By 2020, China will overtake the U.S. to become the world’s biggest milk producer.
In the 1970s, China’s relation to the West began to open. In that decade alone, Henry Kissinger secretly visited the country, the Cultural Revolution ended, and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China were established. That economic development sowed the seeds for a future obsessed with capitalism. But it wasn’t until the new millennium that one of the West’s biggest culinary dependencies on the country took hold: dairy. Forty years ago, eating cheese and drinking milk was almost totally unheard of in the country. By 2020, China will overtake the U.S. to become the world’s biggest milk producer.
For thousands of years, the Chinese diet consisted of no dairy whatsoever. Parts of Mongolia made a type of fermented milk but aside from that, it didn’t have any part of daily life. A big reason is congenital lactose intolerance. Chinese Han, who make up around 92-95% of the population, typically find lactose hard to digest.
China’s dairy farming industry began as a way to meet foreigners’ demands, with coastal cities like Shanghai importing cattle from Europe. That influence began to trickle down as Chinese nationals became increasingly curious about milk’s nutritional benefits. That coupled with a greater population of Chinese citizens living abroad has led to a steady increase in the demand for dairy.
According Xinran, the author of What the Chinese Don’t Eat, China’s expanding middle class sees Western food products as a key sign of personal affluence. “Until China opened up, Chinese people had no idea about international standards,” she says. “They believe that Westerners had a better life based on meat and milk. They think they are physically stronger.”
In reality, as a diverse array of plant-based milks appear on barista counters across the U.S., there is concern dairy’s dominance in the West is dwindling. Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, modern Chinese tea houses are whipping up an estimated 500 million dairy drinks each year. Today, if you walk alongside the packed shops of Beijing’s Dover Street you’ll find hordes of teenagers standing in line, waiting for cheese tea. A fruit tea topped with foamy cream cheese, the idea was first imported from Taiwan and has become the obsession of cities across the country. China’s 1961 milk consumption of 2kg of milk per person is set to increase by 4,500% by 2050. And it’s not just milky drinks that are whetting appetites; in the next five years, the cheese market is set to grow by a third. Luckily, lactose tolerance increases with consumption.