May 15, 2011: Visiting Johannesburg recently, Emanuel Schmock, international business manager for Swiss organic baby food company Holle, was sharing some insights with me about the global organic scene when the conversation turned to cows. Happy cows. Those contented, Swiss-German bovine royalty with long, fluttering eyelashes framing doe eyes that graze lazily on rich Alpine pastures and produce the milk that goes into Holle’s organic formulas.

Schmock mentioned that Holle’s business in China was growing at an exponential rate and that its formulas were finding favour especially among lactose-intolerant infants who could not digest other cow’s milk formulas. Up to 10% of Chinese newborns are believed to lack the lactase enzyme – as do 90% of Asian adults.

Our own experience in South Africa over the last five years distributing Holle formulas is that many so-called lactose intolerant infants actually thrive on Holle. I assumed it was the organic quality and purity of the milk used by Holle that made the difference.

But Schmock had a much more provocative idea that went far beyond the standard organic vs conventional debate.

“It’s the Demeter milk,” he said. “When we introduced it into our formulas, the whole situation changed for us as far as milk allergies was concerned.”

Demeter milk? Schmock explained …

Many of the ingredients used by Holle – including cow’s milk – are produced not just according to international organic standards, but to the uniquely German tradition of biodynamic agriculture, which applies equal measures of spiritual philosophy and organic best practices to farming. The father of this esoteric farming idea was the German mystic and educator, Rodolf Steiner, whose philosophy, anthroposophy, spawned the Waldorf school movement.

Biodynamic farming emphasizes the interrelationship of soil, plants and animals, and views farms as self-nourishing eco-systems. Regarded as the first modern ecological farming system and one of the most sustainable, biodynamic farming’s unique approach includes the use of homeopathic herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays, and the use of a sowing and planting calendar guided by the movement fo the planets.

Biodynamic agriculture is today regulated under the international Demeter standard (Demeter is the Greek goddess of fertility), and is taken very seriously in countries like Germany and Switzerland.

When it comes to dairy, in addition to all the usual organic requirements of pasture feeding only, no hormones, no antibiotics etc, Demeter/biodynamic farmers are unique in that they never de-horn their cows.

You might think that the rule against de-horning was enacted only for ethical/dignity reasons  – indeed the act of de-horning can cause terrible pain to the animal, and the loss of horns apparently creates a whole slew of  problems relating to the social heirarchy of the herds. But biodynamic farmers also believe that the cow’s horns may influence the quality of its milk; that milk from animals that have had their horns amputated contributes to allergies such as lactose intolerance in humans.

The connection between the cow’s horns, digestion and milk quality is not as far-fetched as it seems. Cows have complex digestive systems (ruminants have 4 stomach compartments) and when a cow chews the cud (several thousand times a day), digestive gases penetrate via the sinuses into the core of the horns. The more difficult the feed is to digest (such as on the African plains and Scottish Highlands), the more majestic the horns, allowing the gases to circulate further into them.

More research into this subject needs to be done before we can make any firm assertions, but the cow horn-allergy connection is tantalising. Holle’s experience in Asia does suggest that Demeter milk is far better tolerated by allergic infants than conventional – and even organic  – milk.  The horns may make all the difference.