Breastfeeding the answer to 'crisis'?

Updated: 2013-02-19 05:59

By Lau Nai-keung(HK Edition)

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There is more than what meets the eye behind Hong Kong's baby milk powder "crisis". My old friend Lui Tai-lok recently wrote a commentary on the issue, saying the root of the problem lies with "One Country, Two Systems". The analysis is, no doubt, correct. It's high time we gave our relationship with the mainland system a rethink, especially Hong Kong's role within the country, as circumstances have changed so much since Deng Xiaoping first envisioned the arrangement.

Who would have foreseen the issue of Hong Kong's "tourism capacity" back in the 1980s when the pattern was one-sided with Hong Kongers going to the mainland for cheap products and services? Today, a lot of us still travel around the country for work and leisure, but the movement is increasingly bilateral. Although only a small number of mainlanders is fortunate enough to be able to visit Hong Kong, the number is causing real problems for local people.

As the mainland becomes richer and the relationship between the two systems continues to deepen, exchanges should only become more frequent. The question is: Can we handle it? I'm afraid the answer right now is in the negative.

In my view, the root of the problem is not "One Country, Two Systems" per se, but what kind of modernization is appropriate for a nation with 1.35 billion people?

Breastfeeding the answer to 'crisis'?

If all Chinese adopt an American lifestyle, with all the fuel-guzzling cars, big houses with lawns and unhealthy diet, we would consume a few more planets while we only have one. This fact is well researched and documented, and it is all over the media.

In fact, the Americans - at least the clever ones - know it. As early as 2010, US President Barack Obama told an Australian interviewer: "You know if you talk to Chinese leaders, I think they will acknowledge immediately that if over a billion Chinese citizens have the same living patterns as Australians and Americans do right now, then all of us are in for a very miserable time, the planet just can't sustain it, so they understand they've got to make a decision about a new model that is more sustainable and which would allow them to pursue the economic growth they're pursuing while, at the same time, dealing with these environmental consequences."

Dairy consumption is a recent phenomenon in China. Since 1999, sales of UHT milk have grown at an annual rate of 89 percent for five years in a row, so much so that in the urban areas, liquid milk consumption is now greater than the powdered form. What we are witnessing today is nothing less than a great convergence of lifestyles.

US Department of Agriculture figures show that Americans drank an average of 20.2 gallons of milk in 2011. A little bit of calculation tells us that per-capita consumption of cow's milk was about 76.4 kg. And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, China produced 37 million tons of cow's milk in 2011. That amounts to 27.4 kg per capita.

With per-capita production of cow's milk in China only one-third that in the US, we have begun to appreciate the essence of the problem. Despite the common fear that milk on the Chinese mainland may contain harmful chemicals, the fact is there simply isn't enough locally produced milk to go around if we consume it the way Americans do. That's the reason why people have to buy from outside. The whole world will be in shortage of milk, at least in the short run, if our per-capita consumption increases threefold.

Given a few years and with proper incentives, global production of cow's milk can go up to a certain extent, but there will be a limit to growth.

A United Nations report has identified the world's rapidly growing herds of cattle as the greatest threat to the climate, forests and wildlife. Ranching, the report says, is "the major driver of deforestation" worldwide, and overgrazing is turning a fifth of all pastures and ranges into desert. Cows fart and produce plenty of global warming effect, and they also soak up vast amounts of water: it takes a staggering 990 liters of water to produce one liter of milk.

Feeding babies with cow's milk is definitely unsustainable, and this is the root cause of our current predicament. Breastfeeding would be a way out, but for that to happen, we have to make a lot of changes to our workplace cultures so that working moms can feed stress-free and healthy milk to their babies.

The author is a member of the Commission on Strategic Development.

(HK Edition 02/19/2013 page1)