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BW Businessworld

The Milky Way Of Life

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A cow with a name gives more milk than a cow without one. Strange, but true. In 2009, this discovery bagged the Ig Nobel Prize, a spoof of the Nobel Prize organised by the Improbable Research magazine. The history of milk is dotted with such unbelievably curious snippets of information, customs and beliefs. And gleaning such interesting nuggets of information is historian Deborah Valenze in Milk: A Local And Global History.

Valenze has an eye for detail; he gives an astounding account of the culture of milk across the world. Dairy products, she observes, had enormous social and economic value. Milk, across ages, influenced rulers, governments, ethnic groups, shaping and remoulding cultures, triggering conflicts and even nourishing human bonds. For instance, in 1494, Charles VIII of France sent a "giant sample" of cheese to the queen, "perhaps hoping to impress her". In Rhineland, Europe, Dutch milk enjoyed great value that it was often compared to wine.

Milk, which comes from the breast of mammals, connects humans to their animal nature, observes Valenze. Her account of how breast-feeding gained an "uncivilised" tag in the 18th century Europe is wonderful. Equally gripping are her notes on how changes in human attitude towards milk  human and animal — influenced the evolution of milk as a commodity and culture.

Business interests and the advent of technology played key roles in the development of milk as an industrial product, notes Valenze. That cows were kept in lactation during winter as early as 15th century shows dairy producers were responsive to the demands of the market. The price of winter milk was five times that of seasonal milk. The book traces the history of milk business in great detail. Here you meet the likes of a Gloucestershire pharmacist, James Horlick, who found a lucrative business in milk-based products in the 1870s. His brand, Horilicks, is popular even now, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline.

Processing of this perfect source of nutrients is now done in much sophisticated environments and its shelf life has increased significantly thanks to technology. Today, robotic milking tools, computer monitoring, etc. are used in dairy processing so that optimum use of the product is ensured, but at the cost of its natural quality at times. The arrival of artificial milk products is now threatening the existence of organic dairy products in many markets.

India's White Revolution, too, finds mention in Valenze's book; she writes in detail about Amul and the milk cooperatives that made the brand a success. A great read for those who love milk and those sweet, four-legged producers of the white nourishment.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 05-09-2011)