China Needs Milk and California Has Too Much. Is It a Match?

Ray Souza at his dairy farm in Turlock, Calif. He’s seen neighboring dairy farms go out of business because they can’t afford production costs. Photo courtesy of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Editor’s Note: The broadcast report is slated to air on Friday, June 14.

California dairy farmers are pumping out milk at higher rates each year to try to make a profit in light of the rising associated costs of corn and soy used in cow feed.

Meanwhile, milk and cheese are becoming more in demand in countries such as China with its growing middle class.

It’s a natural fit: California is looking for more markets for its milk, while China is seeking more sources for its increasing appetite for dairy.

“We know a lot of these markets in China will grow 10 or 20 fold over the next few decades. By being there now, we can be at the start of that growth,” said Ross Christieson, a consultant for the California Milk Advisory Board, in the next “Food for 9 Billion” report airing on the PBS NewsHour.

But reporters Serene Fang and Susanne Rust find it’s not necessarily a match made in heaven.

Some say the increased production is taking a toll on California’s environment. Dairy farmers in California are packing more cows onto their property, which create more greenhouse gases, while manure used to fertilize cropland is tainting waterways.

“Already, California communities are overwhelmed by the amount of air pollution that comes from these facilities. The effect on groundwater is really unacceptable,” said Brent Newell, an environmental lawyer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, in Fang and Rust’s report. “So continuing to produce milk to put on a ship and ship across the Pacific Ocean to China, to satisfy some kind of growing demand in China for dairy products, really makes no sense at all.”

More in the Food for 9 Billion Series:

The “Food for 9 Billion” series is a PBS NewsHour collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Public Radio International’s The World, American Public Media’s Marketplace and Homelands Productions.