Back on their feet after weeks of having their reputation besmirched by tales of pink slime, cattle are drawing attention to the complexities and uncertainties of our food system.  Chinese dairies, mad cows, and powdered milk illustrate how the milk and meat industry adapts, pivots, and innovates in a dynamic and rapidly changing global market.

While remotely connected, the occurrence of one mad cow in Tulare, California, powdered milk producers in the US and 25 shiploads of cattle moving from South America to China all point to an intricately connected food system. The production of meat and milk is linked not only to the emotions and ethics of consumers but also to food security crises and global restructuring of supply chains.

Consider the recent finding in California of a cow with mad cow disease (BSE, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). A consequence of eating meat from cattle fed animal byproducts, the disease causes brain degeneration in humans. BSE first appeared in North American in 1989. Since then, hundreds of thousands of cases have been detected and animals destroyed both in the US and UK. This recent case only puts cattle and consumers on tenterhooks, awaiting news about further outbreaks. Found on a farm in Tulare County, the cow raised concerns about the possibility that entire herds may be tainted, threatening human health. While the USDA continues its investigations, producers and consumers are left hanging about the impact of this incident. Having just recovered from the pink slime media hysteria, when the meat industry had to retool and pivot around concerns over meat processing, producers worried that this one cow will disrupt their business again.

While this fear lingers, China is concerned about scaling up its own dairy producing industry. More and more Chinese are drinking milk and enjoying ice cream, increasing China’s need for productive dairy herds. Seeing this as an opportunity, farmers outside of China are shipping cattle to China. According to The Wall Street Journal, 100,000 heifers arrived this year from New Zealand, Argentina, and Uruguay in response to a drive to produce a new generation of productive dairy cows in China. Chinese cows don’t produce much milk compared to cows in other countries.  Lacking the spirit of innovation inspired by capitalism, Chinese farmers have cows that annually produce four tons of milk compared to nine in the U.S. Imparting years of experimentation and improvement of breeding knowledge, American farmers and others outside China, are sending their intellectual property (cattle) to China, seeing the short term advantage of new markets. In the long term, American farmers should consider the effects of exporting their best breeding stock.

American farmers are responding to this new demand by exporting cows, investing in the modernization of Chinese dairies and developing new products. Chinese producers are turning to the U.S. model of industrial dairy farming and are accepting financial support from such preeminent U.S. investment firms as Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts.

In addition to shipping cattle to China, American milk producers have found another opportunity in China.  U.S. powdered milk producers are retooling in order to satisfy a growing demand in China for milk. With rising incomes and a move towards Western food, the thirsty Chinese cannot quench their desires with Chinese milk and so purchase large amounts of powdered milk. U.S. farmers are changing their own production process in order to make powdered milk with a long shelf life, a requirement for Chinese milk consumers. Since many Chinese families lack refrigerators, the long shelf life is critical. Dairy companies such as California Dairies, a cooperative in Central California, have taken notice and have invested in new technology in order to produce this longer-lasting dry milk.

What these stories tell us is that American farmers are adapting and innovating to constant change and crises in the global food system. And these adaptations surfaced during just one week. One week since these news stories, U.S. cattle futures were already beginning to rebound, responding to the upcoming grilling season and low inventories due to herd reductions from lack year’s drought.

Imagine these adjustments and innovations for hundreds of thousands other subsystems and supply chains within the global food system. How can we connect all the cultural, economic, political and environmental changes that affect our food supply? I suggest we begin by digging deeper into our understanding of the system. Let’s explore those connections during the upcoming months.  Want to join me? Add your ideas for who ought to be considered part of our global food system. Farmers, yes. That’s obvious. But what about the producers of ice? Or cookie sheet manufacturers? How far are you willing to go?