Empty food shelves are a pitiable sight anywhere, but a butter shortage shakes the foundation of France’s cultural identity.
A miraculous ingredient that can emulsify a velvety sauce, spread luxuriously between gâteau layers, or build the delicate flour-fat scaffolding of mille-feuille pastry, butter has not only fed the French appetite for centuries, but also fueled its gastronomic invention. In France, butter is a birthright.
What’s behind the shortage? Some analysts are blaming consumers since, not surprisingly, warnings of an impending shortfall and rising prices caused a run on butter in the stores, particularly in the north and west of France. “Like everyone else, I rushed to stock up,” Armelle Boucheron, a journalist who lives just outside Paris, told me. “Which is why the shelves were suddenly empty.”
Ms. Boucheron said that the butter section at her supermarket last month was about half-full and that the shortage was mostly affecting the big industrial brands. This month, her neighborhood cheesemonger said prices for the artisan butter he sells were up by 40 percent.
Even if supermarket supplies do begin to stabilize, the French will probably pay dearly. With increasing global demand for butter, prices have soared, rising to nearly $8,000 a ton in September of this year from roughly $2,800 in April 2016.
For their part, consumers put the blame for the shortage on suppliers that, lured by higher profits in the global butter market, are not honoring their contracts with domestic retailers. “It’s just manipulation by the suppliers,” complained Dany Pichard, a retiree in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Provence.
In their turn, butter makers and suppliers are calling on farmers to increase their dairy herds to meet demand. But Magda Tjerks, who operates a farm with her husband in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of southwestern France, says that’s impossible because the higher profits in the butter trade are not being passed to farmers who provide the cream for making butter. “Farmers don’t have the money for cows,” she said. “And even if they did, they have no guarantee of getting a higher price for their milk.”
With all this finger-pointing, it would be easy to conclude that the shortage is a result of price wars and milk shortages created by dairy industry maneuvers, including the slaughter of more than a million cows in Europe last year when milk prices bottomed out.
But look below this surface explanation and you find another more intractable — and universal — trigger for the dairy shortfall: climate change. France may be the casualty now, but all butter-loving countries are vulnerable to the climate catastrophes that can wreak havoc on the supply and quality of crops needed to feed milk-making animals.
Last summer’s heat waves devastated France’s grass-fed dairy regions. Given less and poorer-quality grass, the cows made less milk, and that milk’s fat content also declined, making less raw material available for butter making. According to Laura Hernandez, an animal lactation expert at the University of Wisconsin, heat stress, caused by the prolonged high summer temperatures associated with climate change, suppresses a cow’s appetite, causing it to eat less and give less milk.
At the same time high heat and droughts were plaguing European dairy lands, in Australia and New Zealand, where herds typically would have filled the milk gap, sizzling weather lingered. In short, climate change created perfect conditions for a meltdown in butter production.
Modern dairy farmers face the problem of climate change from both sides: as victim and perpetrator. Of course this is true for all of us to varying degrees, but for those who operate large dairy farms the paradox is built into their business model. That’s because cows need crops or grass to feed on, yet are four-legged factories of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, which endanger those crops by raising global temperatures. Moreover, conventional dairy farms rely on shipped-in animal feed, such as corn and alfalfa, which is produced using tons of pesticides and fertilizers and transported using carbon-polluting fossil fuels.
So when industry experts declare, as they have in Europe, that the way to restore butter market stability is simply to add more cows, they’re not connecting all the dots. Their solution may seem logical, but it’s not ecological. Without reducing the contribution of conventional dairy farming to climate catastrophes, the industry helps promote more of the same.
To be clear, the entire agricultural world, not just dairy farms, plays a role in global warming through its vast fossil-fuel-fed transportation network, high energy consumption, and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But while livestock production accounts for just 4.2 percent of American greenhouse gas emissions, its effect on climate change can be disproportionately higher: methane, one of the gases that livestock produce in the normal course of digestion, is more than 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
So most efforts by the dairy industry at reducing greenhouse gas emissions aim at methane. According to Michel Wattiaux, professor of dairy systems management at the University of Wisconsin, there have been encouraging results in Europe and Canada in efforts to reduce cows’ production of methane through nutrition, though the search for a long-term, cost-effective strategy has been elusive.
Professor Wattiaux’s colleague Dan Schaefer says an experimental chemical additive in feed reduced methane emissions by 30 percent in test cows without any apparent harm to the animals or their milk production.
In the United States, the dairy industry is “focused on breeding dairy cows that produce the same amount of milk, or more, using less feed,” Professor Wattiaux said. This approach is not without controversy: Intensive genetic selection to breed today’s mega-yielding milk cows has reduced their fertility and made calving more difficult.
As the dairy world continues to work toward making production more environmentally friendly, butter lovers can do their part. Steffen Schneider, head of the Institute for Mindful Agriculture in the Hudson Valley, and a farmer who managed the biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm for more than 20 years, suggests that consumers choose dairy products from sustainable sources. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of trustees for Hawthorne Valley Farm.)
“Farms that keep grass-fed livestock in numbers that reflect the carrying capacity of the land base help mitigate the effect of dairy on climate change,” he said. What’s more, he added, fertilizing with composted manure from such cows instead of manufactured fertilizer “sequesters” carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere.
In choosing an eco-healthier butter, you’ll pay more than for a conventional brand. But in the big picture of dairy desires versus climate care, a steady supply of butter in the future is liable to cost us one way or the other.
Elaine Khosrova is the author of “Butter: A Rich History.”