Wholesome. It's one of the first words that comes to mind when someone says "milk." What about milk isn't wholesome? It is a basic product of mammalian life that--when delivered from mother to offspring--is unassailably pure. It is so fundamental and unadulterated that its nature and constitution are seldom questioned. Which is why it caught me completely off-guard when a Swiss friend asked me "What is 'organic' milk? Milk is milk. Why do you have all this 'organic milk' in the United States?"
The question came as we stood, literally, at the foot of Switzerland's Jura, a velvety green sweep of mountains in the border region shared by France, Switzerland, and Germany. The Swiss Jura is home to many of the country's most picturesque pastoral villages, and where much of the milk comes from for the legendary Swiss cheeses and chocolates.
We had just finished a meandering bike tour of the area's vast array of mountain trails, which wind seamlessly from forest to pasture to village. I had commented on the unbelievably short distance between pasture and product in these villages; from where we stood--on the edge of a pasture and, oddly enough, the town square--we could see each element of the town's dairy foodchain. In the most dramatic example, a scant 50 feet lay between the town's cheese shop and the cows whose milk made that cheese.
And that's when the question came.
"Why do you need to call this organic?" my friend asked, as he kicked at the lush green veld. It was one of those 'ah ha!' moments for me, and I saw with new clarity something I had always overlooked back at home.
[Top: image used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License, Photo: Andrew Duffell. Bottom: Swiss village, localcrew collection]