the untold story of pious vegan ideologues, militant activists, and raw milk maxxers in a battle for the soul of america
First they came for the milk-drinkers. In the last five years, you might have noticed a puzzling succession of headlines aimed at milk. Maybe it was the Buzzfeed article titled “Hate to Break It To You: Drinking Milk Is Not Okay,” or the Vice story that said drinking milk “is unsettling behavior,” or a film critic’s op-ed which stated “only psychopaths drink milk.” Maybe you recently noticed yourself feeling awkward when you had to clarify to your local barista that you’d like “regular” or “cow’s milk,” not oat, almond, or soy. If you’d really been making the connections, you would have also noticed that dairy farmers are committing suicide in record numbers.
Milk is in crisis. Not oat, almond, or soy milk, but dairy milk. Compared with each of the previous six decades, American milk consumption fell fastest in the 2010s, down from a peak of over two cups per day to just half a cup. An average of five dairy farms shut down every day in the US, representing a loss of more than 38,000 farms since 2003. Dairy cooperatives like Agri-Mark Inc. have resorted to mailing their farmers a list of suicide prevention hotlines alongside their bleak price forecasts.
Milk, once seen as foundational or even luxurious, is facing an unprecedented reckoning. Due to climate change regulation, dairy farmers in the Netherlands have been ordered to slash their emissions by as much as 95%, forcing them to either shut down or drastically reduce their livestock numbers; they’ve responded by setting highways on fire and blockading food distribution centers with their tractors. Patrick Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods, has openly stated his desire to “get rid of the friggin’ cows.” On the grassroots level, mobs of angry vegans are drilling holes in milk delivery trucks, teenage animal activists are going viral by livestreaming themselves emptying gallons of milk onto the floor in grocery stores, and trendy LA brands sell “Anti Dairy Social Club” apparel.
While not every civilization drank cow’s milk, the situation in the Western world today is perhaps the first time in human history the value of dairy, and cows by extension, has been so aggressively questioned. But there are a few who still revere milk. Not just any milk, but raw milk: unpasteurized, organic, grass-fed, and locally sourced. To this ragtag coalition of homesteaders, bodybuilders, and new-age hillbillies, raw milk is “nature’s perfect superfood,” and — with raw milk still illegal to sell for human consumption in 20 states — they’ll go to great lengths to procure it. They’ll also go to great lengths to defend it, and theirs is a more covert war waged online: they troll oat milk companies incessantly, publish Twitter threads about “raw milk nationalism,” and make funny memes to propagandize potential converts.
These are the milk wars, and they have everything to do with how food will be consumed in the 21st century. As we approach an era in which climate change ultimatums are poised to eradicate entire industries, it’s not just the future of cows called into question. Milk is a proxy for societal forces to wage an information war over agriculture, artificial meat, animal husbandry, and much more.
Whoever wins will control the future of food. The stakes have never been higher.