“Pure milk brought to you by healthy cows grazing on green pastures running with clean waters in New Zealand” was Fonterra’s unmistakable brand proposition. How can we ever forget the heavenly images of their lush meadows brimming with fat-patched cows carved into our brains over and over through their long commercials? But the dairy giant’s [...]

Sunday Times 2

DCD in Milk: New Zealand a victim of its own success


“Pure milk brought to you by healthy cows grazing on green pastures running with clean waters in New Zealand” was Fonterra’s unmistakable brand proposition. How can we ever forget the heavenly images of their lush meadows brimming with fat-patched cows carved into our brains over and over through their long commercials?

A Fonterra milk tanker arrives to Fonterra's Te Rapa plant near Hamilton August 6, 2013. Dairy giant Fonterra was hit by fresh infant formula recalls in China, Russia and other countries. REUTERS

But the dairy giant’s recent scandals tell us that New Zealand is anything but pure and there is mounting evidence that the island nation is unable live up to the image it had once created for itself. How did it happen? What went wrong? What can we learn from their failure?

Fonterra Cooperative Group Limited is the largest of New Zeeland’s three dairy cooperatives. Together, their dairy exports valued at NZ$ 11.5 billion annually, accounts for a third of all New Zealand’s exports. Fonterra, the world’s largest global milk processor and dairy exporter collects over 20 billion litres (enough to fill 200,000 swimming pools) of milk every year, and more than 95% of its production is exported to over 140 countries. Fonterra’s extensive portfolio of dairy products such as liquid and powdered milk, cheese, butter, yoghurt, and related food products and services come in a range of popular brands such as Anchor, Anmum, PediaPro and Anlene which are distributed through their own networks as well as through partnerships with companies like Nestle bringing in a revenue close to NZ$ 20 billion in the year to July 31.

Dairy business is entirely dependent on one raw material, milk. Milk comes from milk cows. And cows eat grass. That’s where the Kiwis got it wrong. As the demand for “White Gold” keeps increasing the farmers kept increasing their herds and wanted the maximum yield per cow which largely depends on the animal’s diet. A key element needed to produce milk is Nitrogen. Nitrogen is needed to make Amino Acids, tiny molecules that combine to make proteins. Thousands of protein molecules aggregate to make the largest structures in the fluid portion of the milk called casein micelles.

New Zealand’s dairy industry is mainly pasture-based and does not use costly energy-rich mixed diets like some other countries that have higher yield per cow. Using hormones to induce milk in cows is banned in New Zealand. So the only way to increase the yield is to increase the nitrogen intake by the cows. Some graziers in New Zealand add extraordinarily high levels of nitrogen as chemical fertiliser (containing nitrates and ammonium) to their pastures in order to maximise the protein content of their milk, up to 250 pounds (113kg) per acre per year in some instances. Another large source of Nitrogen that gets added to the soil is the cows’ urine.
But the excess Nitrogen (in the form of nitrates) that does not get absorbed by the plants move downward freely with drainage water, and leached into groundwater, streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.

One of New Zealand’s rivers, the Manawatu is among the most polluted in the world and leaching is found to be the main culprit. Nitrates increase bacteria and algae growth leading to eutrophication in aquatic systems killing fish and making it unsuitable to swim. Another problem faced by the farmers is that when nitrogenous compounds breakdown in soil it releases Nitrogen in the form of gas (nitrous oxide). So they wanted to find a way to keep the Nitrogen in fertiliser and animal urine for long in soil and slow down the release of nitrous oxide. They found DCD – Dicyandiamide.

A three year trial-based research funded by Fonterra, Dairy NZ, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Fertiliser Manufacturers Research Association (FMRA) claimed that DCD (2-Cyanoguanidine) can inhibit nitrous oxide emissions and Nitrogen leaching by 50%. So DCD was added to fertiliser to slow down the release of nitrates, effectively making the nitrogen slow-burn. There are more environmentally beneficial ways of getting nitrogen into the soil such as the use of legumes such as clover which can fix atmospheric nitrogen in the roots naturally.

The primary use of DCD is in the production of melamine. Melamine is a plastic that is used to make tableware such as plates and cups, Formica, laminated floors and the popular white boards used in schools. Melamine is described as being “Harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Chronic exposure may cause cancer or reproductive damage. Eye, skin and respiratory irritant.” Although there is an acceptable dose of human consumption recommended by various bodies, I leave it to you to decide whether you want to consume a lethal chemical that can cause cancer and renal failure. There’s reason to believe that the New Zealand government advised Fonterra that “low levels of DCD found in its products weren’t a concern.”

But in 2008 at least six Chinese children died and 300,000 more fell ill in the Sanlu scandal where a baby formula was contaminated with melamine. Unsurprisingly Fonterra owned a sizable share in the Chinese company, which claimed Fonterra had advised it about permitted levels of Melamine. Fonterra seemed to have failed to learn a lesson from this tragedy.

It seems that Fonterra knew at least since September 2012 of the presence of DCD in New Zealand’s milk supply before launching a new shareholder fund late last year. The company said it chose not to disclose the chemical findings before launching a NZ$ 525 million (US$438.9 million) fund last November because it wasn’t “material” information. A brand that was built on trust seems to be contaminated with greed. What’s worse, the local Fonterra Company carried out an advertising campaign telling Sri Lankans that there’s nothing to fear when in fact they knew for the past 11 months that they were selling milk products to innocent consumers tainted with harmful substances. Adding to this a Botulism contamination had caused New Zealand to recall their milk products from China, Russia and several other countries. Despite the internal pressure, the Sri Lankan government too played it loose and only when China and Russia closed their gates to New Zealand milk, they took action.

What impact all these would have on New Zealand’s dairy business is to be seen. But the key lessons here for us is that chemical fertiliser is definitely not the answer to anything and when it comes to food we must have zero tolerance. Today we as a nation experience similar or perhaps even worse problems with the fast spreading Arsenic poisoning through paddy fields. The western way of doing business has failed to solve the global issues and in most cases has worsened the situation. Western science has failed to provide sustainable solutions to the social issues that plague our world. We need to realise that if we are to solve our problems whether it be in agriculture, in education, in governance, in health etc. we need to stop finding temporary solutions that create more problems but start finding sustainable solutions to the very cause of the problem. Finally I urge Sri Lankans to be aware of the dangers we face, our children face and come forward to fight against them whether it be foreign or local.

(The writer has a BSc in Genetics, Microbiology and Biochemistry. The opinion expressed in this article is his own. He can be contacted at ginige_er@hotmail.com )

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