In a world where whole foods, homesteading, re-learning historical trades, and going back to our ancestor's roots is growing ever the more popular, I feel plagued by a growing dilemma; at what point should modern progress meet historical practise?
In this day and age, we as a species have reached a groundbreaking way of living. Never in the history of human civilization have we had more "free time". We have unlimited access to electricity flowing to our homes which powers all of our appliances. We have access to grocery stores that provide seasonal foods year round. We have dishwashers and washing machines that clean our wares and clothes. We have automobiles and planes and motorized ships that can deliver us to every corner of the world within a day's time. We have machines that quarter the time it takes to plant food, and chemicals that eliminate pests. We have the ability to purchase items from anywhere in the world and have them delivered to our front doors. We have companies that make our clothes and shoes by the billions. We have robots that milk our cows, collect our eggs, and process our meat. It is, well and truly, an unbelievable time of technological advancement. The entertainment business has skyrocketed, aiming to fill our newfound free time with movies, videos, concerts, excursions, and more. Less than 200 years ago we would have been busy growing food, making clothes, and doing many things by hand without the help of modern tech. And while technological advancement has led us to a point where less of us are dying, science has advanced to cure most diseases, our lifespan is increasing, and overall life is profoundly "easy" (bear with me on the wording here)... at what point do we say enough is enough?
While I am someone who enjoys modern conveniences myself such as automobiles, laundry machines, and electricity, I have been subscribed to the homesteading movement for quite a few years. The romanticism of living a simple life has drawn me in as the climate crisis, sustainability, and need for sufficiency loom imposingly over our lives. The current ways of human life are simply not sustainable. As we lurch closer and closer to food scarcity, drought, world conflict, and industrial collapse I have found myself grappling to find new ways of life. Spearheading my solution to these issues has been the answer to the question: What in my life do I have control over that can make my life more sustainable? The answer, was simply: my food.
For many of my childhood years I was fascinated by the pioneers and Native Americans that lived here so very long ago. I drew inspiration from a traditional way of life - living off the land, growing my own food, and living a simple life free of the fame, fortune, and the "hustle" of the 21st century. I wanted to raise animals and babies and eat food that I had plucked out of my own garden. I wanted milk from my own cow, to churn my own butter, collect eggs from my own chickens, and use solar power to electrify my home. I wanted to dry my laundry on a clothesline and dress my children in pretty little dresses I had sewn and knitted by hand (just like my mother had done for herself and me). It was a dream I now find myself well on the way to achieving, little by little. But as I've become closer to achieving my goal and learned more about traditional practises, I find myself at a crossroads. A recent development at the head of the issue has been raw milk.
We purchased our family milk cow, Marmalade, last year in 2022 as a 9 month old heifer. We purchased her not only as a pet, but as a means of taking control of the milk provided for our family. As we have come closer to her giving birth to her first calf at which time she will be able to provide us milk, I have fallen down a rabbit hole of research on the dangers / benefits of raw milk.
When I was a child, we traveled a lot as a family. Several of these trips were to Europe, where my mother warned me to check the labels on our milk to ensure it was pasteurized. At that time, milk would either be sold out on a shelf or in a fridge. I remember my Grandparents' home even had a milk box built into the wall at the side door where bottles would be delivered by the milk man and his horse-drawn cart once upon a time. There was no second thought about drinking raw milk way back when. That is, until pasteurization became popular in the early 1900s.
The science spoke for itself - historically, raw milk was unregulated and could transfer terrible zoonotic diseases to humans such as tuberculosis, salmonella, e-coli, and norovirus. At a time when medical care was not advanced, this was an issue that was of significant concern to consumers. People were dying from consuming raw milk, contaminated foods, and more. At the turn of the century when food regulations became strict and pasteurization was invented, popularized, and made mandatory in most places, these issues significantly dissipated. We entered an era where less and less people were becoming afflicted by food-borne illness.
Pasteurization is the method of heating a product to a certain temperature for a certain length of time to kill bacteria and pathogens in the product. This is commonly seen in milk production. Bacteria and pathogens in raw milk can stem from the udder itself (mastitis-based), the bloodstream of the animal (whether the animal is disease-laden or naturally carries bacteria that is harmless to the cow but harmful to humans), or from external bacteria from the environment entering the milk supply through the teats. Pasteurization has become common practise because of contaminating bacteria that can affect humans. However, alongside the bacteria live certain vitamins. Vitamin and allergenic benefits of raw milk can be eliminated with pasteurization which seems to have been the driving force behind modern raw milk popularity. Studies have shown that the nutritional benefits of raw milk and pasteurized milk are relatively comparable, but raw milk has been proven to contain more/higher levels of vitamins than pasteurized milk. Scientists have deemed the vitamin content in unpasteurized milk to be insignificant when comparing it to the risks of contamination and food-borne illness. This didn't sit right with me.
The significant reason behind my concerns was the lack of available information I was able to access on methods that are being implemented to make raw milk safe to drink. After pasteurization was mandated, it didn't matter as much which diseases and bacteria the cows were afflicted with because it would all be killed after pasteurization, thus making the milk more safe to drink. Cows could be kept in barns thousands of head strong, without a overwhelming concern for cleanliness. But why, with all the access to modern medicine and technology, did we not first focus on what can be done to prevent these issues in the first place? Of the few reliable sources I was able to access, studies have shown that with extremely proficient cleanliness practises and frequent, intensive testing of raw milk that a high level of safety can be achieved.
A German method of producing raw milk, called Vorzugsmilch (translating to "preferred"), VZM milk, was able to achieve high levels of safety by implementing strict regulations on their production. Each cow at each facility underwent frequent health checks by licensed veterinarians, monthly milk samples, frequent milk testing performed by accredited laboratories, and high degrees of animal cleanliness and care. A large number of farmers even opted to go above and beyond, screening and testing each batch of milk before it was deemed acceptable to sell to consumers. By using these methods, a high level of hygiene and health safety was achieved making this raw milk safe to drink.
There are of course limitations of every screening method, even that of pasteurized milk, which could cause a fraction of bacteria to be missed causing some people to become sick. In my opinion, the bottom line is that there are dangers in consuming any food. Swathes of people have caught norovirus or been afflicted by e-coli from strawberries and romaine lettuce during outbreaks. I am of the mind that we must do what we can using modern technology to make traditional ways more effective. For example, at our farm, we test our poultry for many diseases, one of which includes salmonella (the most common food-borne illness from poultry and raw eggs). For the health of ourselves and our customers, we feel a responsibility to provide the best quality, uncontaminated, and healthy foods possible. We want our customers to feel pride and safety in using our raw eggs for meals like carbonara, mayonnaise, and more. We do our part in ensuring traditional foods can be enjoyed safely.
In the way of consuming raw milk, I believe that it is a cost-benefit analysis that you need to make for your family. If you have a single or two family milk cows kept in clean and sterile environments while implementing proper sanitization and cooling methods for your milk, as well as performing frequent milk testing, the risks are minimal. But, you must be prepared to face the consequences if something happens to go wrong.
The historical way of providing food for ourselves is something I wholeheartedly believe has significantly more benefits than our modern ways (avoiding detachment in our knowledge of where food actually comes from, food waste worldwide, and overconsumptions of goods). Traditional foods sourced from local farms are rooted in naturalistic benefits. Butter, lard, eggs, raw unprocessed meat and vegetables. Striving to avoid man-made alternatives and focus on small-scale local farms to provide our food that don't encourage mass clearing of valuable ecosystems for huge herds of beef cattle, unsustainable poultry, and monoculture vegetable growth could greatly benefit our health and the planet. My beliefs are rooted less in emotions and more in science. It has been scientifically proven that large-scale agriculture operations, consumer demand, and monoculture create significant impacts on the environment, climate, and our lives. By implementing historical methods supplemented with modern technologies, I believe we can simplify our way of living to better our own knowledge, health, and the planet.