The concept of “beginner’s mind” in Zen Buddhism advises us that, no matter how advanced we might think our knowledge of any subject, we should always seek to approach it from the perspective of the beginner.

I felt as if I was being pushed to adopt beginner’s mind yesterday while speaking to a group of about 40 attendees at the Bioneers by the Bay conference in New Bedford, MA, when I tried to answer tough questions from several about the government’s most recent campaign against raw milk over the past three years. While the conference explores all kinds of issues around sustainability, it has an environmental orientation, which explains why probably three-fourths of the attendees at my presentation weren’t super-familiar with the legal and regulatory problems around raw milk over the last few years. But they were young–most seemed to be in their twenties and thirties–and extremely curious about raw milk, and why it is so controversial.

Here were some of the questions I received:

  • Is raw milk really dangerous?
  • If not, why is there so much opposition to it by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and many state agriculture and public health people?
  • Why is the FDA devoting such extensive resources to stamping out raw milk, when there are so many other real problems for it to tend to?
  • How worried are Big Ag and Big Dairy about inroads being made by raw milk’s growing popularity?

 I should say that the attendees didn’t automatically agree with me when I explained things from my perspective. For example, one attendee grilled me on my contention that, based on statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, showing an average of 50-100 reported illnesses each year from raw milk over 33 years, it isn’t a public health hazard. He said it wasn’t necessarily a low number if the number of raw milk drinkers is low.

I tried to explain that while it’s true we don’t know the number of raw milk drinkers (this isn’t a number American public health scientists are clamoring to obtain), that based on some partial government research, the number is most likely one million or more, making the number of illnesses low in that context.

I had more difficulty trying to explain why the FDA is so opposed to raw milk, when it clearly isn’t a public health hazard. A number of the participants were convinced the aggressive anti-raw-milk campaign results from a combination of Big Ag and Big Pharma being threatened by the notion that we can use nutrient dense foods like unpasteurized milk to improve our health.

I explained that while these are certainly factors, I saw the bigger problem as a serious division based on belief systems. The dynamics of that belief system are described well by Tim Wightman in his comment following my previous post.

Even here, though, a few of the participants weren’t completely satisfied. What exactly did I mean about differences in belief systems? I tried to explain how differences in the approaches of conventional and alternative medicine, along with differing attitudes toward prescription drugs, skyrocketing rates of chronic disease, and toward the idea of “good” bacteria.

Surely there had to be something more, a few suggested, to justify the sometimes bizarre sting operations, undercover activities, and harassment of the sort that most recently occurred in Georgia. Yes, I had to admit, there was likely another factor involved: Not only do many of the regulators disagree vehemently about the dangers of raw milk, but they thoroughly disparage those who support raw milk. In fact, I told my listeners, it’s fair to say that people like John Sheehan, who runs the FDA’s dairy division, along with supporters like Bill Marler, simply dislike advocates for raw milk. Sheehan has shown his disdain by refusing to allow any discussion with raw milk advocates, by himself or any of his subordinates.

After the Saturday session, I went back and re-read the seemingly conciliatory comment from food poisoning lawyer Bill Marler, in which he suggested support for raw milk sales from the farm. And I noticed this concluding sentence I had skimmed over before: “I do know that there are people so in need of a raw milk fix that they believe a few sick or dead people is just a reality they are willing to live with. I am not.”

It’s one thing to intellectually disagree with others, but when you decide your opponents are morally bankrupt, finding common ground becomes much more challenging. To suggest that raw milk drinkers value human life less than your side is, shall we say, not one of the suggestions you’ll find in Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.