Burning Questions
Fellowship Award Winners

Philip H. Howard

Location: U.S.
Academic field: Sociology
Award category: PhD Holder

Guidance Memo

  • Title: The politics of milk: Examining claims about dairy in China 
  • What We Learned From It:
    • Three key claims driving the huge growth in recent decades in the production and consumption of dairy products in China – a country that historically had low level of interest in these products.
    • These claims are problematic because they “change the subject” and deflect criticism. They steer attention away from the fact that most of the benefits from increased production and consumption of industrialized dairy products in China flow to a tiny minority. They close off encouragements to develop food systems that are more diverse, more regionally self-sufficient, and less highly processed.
    • These claims are made frequently by dairy industry executives, government officials, investors, and even civil society organizations. They are also widely repeated in mainstream and alternative media sources.
    • Claim 1: Dairy is cheap. Implications: Food calories need to be affordable; one should promote calorie-dense foods and reduce their prices. Problem: Hidden costs (government subsidies, negative social and ecological impacts) are left out and not included in retail prices.
    • Claim 2: Dairy is nutritious. Implications: Specific nutrients, particularly protein, are needed for human health and should be promoted. Problem: The claim leaves out negative health impacts of increased consumption of dairy products particularly in ultraprocessed form, and the fact that deficiency of protein is relatively uncommon in China.
    • Claim 3: Rising consumer incomes are increasing demand for dairy. Implications: Domestic production and imports should be increased to meet this demand. Problem: The claim leaves out the substantial role of marketing efforts for shaping and reshaping purchasing behaviors to benefit the largest firms and their investors.


Some of the Things We Really Liked when We Read the Application

  • Dairy is a class of food products that has never been of much interest in China, but yet has managed to grab the attention of many consumers within a relatively short time. We think that understanding the reasons can be really instructive. 
  • Modern marketing strategies are used to develop products, and to target distribution, branding and advertising. Some of these tools have been demonstrated to effectively shift consumer choices. Are they deployed by "big dairy" in China? What other strategies do dairy firms use in China?
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