Green Eyes On: Sour Milk


I was reminded of a valuable lesson this past week. That is, if you give people something to care about, they'll care. And, maybe more importantly, we can affect change.

When I'm not in meetings on the coasts or speaking all over the country, I'm at my home in Indianapolis, with my husband Ryan and our dog, Makana. And while there are months when I'm not in Indiana a whole lot, I felt a profound connection to my fellow Hoosiers this past week and a need to fight with them and for them.

But first I have to back up. Last November, I was sitting on a flight reading about a milk-labeling issue being debated in Pennsylvania. The discussion was about a dairy's right to use a label that declaring its milk was free of synthetic growth hormones. Recombinant bovine growth hormone, also called rBGH, and recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST, are chemically engineered hormones used on many conventional dairy farms to increase a cow's milk production, sometimes by as much as a gallon per day per cow. Concerns about synthetic growth hormone relate to human health (concerns that it may promote cancer) as well as animal health (concern that it may lead to reproductive complications and infections that increase the need for antibiotics). Though banned in Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand, synthetic growth hormones were approved for use in dairy farming by the U.S. Federal Department of Agriculture in 1994.

The debate in Pennsylvania was whether the state's Department of Agriculture would prevent milk from wearing a "hormone-free" label on its package. So an average consumer walking into a grocery store would have no way of knowing which milk came from hormone-altered cows and which didn't (unless the consumer chose certified-organic milk, which is always free of synthetic hormones).

Like so many people who make a point to read labels and know the sources of my food, I became outraged. And I would have been decidedly more so if I lived there. But the people fought back against the state, and won. The labeling law was reversed so that dairies that do not give their cows synthetic hormones can indeed place a label on their milk that reads "From cows not treated with rBST." (However, hey must also include a label saying, "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows.")

A victory! So we can all sleep better at night. Or so I thought, until the same monster crept out of the closet in Indiana.

A similar labeling ban was presented in the House in Indiana as HB 1300 late last month and passed uncontested. As it headed for the Senate floor, we rallied. Emails flew. Letters were sent to state representatives. I spoke with advocates and farmers and they spoke with other consumer groups. I even got an email from a representative of the governor because he heard of my distaste for the bill and offered his help. If it came down to it, I was prepared to take a cow onto Monument Circle as a form of protest. I just hoped I wouldn't be there alone.

In the end, the cows stayed home, because the bill was withdrawn by its sponsor "due to the overwhelming consumer opposition." In fact, every single member of the House and Senate in Indiana heard from constituents who opposed the labeling bill. Victory.

Our fight—and this is what I want you to be aware of—wasn't so much an agricultural argument. There will always be different ways of manufacturing things and farming foods. And that's why consumer choice is a beautiful thing. You can pick which companies you want to support, which food you want to eat, even which milk you want to drink. Every time you buy from a company, you are casting your vote for them with your green backs. BUT, if as consumers we are not given all of the information we have a hard time making informed decisions. For a long time now food has been allowed to strut its stuff flying flags of "no artificial preservatives," "no artificial colors," and "locally grown." So why, in light of that, could milk not wear a label saying "no-rBST"? That was the fight.

The lesson learned here is not one about milk. It's a message about knowing what's going on around you and knowing that you can affect change. I didn't like what was happening in Indiana with milk so I started talking to people about it. And there were a lot more people than just me who were upset. Together we formed a strong voice of opposition and it was heard. The state of Ohio is undergoing a similar battle. If you're feeling the fight rising in you, send an email.

And if there's something going on around you, learn more. Talk to farmers and neighbors. This is your life. This is our planet. Small steps such as sending an email (or walking a cow around downtown if it comes to it) can make a big difference.

The "small changes" message is probably one you've been hearing for a while. Switch out a light bulb, use reusable grocery bags, carry a refillable water bottle. It all adds up. And when your voice is added to the voices of others, those cries amount to change.

Sara Snow is Planet Green's green lifestyle expert. Her column Green Eyes On will appear every other Monday on TreeHugger. Her first column, Meet Sara Snow: The Sticks and Stones of an Eco-warrior, appeared last month.

Tags: Activism | Agriculture | Animals | Sara Snow