On World Milk Day, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson reflects on the growing interest in camel milk and how the sector might retain its ethics and environmental credibility.
Camel milk is glorified as a superfood because of its health-enhancing qualities – it is claimed to be beneficial for some autistic children, can help diabetic patients, is digestible by people who are lactose intolerant and can boost the immune system, possibly even in the face of Coronaviruses. Camel farms have sprung up in Australia, the US and Europe, far outside the animal’s original distribution range. The global demand for camel milk is driven by the Chinese market, perhaps because lactose intolerance is widespread amongst East Asian populations.
Camel milk is originally an asset of camel nomadic societies such as the Bedouin of Arabia, the Somali, Gabbra, Rendille and Afar in the Horn of Africa, the Tuareg in the Sahara, the Baluch in Pakistan, the Raika and Fakirani Jat in India and many others. Nowadays, the milk can sell for well over $20 a litre. But can camel herders also get a share of the economic benefits provided by its increasingly global popularity? Is it possible to have a system that allows market access to nomadic pastoralists, and if so, how should it be structured? Moreover, can such a system accommodate or capitalise on the ecological advantages of camels – their ability to respond to uncertainty in weather patterns by being drought-resilient, moving over long distances and ‘following the clouds’?
This is the challenge that has kept me busy in the last five years. I started a social enterprise called ‘Camel Charisma’ and established the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy in Rajasthan (India) together with a partner. The motivation for this move from NGO to ‘private enterprise’ is to create income for the Raika, the camel-breeding caste of Rajasthan in northwest India, with whom we have researched and lived among for 30 years. Historically, the Raika herded and sold camels to the Maharajas (kings) for warfare, and supplied a thriving draught camel market until the late 1990s.
The Raika are an anomaly among global camel pastoralists, as their tradition abhors the idea of using camels for meat. In fact, in 2015, India passed a law banning the slaughtering of camels. Because of this unique cultural and regulatory constellation, India is one of the few countries, or maybe the only country in the world where the camel population has rapidly decreased in the last 50 years, while the world camel population has doubled – from over a million in the 1980s to around 200,000.
In Rajasthan, demand for camels as draught animals has petered out and there is no possibility of a camel meat trade. So it is all the more urgent for the Raika and other groups to develop dairy as a source of income, to prevent further decline and the potential loss of India’s uniquely ethical camel cultures.
Cows and camels
Camel dairy development must avoid the pitfalls of the conventional cow dairy sector, which is notorious for unethical practices, such as separating calves from their mothers immediately after birth, setting market prices well below production costs, and the total loss of agency of the producers.
The camel dairy sector is the ‘new kid on the block’. It has the opportunity to carve out a more human, ethical and environmentally friendly niche – an especially important marketing tactic, given the rise in popularity of plant-based ‘milks’. It is heartening to see that many of the small dairies in Australia and in the US put emphasis on camel welfare and endeavour to keep them in a natural way, with prices over $20 USD/litre in Western markets. Even the global front-runner in organized camel dairying, Camelicious in Dubai (which owns about 7,000 camels), strives to keep camels happy by not separating mothers and babies at birth and by taking lactating camels on daily exercise walks.
Although Camelicious is a pioneering flagship project, it is not a model that could or should be transferred to camel pastoralists. For one, it has enormous resources at hand and is funded by the ruler of Dubai as a quasi-vanity project. Secondly, the camels are stall-fed with nutritious feed imported from other continents, which makes the business very dependent on fossil fuels.
One of the principles of Kumbhalgarh Dairy is to discourage stall-feeding and to maintain a nomadic system where camels walk to their forage and feed on a biodiverse diet composed of 36 different plants used in ayurvedic medicine. Rajasthan conceivably provides the ‘best camel milk of the world’. While this slogan sounds seductive, besides amongst camel herders themselves, India in general lacks a camel milk drinking tradition. However, there is a large potential consumer base, as recent scientific research provides evidence to suggest a range of health benefits for camel milk.
Rajasthan’s white gold
So how can we get camel milk – ‘Rajasthan’s white gold’ – from herds roaming in remote areas to consumers in large cities without it spoiling?
Learning from US and other camel milk suppliers, we developed a system of deep-freezing the milk, either raw or pasteurized, in 200ml bottles. These are dispatched in ice boxes by bus or train directly to the end consumer. This system works, but it is expensive. It provides a very decent income to Raika families, who have subsequently increased their herd sizes, but product turnover is limited.
As a camel conservation approach, it is successful. The problem is that it has a limited impact and leaves hundreds more families waiting in the wings who are keen, or rather desperate, to sell their milk but from whom we cannot buy for lack of a market.
How to nurture a market for camel milk
How do we set up a system that works for the rest of Rajasthan too – so that all camel herders are in a position to sell their milk for a decent price? There is currently an oversupply of camel milk, which poses the risk of buyers depressing prices and producers all competing with each other, as in the cow dairy sector. This is the scenario we must prevent at all costs.
Collective action can help. It is urgent to organise camel milk producers at the state level to negotiate and set a price for their product as a group. Such community organising also permits the creation of a regional identity that can prevent commodities from becoming anonymous and left at the mercy of traders. For example, if camel milk from Rajasthan becomes as famous as Darjeeling tea, Parma ham, or Stilton cheese, herders will be in a much stronger position.
We also need to invest in product development. Learning from the cow dairy sector, we know that farmers who capture the value chain and process their milk into cheese themselves do reasonably well financially, and can set their own prices and build up their own customer networks.
Another potential idea is to get the Rajasthani government to use camel milk in school midday meal programmes. Linking camel conservation with public health is a very attractive proposition to the government. Camel milk is very high in both Vitamin C and iron, and is a ‘superfood’ supplement for children, and those who are pregnant and nursing infants – most of whom suffer from anaemia. Camel herding nomads could reduce the packaging costs that make their milk so expensive by delivering milk directly to health centres in nearby villages for immediate local distribution.
We can also learn from other neighbouring countries. In Gujarat, companies such as Amul have entered the camel dairy scene, focusing on milk powder, camel ghee, UHT milk and other products. In Somaliland and Kenya, Somali women play a big role as camel milk traders. In Somalia, the USAID promotes the innovative and promising ‘camel leasing’ approach in which nomads can lease their camels to dairy farms during droughts and retrieve them afterwards. Kazakhstan has probably the world’s most successful camel industry, made up of both small producers who sell their milk along highways, as well as large companies with Chinese contracts to provide phenomenal amounts of camel milk powder.
The canvas for the future of the pastoralist camel dairy sector is still blank. It is therefore worthwhile to get pastoralist leaders together with the best economic and socio-cultural minds to start painting it in a team effort! Such steps can provide blueprints for channelling variability and uncertainty into new models for ethical and ecologically-sound livestock production. There is a good chance that nomadic pastoralists can show us the way to a better food future in which nutritionally-dense food is produced without fossil fuels, without destroying biodiversity, and in an animal-friendly way.
All pictures are by Ilse Köhler-Rollefson. You can follow the author on Twitter at @IlseKohler.