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White Revolution 2.0

While Canada and the U.S. clash over NAFTA, Cargill, Nestlé and other global dairy giants are pumping their money into India

India is the world’s largest dairy producer, thanks to the “White Revolution” that it launched shortly after the country’s independence in 1947, when it first gave itself the goal of replacing dairy imports and promoting self-sufficiency.

Now, the country has embarked on a White Revolution 2.0 that will keep its borders closed to imports of skim milk powder, but open up opportunities for foreign investors to create jobs in India and to capitalize on its 4.5 per cent annual market growth.

At the centre of it all, however, is an effort to protect the livelihoods of 150 million small producers, mostly women, and to help them double production by 2020.

Needless to say, it is very different from Canada’s dairy industry.

For instance, each morning Geetaben Patel and her son milk her five cows, and her husband, Chandrakantbhai, delivers the milk by scooter to a nearby co-operative at the village of Sandesar.

The Patel family owns five cows. Their younger son, Ketan, doesn’t want to farm. He wants to go study in the U.S. like his older sister.
photo: Nicolas Mesly

There the milk is tested for quality and fat content and a cashier pays about two cents per litre (25 rupees/ litre) for the daily production of approximatively 50 litres (about 10 litres per cow).

By Indian standards, this is a large and productive herd. Most dairy farms here have one or two cows, producing an average of three litres per cow per day. “The milk production has allowed us to send our daughter to study pharmacy in the United States,” says Geetaben. She and Chandrakantbhai have three children.

The Patels belong to the Amul Co-operative network, India’s superstar milk enterprise whose headquarters is about 10 kilometres from their farm in the city of Anand in the state of Gujarat. Amul produces approximatively the same volume of milk as Canadian dairy giant Agropur, the difference being that the Indian co-op has 3.5 million members, i.e. a thousand times more than its Quebec counterpart.

I am received by Amul’s managing director, R.S. Sodhi, and hanging on the wall behind his immaculate desk I see a large portrait of Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s White Revolution and Sodhi’s “gourrou.”

In the photo behind Amur director general R.S. Sodhi is Verghese Kurien, father of the White Revolution.
photo: Nicolas Mesly

The group’s story starts with Verghese Kurien, a mechanical engineer who studied in the United States and was hired by a group of area farmers in the late 1940s. At the time, the dairy producers felt they were being exploited by a private company that supplied customers 460 kms south in Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

It was a time when the English there drank their tea with “a cloud of milk,” and to get into that market in 1954, Kurrien and the producers created the Anand Milk Producers Union Limited and their brand Amul (Amul means “precious” in Sanskrit).

Yet the challenges today seem so much more complex. In the new globalized world, India is under pressure to sign free trade agreements and to allow imported dairy into the country.

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In a world where Chinese dairy imports are falling because of a rise in domestic production and a drop in its youth population, the pressure from countries looking for new export markets is only getting more intense, despite the fact that world dairy prices have fallen by 60 per cent in the last few years.

India is one of the few growth opportunities for New Zealand, the EU and other dairy exporters.

It’s a huge market. Domestic dairy production in India is already worth $100 billion, higher than the combined value of wheat, rice and oilseeds.

But while Indian governments hesitate to open their borders to milk products, they have welcomed foreign investment, with Danone, Fonterra, Cargill and Nestlé pumping funds into the booming market.

Milk delivery at a local co-op: How does a country with 150 million dairy farms double its sales in just five years? It’s a case study being watched around the world for signs of how global food output may leap forward.
photo: Nicolas Mesly

Despite some hiccups this year, The Indian tiger GDP’s annual growth is forecast at over 5.0 per cent, according to the World Bank (2017). And a new middle class estimated at 350 million young people is eager to taste new products, partly provided by fast food giants such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, etc.

“Foreign investors are welcome,” says Sodhi. “There is room for everybody… it is good for our producers.”

Boosting animal production

While in Anand, I meet the other spiritual son of the White Revolution. His name is Shri T. Nanda Kumar, director general of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB).

The NDDB was also founded by Verghese Kurien, in this case, in 1964 as part of his plan to make India self-sufficient, which he did by going to India’s big cities to sell the skim milk powder that was sent to the country as foreign aid, and then using the money to finance the development of a national dairy co-operative network.

With that backing, he was able to build processing plants and pay farmers so local production in rural areas started to replace foreign aid and expensive dairy imports. The scheme, known as “Operation Flood,” succeeded and became the world’s largest rural development program.

Under it, between 1971 and 1996, 10 million small producers joined 73,000 dairy co-ops to produce high-quality dairy at an affordable price.

Shri T. Nanda Kumar received me in his office at NDDB headquarters. He was accompanied by two aides who sometimes added details to the conversation. Kumar has the huge responsibility of almost doubling India’s dairy production by 2021.

To do so, he has in his pocket a $350 million plan called “NDDB phase 1” financed by the World Bank.

“We have three major priorities,” Kumar explains. The first is to boost animal productivity through genetic improvement. India’s cow productivity is 1,000 kg/year, half the world average of 2,000 kg/year. To double individual cow production, he wants to improve the productivity of five dairy breeds and five buffalo breeds (India is the world’s largest buffalo milk producer) by importing semen and embryos and by developing a sire genetic evaluation program, as well as young progeny testing.

The goal is to produce 100 million doses of semen with a pool of 2,500 sires.

I ask, does Canada fit in that plan? “Canada is not price competitive in Holstein semen compared to Denmark or Germany. However, we are looking at Canada for Jersey semen,” Kumar says. It seems that business is good, however. In a separate interview, Semex Canada representative in India, Vimal Datta, says he gets regular contracts with NDDB, the latest worth US$2 million. And NDDB is hiring Canadian veterinarian, Dr. Gabriel Couto, to run its embryo transfer program.

Kumar’s second priority is to supply Indian herds with a balanced feed ration, using quality fodder and concentrates in a country where sacred cows often graze on garbage along roadsides. “We are developing a national feed card to source good-quality ingredients using a digital platform,” Kumar says. Knowing that feed costs accounts for 60 per cent of the cost of production of milk at the farm, the idea is to provide good feed at an affordable price to boost animal production.

With improved genetics through the use of artificial insemination combined with better nutrition, Kumar hopes to reduce their calving interval and get rid of non-productive cows. Between 20 and 30 per cent of Indian cows are unproductive “but they feed nonetheless,” he says.

A tub of mixed forage plant matter the Patel family feeds their dairy cows.
photo: Nicolas Mesly

Professionalisation of the trade

Both Sodhi and Kumar say that India’s White Revolution 2.0 needs to grow the professionalisation of dairy producers through education and institutional reforms. More than 100,000 farmers get regular seminars on animal health and nutrition as well as on farm management.

Their goals are in keeping with the country’s rural society, they say. Neither Sodhi nor Kumar see the development of giant farms on the California or New Zealand model with 1,000 to 10,000 animals, but even growing the average herd to 20 to 50 milking cows would be a major gain.

But to get there, Sodhi and Kumar know they will need to reach out to farm women, since more and more men have quit their villages to work in service and manufacturing sectors. Already, a third of the 16 million members of India’s 200 existing dairy co-ops are women, and the number is still growing, and the country’s dairy leaders see it as a positive change. “We are aimed at 50 per cent,” Kumar says.

But at the Patel’s farm, neither of the two daughters intend to milk cows, and Ketan, their 19-year-old son, also wants to go study in the United States like his older sister.

So who will milk India’s cows?

Without a next generation to take over their farm, they say they will keep the farm, but they will rent it to landless farmers.There are 350 million of them.

With proper education, a new generation of landless women will drive India’s White Revolution 2.0, Sodhi and Kumar believe. It will, Sodhi says, be “their economic and social elevator.”

Ketan Patel and his father milk a cow.
photo: Nicolas Mesly

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