If a food makes a significant portion of the population physically ill, should a country keep producing it?
That sounds like a trick question, but it isn’t. With over 37 million tonnes in 2012, China is now the third largest producer of cow’s milk in the world by weight (behind the US and India), according to the UK Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board. The country is also importing more milk than ever, with liquid (as opposed to powdered) milk imports up 78% in 2014, making it the world’s largest dairy importer, says Alan Levitt of the US Dairy Exports Council. China does not export its milk, Levitt says, except for very small amounts to Hong Kong.
But a high proportion of Asians are lactose-intolerant or lactase-deficient—meaning they lack sufficient lactase, the enzyme necessary to absorb the sugar in milk, lactose, and may suffer from diarrhea, gas, and bloating after consuming dairy products. In one study, 92.3% of the Chinese subjects were identified as “lactose malabsorbers.” Another study found that while only 38.5% of Chinese children ages 3-5 years old were lactase-deficient, 87% of those in the 7-8 year and 11-13 year old groups were. In some East Asian communities, up to 90% of adults are lactose-intolerant, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
So why is China ramping up its milk production?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization attributes the climbing dairy consumption to “rising incomes, population growth, urbanization and changes in diets.” Those “changes in diet” are largely Western-leaning. As the culture moves in, it brings food preferences, too, even if they don’t quite make sense: Baskin-Robbins and Pizza Hut, for example, are among the dairy-intensive international brands working hard to make inroads in China. “[D]rinking milk is increasingly viewed as healthy—especially for kids—and has caught on with an increasingly affluent middle class,” Food Safety News noted in December.
And Beijing has been spurring the drive for dairy. “I have a dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, sufficient milk each day,” Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said in 2007. The country is on track to meet that goal, apparently even if it makes them sick.