I’ve been hearing a lot about the decline of the dairy industry in both Vermont and New Hampshire. I agree we need to help these farmers, but we would miss a huge opportunity to improve public health by trying to revive the dairy industry. Instead, we should learn from the example of Finland and help our dairy farmers convert into fruit and vegetable farmers. By doing this, we can save their livelihoods while also preventing countless deaths from heart disease.
In the early 1970s, North Karelia, a region in Finland, had the highest death rates from heart attacks in the entire world; people on average were dying ten years earlier than those in southern Europe. In 1972, Finland decided to launch a public health program to tackle the problem and focused on reducing people’s high saturated fat intake – primarily from dairy, chicken, cake, and pork – which causes high cholesterol and heart disease. People’s diets had been centered on fried pork, butter-fried potatoes, buttered bread, meat stew, and milk, with very few vegetables, and the health officials did everything they could to encourage people to eat less animal products, more fruits and vegetables, and quit smoking.
One of their methods was to encourage dairy farmers to convert into berry farmers. As one published paper on the project explained “With people sharply reducing their consumption of butter and fatty dairy products, economic problems emerged for dairy farmers…During these discussions, the community and Project representatives considered the feasibility of growing tasty, nutritious berries in the northern climate. This led to a major collaborative project between berry farmers, industry, various commercial sectors, and the health authorities…Local berry consumption rose gradually, and many farmers switched from dairy to berry production.”
The results were absolutely astonishing. Twenty-five years later, the mortality rate from heart attacks in the middle-aged male population in North Karelia went down by 73 percent and 63 percent throughout the whole country! Life expectancy for men rose by seven years, and six years for women.
Now we have a great opportunity to follow in their footsteps and save both our farmers and thousands of lives in the process.