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Waking up to a new “superfood”

With state investment, a Chinese company aims for the high-end domestic and international markets with Tibetan yak milk, a drink richer (and costlier) than a cow’s. Tania Branigan reports.

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A pioneering Chinese company is to market pasteurised Tibetan yak milk in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, in the hope that it will become a new “superfood” in the world’s most populous country.

At 24 yuan (US$3.50) for a small, 250-millilitre carton, Feifan -- meaning “uncommonly good” -- costs several times as much as cow’s milk. “It’s very natural, green, pure and high-quality. That’s our big selling point -- we aim at the high-end market,” said Ding Pengcheng of the Treasure of the Plateau Yak Milk Company.

Over the next three years, the company is to spend millions to crack the domestic and international markets, with the help of Chinese state investment. Yaks produce fewer than 300 litres of milk a year, while cows yield 35 times as much. The company pays Tibetan farmers 16 yuan or more per litre, eight times the price of standard milk.

The Chinese Nutrition Society, a health ministry-backed research institute, says the amino acidscalcium and vitamin A in yak milk are considerably higher than in cow’s milk. Its appeal depends as much on the mystique of its origins as its nutritional qualities. Feifan is undergoing extra safety checks because of China’s recent milk contamination scandal. Yet, in the long run, such concerns could boost the desire for products that combine modern hygiene with unsullied, back-to-the-land imagery.

Tsering Droma is a typical Tibetan herder who now can look forward to tapping the Chinese market. Born into a herding family, she tends 30 yaks on steep slopes near the Karola pass.

The animals are central to Tibetan culture: their butter is melted into tea and fuels the lamps that light monasteries. Dung keeps fires burning; bones are carved into beads. Yaks provide Droma and her family with everything they need. “Female yaks are very important to us: we can get milk, make butter and cheese and get extra money by selling it,” she said. “For the males, they can be used for transport. We can sell the yak skins and the meat and hair. All the parts can be sold. Then we buy things like grain.”

But 160 kilometres away in Lhasa, the Treasure of the Plateau company is transforming this hand-to-mouth livelihood into a serious business. It is marketing the traditional staple as a superfood for aspirational middle-class households across China and beyond. Steam seeps from the pipes of its Tetrapak production line as it heats gallon after gallon of milk to 130º Celsius (266° Fahrenheit). In 2003, the company sold just over two million yuan (nearly US$300,000) worth of goods; this year it is on course to bring in up to 90 million yuan (nearly US$13.2 million). Each day the local market consumes between three and six tonnes of its yoghurt.

The company’s first batches of milk arrived in bowls, carried on herders’ backs, and often with the unwelcome additions of insects and yak hair. Now they come in clean containers, usually delivered by motorbike or car -- proof, says the company, that it is raising local incomes.

That does not make it immune from controversy surrounding economic development. Its expansion into markets around China would be all but impossible without the Tibet-Qinghai rail line, which critics say has damaged the environment and speeded the erosion of Tibetan culture. Seventy per cent of the company’s 110 staff members are Tibetan, but only a few are in senior posts. “Our company carries out a lot of training for our Tibetan staff, but most of them don’t have higher, college-level education,”Ding said.

At the least, the company -- and the government money behind it -- are supporting long-impoverished herders. The authorities have been heavily criticised for forcibly settling nomads. But this state investment is helping some to increase their incomes without having to abandon their heritage. It is what officials call “development with Tibetan characteristics”.

And yaks are as Tibetan as they come.


Copyright Guardian News and Media Ltd. 2008


“Superfoods”, touted as especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to human health, are attracting increased attention in a world where sustainability is a critical issue.

On our warming planet, populations are growing, the uses of arable land (food or fuel?) are at issue, water supplies can be precarious and the merits of genetically modified organisms in dispute.

Can superfoods make a significant impact, providing increased nutrition to more people, and helping to reduce the costs of health care? Are they worth the (sometimes) additional cost? Will they become luxury items for the few, or will the many be able to reap their benefits? Are you prepared to add new, even strange, foods to your diet? Yak milk, anyone?

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评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



本评论由Ming Li翻译

yak milk is good :)

I've had yak milk before and it tastes like the most lovely thick and creamy cow milk you have ever had. I definitely recommend it to everyone nervous about trying "superfoods."

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




How much can Tibetan get when their precious natural resource is milked out?

Translated by Ming Li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




本评论由Ming Li翻译

Yaks in the news

Isn't it odd how a food that has sustained people in one of the most remote parts of the world for so many centuries has now begun to interest a wider audience? Let's hope that the yak herders receive a fair price and be happy with the marketing deal, and that no one will end up feeling exploited.
I think I personally will leave the yak milk to baby yaks and stick to yogurt. -- Matty

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



本评论由Ming Li翻译

High quality in low yields

"Yaks produce fewer than 300 litres of milk a year, while cows yield 35 times as much. The company pays Tibetan farmers 16 yuan or more per litre, eight times the price of standard milk."

I doubt that one hundred years ago cows produced as much milk as they do today. Customized (and unnatural diets), hormone injections and other drugs boost dairy cow productivity. To turn yak milk into a regional and global commodity will require much more grazing land, clean water (China is already desperately short of these two items already) and much higher level of milk output per yak.

By the time all of this happens, yak milk will no longer be so "sustainable" or healthy.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


今夏我到青海探访在那从事出色环保工作的藏族朋友。他们拿出了用牦牛奶做成的酸奶让我尝,绝对美味。可就算是他们,要找到这么个当地产的食品也是越来越难了,因为当地的市场已是国产或国外品牌的天下。除非有人能直接与牧民联系,要在当地的市场找到这样传统的本地食品已几不可能。在镇里的超市,实际上所有的东西都产自外地,甚至没有当地的奶产品---牛奶、酸奶是伊利和蒙牛产的(这是两大国产品牌),奶酪是澳洲或新西兰进口的。 我因此想到,与其瞄准高端的海外市场,还不如保护好当地的奶制品市场,则生活于城镇的藏人(数量正在增长)就能如以往那样继续享用牦牛奶,而当地的生产能力则可稳定地扩容。呀,就是有一个问题,这么个提议冒犯了“自由贸易”的条规。鉴于金融崩溃还在进行中,也许也该是时候反思反思这个条规了。 戴尔

本评论由Ming Li翻译

what a strange twist of globalization

This summer I was in Qinghai province, visiting some Tibetan friends who are doing wonderful environmental work there. They gave me some yogurt from yak milk, which was absolutely delicious. But even for them, such local food is increasingly difficult to find, as the local market is dominated by national or international brands. Unless one has direct connection with some herders, one cannot hardly find such traditional local food in the market. In the supermarket of the town, virtually everything is manufactured somewhere else, even no local dairy product --milk/yogurt by Yili and Mengniu (the two big national brand), cheese imported from Australia/New Zealand.

So I think instead of aiming for high-end market abroad, the better solution is to protect the local dairy market--so the urban Tibetans (which are growing in number) can continue drink yak milk as they used to, while the local manufacture capacity can be steadily built up.

Oops, just one problem, such a proposal violates the "free trade" doctrine. But given the ongoing financial meltdown, maybe it is time to rethink this doctrine as well.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous








The current developing and marketing of yak milk, an unique Tibetan product, conforms to the Theory of Comparative Advantage in western economics . Thanks to the sale of yak milk, the Tibetan herders boost their incomes, saving more energy and financial resources for promoting traditional Tibetan culture they inherit, while people outside Tibet get the chances to enjoy the unique yak milk. This is indeed a win-win method like killing two birds with one stone. this article claims that "yaks are as Tibetan as they come", then I would like to ask this reporter from Great British Empire a question: did you chivalrously write an article to defend Chinese grievances, in the same way that tea plants are "as Chinese as they come" even though the seeds were spirited out of China by Englishmen in the 19th century? by Er Dongcao

(Translated by Ming Li)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I have two concerns

My first concern is that production of yak breeding may go over the carrying capacity of the local environment due to the popular selling of yak milk;
The second concern is that interests of the local people during the development may not be guaranteed.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



In agreement with #7

I've been to Tibet and I've drunk the home-made yak milk of the peasants and herdsmen, and also the yogurt made with yak milk. It's truly delicious - I don't know how many times better than the high-end dairy products of big brands like Mengniu and Yili. Yak milk is geared toward the high-end market and could very plausibly turn into a source of easy money. But the ability of the Tibetan Plateau's environment to make this sustainable is limited; I'm truly worried that ultimately the plateau's environment will turn unhealthy, and also that the yaks themselves will not be healthy. So, in developing this excellent food product, one must really be cautious - it must be developed scientifically!

Translated by Matt Waters

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Why are we so bent on killing yaks?

“Female yaks are very important to us: we can get milk, make butter and cheese and get extra money by selling it. For the males, they can be used for transport. We can sell the yak skins, meat and hair. All the parts can be sold, then we buy things like grain.”

We are so bent on getting yak hair, yak meat and yak hide, why? I just can't believe that even Tibetan herders are that greedy! I hope the government will be a good guide. Please, don't incite mass killings.

Translated by Ming Li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Only "if"

If this product is developed by a private-run company...if this company is run by Tibetans...if its goal is not to supply "high-end markets", but high quality local products for local people...if it could bring jobs and high earnings to local people whilst achieving the above "ifs"...and if it could still make a profit...only then will I promptly consume this product, even though it costs 24 yuan a bottle, even though I have to expend great effort to buy it...Ehongbo

Translated by Ming Li