The Murky Milky Way: Health, Politics and Power

The Murky Milky Way: Health, Politics and Power
The choices we make about milk are personal, but these decisions are co-opted into larger systems of power and care. The Wellcome Institute explore the complex interplay between competing interests when it comes to health, values and virtues.


Humans are one of the few mammals to drink the milk of other species, and to do so beyond childhood. Dairy extraction has a long and varied history, but mass milk production and consumption is a contemporary habit. Until September the Wellcome Collection take a fresh look at questions such as how milk came to be seen as essential to a ‘good’ diet, why the tides seem to be turning, what forces shape the ways in which we feed our babies, and how milk has been used to associate ideas of health with racial and social standing.


The New Natural

Changes in man’s modern diet have been shaped by advertising, science and socio-economic forces. Mass marketing fuelled consumer appetite, nutritional science established ‘essential’ benefits, and European colonial occupation and global trade imposed milk-drinking as a cultural norm across the world.

Around two thirds of the world’s population still have difficulty digesting milk, because the lactase enzyme that processes milk sugars (lactose) declines after childhood. Populations that can digest lactose in adulthood are mostly white European and North American. In leveraging science as a tool for the promotion of economic and political interests, epigenetic factors have produced biological adaptations in some populations.

Terminology has also transformed. In 1901 the government passed legislation defining ‘natural’ milk as containing at least 3% fat. This is because 19th-century sellers often watered milk down and then thickened it with flour or chalk to increase profit margins. Milk today is a standardised, processed product using techniques such as pasteurisation, UHT and homogenisation. But unprocessed milk looks and tastes different depending on the age of the cow’s calf, the breed and diet.


Sanitised Sciences

In spite of the increasingly industrialised processes involved, we still tend to think of milk as natural. At its inception, milk created a public health crisis known as ‘the milk problem’. Before refrigeration, milk couldn’t travel long distances without spoiling. Urban demand grew but cows were often kept in cramped, unsanitary cowsheds behind city shops. As a result milk was often contaminated with diseases such as tuberculosis, and this was associated with infant mortality rates.

In response, dairy farming was reformed around the scientific principles of hygiene, standardisation and efficiency; and mechanisation led to the industry becoming centralised by larger scale corporations. The Board of Agriculture established the NIRD to apply these scientific principles to milk production, and to educate farmers on cow health, construction and cleanliness. Meanwhile in the US, organisations such as the National Child Welfare Association lobbied mothers to buy safer milk that had been pasteurised – which was slow to gain acceptance, but became the norm by 1920.

These public health measures predominantly improved infant mortality rates for middle-class families who could afford tuberculosis-tested or pasteurised milk. While those from lower income families, with disproportionately high numbers from racial minority communities, often replaced fresh cows milk with condensed milk that was longer-lasting and cheaper, but less nutritious. In some contexts, this is a cultural choice such as with Vietnamese coffee.

The desire for processed milk fostered technological innovation – manufacturers redesigned milk cans, hand-milking was replaced by automatic vacuum machines, and white milking coats visually reinforced the idea of a clean, closed, scientific environment. On consumer doorsteps, glass milk bottles showed off the gleaming condition of its contents, and were designed to be sterilised and reused. For farmers, robotic milking machines also increased yields while reducing cow mastitis.

However since 1975, the amount of milk produced per cow has increased 100%, and the physical demands of milk production this high has caused cow health problems that UK breeding programmes are now addressing. Artist Marcel Broodthaers illustrates how ‘objective’ scientific categories reflect the values of the institutions that create them: in his lithographic prints on ‘les Animaux de la ferme‘, breeds of cattle are laid out in a grid with the names of cars underneath; from the 1800s onwards farmers specifically bred and genetically engineered cattle for improved dairy production.

Science that uses binary categories such as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ in relation to public health subliminally connects cleanliness with safety, negating to acknowledge the balance that dirt provides in boosting the immune system in the long-run. For example, while regulation prevents supermarket sales – the health benefits of ‘raw’ milk from smaller scale suppliers remains popular in local farmers markets.

While the mechanisation of milk production has decreased demand for intensive manual labour, todays dairy farms still rely heavily on migrant workers. From 2016 to 2021, 42% of UK dairy farms recruited workers from abroad, mostly from Poland and Latvia. But the end of free movement since Brexit has worsened existing agricultural labour shortages, which are associated with low pay and unsociable working hours.

The early formalised education by the Royal Agricultural Society, which emphasised the importance of scientific principles, modernised the agricultural industry. But some farmers are now returning to their original methods as they have realised that these practices are more sustainable and regenerative long-term; for example mixed farming improves soil health by combining crop growing with livestock. Preserving and trading milk safely without industrial processing is gaining renewed interest from producers and consumers alike, and many of these smaller-scale approaches such as fermentation, have been practiced around the world for centuries.

Colonial authorities previously dismissed indigenous dairying techniques as ‘unclean’ and unprofitable. They used agricultural reform to impose white British values and systems, while justifying the taking and enclosing of land traditionally used by pastoral communities to graze their cattle. They ignored existing knowledge about the role cattle play in maintaining local ecosystems, and narrowly promoted their own practices, which were focused on the success of economic returns.


Selling Sanctity

In Christian beliefs, milk has symbolised spiritual as well as physical nourishment. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was gifted divine grace through the Virgin Mary’s milk. As the saint knelt to pray before her statue, he received milk from her breast, granting him wisdom and eloquence. The representation of milk as a ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ product in advertising campaigns, draws on this association with maternal milk. The 1618 Atalanta Fugiens text describes a mother’s milk as a life-giving fluid, nourishing and transmitting essential qualities to the child under the motto “the earth is her/his nurse”. In European mythology and Christian religious imagery, a lactating woman represents fertility, charity and abundance.

The temperance movement promoted milk as an alternative to alcohol – believing a balanced diet could prevent excessive or ‘immoral’ behaviour. The lithographic print of the tree of temperance displays the benefits caused by healthy living, with the trunk associating health with ‘strength of body’. The suggestion is that physical health supports moral habits including ‘prayer’, ‘honesty’, and ‘good sense’. It allowed reformers to use food as a way to ‘improve’ society by conflating good health with good character, and associating this with discipline and self-restraint.

The psychology of pious purity is still used to sway decision-making. Pasteurisation was becoming more widespread in the UK but most milk was still sold raw. Dairy companies were keen to promote their products safety, so their messaging deliberately contrasted the ‘naturalness’ of raw milk with the ‘purity’ of industrial processing. They also drew on romanticised perspectives of the British countryside as places of wholesome simplicity and goodness.

Artist Sarah Pucill’s film ‘Backcomb‘ disrupts this sanitised image of milk by re-immersing it in the sensuality of the body that produces it – represented by masses of dark, animated hair. Slithering across a neatly set table, finger-like tufts of hair poke and pierce the white tablecloth, upturning containers of milk, cream and butter whose contents seep into the encroaching strands.

Paediatrician Ronald MacKeith collected images of historical artworks depicting idealised scenes of breastfeeding to use for teaching purposes; many portrayed Christian imagery of the Madonna and Child. He noted that Tintoretto’s painting The Origins of The Milky Way shows the draught (or let down) reflex in action. Similarly, European ideas about breastfeeding derive from images that associate motherhood with spiritual purity and divine blessings or innocence.

In the video installation Let Down Reflex by Ilana Harris-Babou, members of the artists’ family reflect on breastfeeding and the passing down of maternal knowledge. The soundtrack is based on a lullaby said to have been sung by an enslaved black mother separated from her baby to wet nurse a white child. The title refers to the physical process of milk releasing from the breast, but also points to the failings within black maternal healthcare. Artist Lakisha Cohill created her portrait series Chocolate Milk Goddess to celebrate black breastfeeding, featuring mothers of a peer support group in Alabama. Black women in the US are over-represented in schemes distributing free formula, and are less likely to receive lactation support following birth.

Psychologists today are exploring how complex social and cultural messaging impacts expectant mothers. The serene sacred imagery and use of words such as ‘miracle’ or ‘happy’ by companies like suppliers of formula milk, is in contrast to the challenging and messy reality of birth, infant feeding and the ups and downs of postpartum life. There are many areas of society that are romanticised in this way. And this gap leaves some parents poorly prepared, reinforcing feelings of failure.


Demoralising Motherhood

The idea that women need scientific advice to successfully care for and feed their infants took hold in Europe and N America in the late 19th century, and coincided with the rise of paediatrics. It was reinforced through adverts for newly available infant formulas.

While an increasingly scientific approach to childcare brought many benefits to maternal and child health, it also reshaped motherhood. Feeding schedules applied discipline to infant nourishment and milk became measured and monitored. Health visitors and doctors used babies’ weights to track their development, as adverts claimed baby formula was a ‘perfect substitute‘ for breast milk. Paediatric research was predominantly developed around white women’s bodies, leading to biases in maternal healthcare.

This new approach produced a standardised image of motherhood that persists in society today. Perceived ‘failure’ to meet these standards can create feelings of shame, particularly around infant feeding. Today, more inclusive and less reductionist practices are being developed, taking into account the ways in which natural processes are systemically tied into factors like race, family, workplace, income and healthcare.

Breastfeeding used to be the safest method of infant feeding, and wet nurses (women who breastfed another person’s child) were the standard alternative for women unable or unwilling to breastfeed. However as cleaner cow’s milk became available it replaced the demand for wet nursing. While wet nursing was a choice and a paid occupation for some, for others it was enslavement and enforced unpaid labour.

Resources often represent the relationship between mother and child as nourishing, harmonious and nurturing. However artists such as Henry Moore challenge this idea by expressing the elements of motherhood that can feel like a power struggle, in which a ravenous child attempts to devour its mother’s breast.

The 19th century saw a rise in products targeted at mothers, including specially designed feeding bottles. These were advertised as safe and hygienic, but this was not always the case. The long tubes of Alexandra feeding bottles were hard to clean, and subsequent accumulations of bacteria caused infant illness, eventually lending them the name ‘murder bottles‘.

As medical and commercial advice increasingly undermined mothers’ practical experience and community expertise, many sought reassurance in the tangible metrics of data science. Formula milk came with branded spoons and information leaflets that prized quantifiable approaches over intuitive instincts.

Mothers were encouraged and guilt tripped into attending welfare centres that described motherhood as a ‘skilled job’. While they did offer useful support, the message that it was a moral imperative to attend, and that mothers could not successfully parent without a doctor’s help, not only undermined their confidence, but also affected them socially. If they did not make the ‘right decision‘, they were believed to be risking and ‘ruining’ their infants health.

Formula companies supplied paediatricians with free samples and branded items, and medical communities endorsed the success of these products in responsible parenting practices and healthy outcomes. In the 1930s these outcomes were measured against a scientific standard for each age group. For example a health visitor would use portable baby scales calibrated for boys and girls – however the average weight standards did not acknowledge differences that could stem from health conditions or socio-economic status. Neither did they acknowledge variations in birth weight among different UK populations.

Formula feeding was also changing these growth patterns, and some physicians and academics were concerned that formula-fed babies might be considered overweight. However Formula companies quickly began distributing their own branded charts, associating their products with the latest data and ‘healthy’ growth. In the 1980s and 90s the NHS used growth charts based on data from British formula-fed babies. But in 2009 they changed to charts from the World Health Organisation, based on data from 8440 ‘healthy, non-deprived, breastfed children of mothers who did not smoke’ from a handful of countries.


The Cost of ‘Good’ Health

In 20th century Britain, wartime recruitment revealed widespread malnourishment. Scientists began to identify the nutrients in food and study the relationship between diet and diseases. Dairy milk was hailed as ‘nature’s perfect food’ because of its unique mix of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and fat.

Milk was held up as an icon of ‘good health’ by both the British state and the dairy industry. It became embedded in British diets through welfare schemes such as school milk initiatives and was considered key to strengthening the nation during World War II. European and N American nutritional science was also used to justify the export of tinned milk and dairy cattle throughout the British Empire.

In the 1930s, the first Milk Marketing Board campaign used bold, dynamic designs to change the public’s opinion of milk by associating it with a modern British lifestyle – where modern meant moral. As the health of the British nation was tied to the health of the individual, choosing a ‘good’ diet became seen as a mark of responsible citizenship. The advertising agency W.S Crawford created the campaign, and William Crawford believed that the role of advertising in society was to ‘improve’ public taste and values.

As with the healthy eating guidelines produced by the British government in the 20th century, which were based on the new science of nutrition, this association of health and modernity with virtue and values has excluded factors such as income inequalities and cultural preferences; as well as ignoring the wider social and environmental costs that have gone into large scale production and supply.

Even with good intentions, a fragmented approach to beneficence that does not take the wider life cycle into account can have detrimental effects. N America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia have exported surplus milk through foreign aid programmes, distributing it to low and middle income countries such as Jamaica and Mali. However from a systemic perspective, this essentially equates to dumping – and the practice undercuts local farmers while creating a dependency on imported goods.


Exploring The Udderbelly

Many artists, writers and performers are holistically exploring the ethics and economies of milk. Online communities and DIY publications such as zines reflect on its varied symbolic meanings. They confront the environmental impact of consumer lifestyle choices, investigate milk’s colonial legacies and advocate for greater community input over the way food is produced and traded.

Filmmaker Leo Hallam Dawson explores how dairy farmers are having to adapt to a changing world, and the pressures that they face to produce larger quantities of food more efficiently, while still trying to maintain sustainability and financial stability. Artist Melanie Jackson and writer Esther Leslie draw on the ways milk circulates throughout our economies and imaginations; integrating into the digital age in ever more complex ways. And performance artist Jess Dobkin has explored the commodification, fetishisation and distribution of human milk. She believes in encouraging conversations around value and labour, and imagining alternative ‘currencies’ or ‘exchanges’ such as kindness, love and community.

This extends into communities beyond the human realm. For cows to produce milk, they need to give birth to a calf, but they are weaned early to prevent them from taking their mothers milk so that it can be sold for human consumption. Farmers either use spiked muzzles or physical separation. Practices such as ‘calf at foot’ allow the calf more time to wean naturally, but it reduces the amount of milk available. This creates a separation between consumers that can and cannot afford to pay extra for the more ethical choice, and farmers already struggle to compete with the ‘race to the bottom’ that economies of scale can fuel.

Visual mediums help us to rethink the modern milk problem – which applies to more industries than one. Dairy products have a varied and ancient global presence, and while 20th century industrial processes of pasteurisation and refrigeration have been seen as essential to safe milk, there are other ways to preserve and trade milk safely. Methods such as cheese-making don’t rely on purification processes because they work with milk’s natural properties, collaborating with bacteria and fungi in a way that enables milk to be stored and consumed throughout the year.

Similarly, Mursik is a thick, sour milk drink that is popular across Kenya and traditionally associated with pastoral Kalenjin communities. Boiled milk is transferred to a charcoal-lined gourd where it ferments and can be stored for up to a month. Charcoal is antimicrobial and gives milk a greyish colour, as well as a distinctive taste. Making Mursik is a mobile, low-cost and sustainable alternative to pasteurisation. But global dairy regulators have historically misunderstood and under-valued these ‘technologies’. Perhaps future innovations might consider better ways of working with and not against natural processes; exploring regenerative practices that adopt a full lifecycle perspective and aren’t just anthropocentric.