from left) with the first training group

Over the last ten years, Kellems has provided dairy production and management training courses and technical assistance for USAID-sponsored projects in Albania, Armenia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Mexico, as well as non-USAID projects in Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey, and Hungary, where Kellems was a Fulbright Scholar in 1991. It was during a six-month sabbatical to Italy that he met Dr. Jiaqi Wang.

“While at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) headquarters in Rome from June to December 2000, I shared an office for three months with Dr. Jiaqi Wang,” said Kellems. Jiaqi, a Chinese scientist, has, since returning to China, become the deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Institute of Animal Sciences. “He has been given the responsibility of overseeing the development of dairy-training courses and materials,” said Kellems. In May and October 2001, Kellems was invited by Jiaqi to participate in a joint United Nations FAO/Chinese Ministry of Agriculture dairy-training course in Beijing, China.

Kellems (first row middle, pink shirt) with second training group

“In May, the course was held in Hebei City, Fengning County, and my presentation was ‘Management and Nutritional Factors that Influence Productivity of Dairy Cattle.’ The October course was held in Beijing, and I gave three presentations: Factors Influencing Feeding Consumption in Dairy Cattle; Dairy Nutrition and Management; and Overview of Dairying in the United States,” Kellems explained.

“The people who came to the training are similar to our County Extension Services in the States. Participants receive a written summary of the materials that will be covered in the short course,” said Kellems, who contributed two hours of teaching in the first sixteen-hour course and six hours in the second course.

The second training session brought people in from regions all across China. “The Chinese government intends to set up twenty regional dairy training centers. They are establishing programs that will assist dairy producers in adopting appropriate technologies to increase their productivity,” he noted.

“Chinese officials have established a goal to double milk production in China, and their programs are aimed at assisting dairy producers to accomplish this goal,” said Kellems. “They have Holstein cows and some native breeds,” he added. A government report states that China’s goal is to increase “total milk output to ten million tons by 2005.”2 The model for U.S. assistance usually includes an effort to export our technology, but Kellems insists “there are ways to boost production using minimal technology without adopting high-tech solutions from the U.S.”

Harvesting vs Grazing

One matter of debate is arable-land use. According to the CIA World Factbook 2001, China is using its land in the following proportions: 10 percent arable, 0 percent permanent crops, 43 percent pasture, 14 percent forests and woodland, 33 percent other. Their per capita arable land is among the world’s lowest. Chinese farmers are committed to implementing the most efficient methods available.3

Dairy-training course manual

“You can take the resources of the area to feed the cows,” Kellems said. “Land ownership is not an issue in China. That is usually not the case in Third World nations.” One option is for farmers to grow forage to be harvested and taken to the cows. “Dairy farmers often grow forage and cut it to take back to their cattle as a way of pasture management,” Kellems explained.

That does not address the controversial use of land for cattle grazing over that of producing crops for human consumption. Would the amount of land required to grow grain to feed a herd of cows (only to obtain dairy products) be better used to grow food for China’s burgeoning 1.3 billion population—22 percent of the world’s population? Kellems assured, “Dairy cattle are not in competition with humans normally. Cows can convert forages and crop by-products into milk, which otherwise would not be used to produce food for humans. Marginal lands that can’t effectively be used to produce crops can often be used to produce forages that can be fed to dairy cattle, or the cattle can graze on these forages—43 percent of China is pasture or rangeland.”

China has not missed the point that there is money to be made in milk production. “‘The development of the milk industry could also foster the upgrade and innovation of China’s agricultural industries,’ said Song Kungang, director of the Milk Industry Association, saying the growth of the milk industry could get a better return for farmers than farming other products” (emphasis added).4

In the same report, Song said China’s milk industry expects fast growth because of domestic market demand. Fresh milk production in 2000 was 1.5 million tons, up from 519,000 tons in 1995—a 189 percent increase. In the same period, powdered milk production was 829,000 tons, up from 526,000 tons—a 57.6 percent increase. Even so, that puts China at less than 6 percent of the world average.

A Matter of Economics

Indeed, there is money to be made in the dairy industry, including tax revenue for the government, as indicated by this excerpt from a press release out of Sichuan Province:

One mil[k] cow can create a profit of 3,000–5,000 yuan [$362.40–604 US] annually for local farmers. And the annual incomes of the farmer can reach 180,000–300,000 yuan [$21,744–36,240] for those who raise sixty cows. Meanwhile, the company, Yangpin Dairy Products Company, developing with the mil[k] cow breeding has grown the one with total assets of 60 million yuan [$7,248,000.61] and an annual industrial output value of near 100 million yuan [$12,080,000], and has turned in over 6 million yuan of taxation. The company has promoted the mil[k] cow breeding by more than 3,000 farmer families among Ya’an, Jiajiang, Meishan, etc. However, since this first half the milk war has happened in Chengdu (the provincial capital of Sichuan). Milk processors out of the province ha[ve] raced to occupy the market there, including Sanyuan Group from Beijing, Heilongjiang Dairy Group, Sanlu Group from Shijiazhuang, etc.5

“We usually try to export our technology,” Kellems asserted, “but every country is unique, and their challenges are unique. In the U.S., labor is expensive, so technology is cost efficient. In the Third World, labor is cheap and technology is rarely sustainable.

“In the 60s and 70s, in the U.S., we attempted to export our genetics knowledge and sent cows to other places. Feed resources required to support these animals were either not there or the animals often died because they were not resistant to endemic disease present in the area,” Kellems lamented. “We still do this to some extent today when we export feeding programs that require high inputs of grains and supplemental protein sources. Once the funding to buy these resources is not available, the systems become unsustainable and fail.”

Third World countries also encounter an issue common to developed nations that can be hard on the purse. “For every dollar USAID spends on development, they normally generate eighty cents in sales of American products or technology. And that is alright—they are a government organization,” defended Kellems. “On the other hand, organizations such as the Church’s LDS Charities and Humanitarian Services can do so much good. Their funds support development projects that are sustainable and targeted to benefit the people that have the most need.” And countries are not expected to pay those donations back.

What happens when funding is gone? “People revert back to former practices unless the solutions to their problems are sustainable by them,” he said. The small rural family with one or two milk cows is seeking coins, not milk. “One-third of the annual income in Albania is from selling milk, not to use as a food source—they want to generate revenue. This happens in China as well. If they are lucky enough to own a milk cow, they get milk, and they sell it for money. Milk has traditionally not been used by them as a nutrient source,” Kellems said. “Educational programs need to be implemented so that people do not sell their milk to buy soda pop. The development of milk production must be coupled with education to teach people the nutritional value of milk.”

Demand for Change

In spite of claims that 90 percent of Asians are lactose intolerant,6 Chinese consumers, especially those of the more affluent, younger generation, have decided they like meat and dairy in their diet.7 A sharp increase in demand has been offset by increased availability, at least in the urban setting. “There are different microtypes in China, as elsewhere; urban dwellers are vastly different than their rural counterparts,” Kellems said. “And the Chinese assured me that the lactose issue was not a concern.” He explained that gas and bloating are the usual side effects of lactose intolerance, but that these might be a small price to pay for the high-quality protein available in milk.

From an early start with only a few milk processing plants in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai, by 1996, China could boast six hundred plants. Milk production, in turn, climbed from 5.3 million tons in 1994 to approximately 7.2 million tons in 1998.8 With the surge of market-oriented freedoms, small enterprises are displacing the old state owned businesses, and investments from outside China are making their own contributions.

Nestlé settled in over ten years ago with operations in Shuangcheng, in northeastern China, producing powdered milk, infant formula, and junior foods. That was only the first of a dozen factories now in production across China. They worked with local governments to guarantee milk supplies, and programs were instituted to improve breeding, increase revenues to farmers, establish road systems between farms and factories, and also improve livestock feed to increase milk production.9

While China’s rural population struggles to get adequate nutrition, those in the urban setting are being treated to the latest in the “Got Milk” campaign. In April 2001, Bravo! Foods International Corporation announced an agreement for production and distribution of their Looney TunesTM brand flavored milks in Yunnan Province, in southern China. Then in August 2001, they extended that production and distribution to Beijing and Tianjin cities and Hebei, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces.10

Although the flavored milks have more calories and as much sugar as a comparably-sized soda drink, they do offer vitamins and minerals lacking in soda. Students in the U.S. have found the chocolate-, strawberry-, and coffee-flavored milks, stocked in vending machines at school, a tasty alternative according to marketing officials. The high-tech vending machine sales in the U.S. are tracked—to the bottle—on a daily basis by global positioning systems.11

Finding Balance

As with all Third World countries, the basic problem in China is not necessarily inadequate resources, but rather a distribution of those resources. In their new liberal climate, edging toward a market economy, China is making strides toward improving the situation in rural China. “They are doing this by increasing farmers’ productive capability, so that they can generate more income and raise their standard of living,” said Kellems. “Available resources in some regions of China are very well suited for dairy cattle, so they can be used to accomplish this goal.”

On 21 August 2001, the government stated in a press release that they had “worked out a series of new measures to further reform the grain distribution system in a bid to ensure that the country has enough food and that farmers see higher earnings, according to Chinese Vice Premier Wen Jiabao.”12 Their intent is to allow grain prices to fluctuate according to the market.

Grain availability and distribution is a major aspect in boosting milk production. Just as the government has established regional agricultural centers, they are also adding grain marketing regions, including Zhejiang, Shanghai, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, Jiangsu, Beijing, and Tianjin, to help balance supply and demand on a smaller scale. “Initially, the use of grain to feed dairy cattle will be limited in most regions in China. As grain increases to the point of excess availability, then it could be used to feed dairy cattle,” Kellems said. “The use of marginal lands will also increase. Production can increase and not cause competition for the good land.”

Kellems added that if he had the chance, “I would devote the rest of my career to helping develop the dairy industry in China and other developing countries.”

Kellems will travel to Armenia in April for a USAID-sponsored project. He will also return to China in May to help set up a cooperative project with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Animal Nutrition Institute. His research trips have been partially funded through research grants from the Kennedy Center.

1. “China’s Rural Population Faces Medical Catastrophe,” Antoaneta Bezlova, Asia Times, 19 October 1999,
2. “Dairy Production in Selected Countries,” Foreign Agriculture Service USDA, 1999,
3. “Sustainable Agriculture in Developing Countries: China,” University of Wyoming,
4. “China’s Milk Market Expected to Bulge,” China Daily, 19 Jul 2002,
5. “Enormous Changes to Occur in Sichuan Milk Market,” China Products, Xinchua, 7 Aug 2002,
6. “Many Who ‘Got Milk’ Get Sick,” Salim Muwakkil, Chicago Tribune, 26 June 2000,
7. “The Westernization of Diets: The Assessment of Impacts in Developing Countries—With Special Reference to China,” Robert Goodland, World Bank, 15 August 2001,
8. “Dairy Industry in China—Business Opportunities,” GIC Group, March 2000,
9. “Nestlé Improves Conditions for Local Farmers in N.E. China,” International Chamber of Commerce, 22 January 2001,
10. “China Premium Food and Kunming XueLan Dairy Reach Looney Tunes Flavored Milk Agreement for Yunnan Province,” Bravo! Foods International Corporation, 11 April 2001,; “China Premium Strikes Agreement for Looney Tunes Branded Flavored Milk in Northeast China, Including Beijing,” Bravo! Foods International Corporation, 28 August 2001,
11. “Dairy Industry Tries to Make Sure Students ‘Got Milk,’” CNN Education News, Washington (AP), 5 April 2001,
12. “China to Further Reform Grain Distribution System,” China Top News, 21 August 2001,

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