No milk, no madeleines

I had sworn never to fall into an anti-globalisation rant but, let's face it, globalisation is a bummer. And I'm not saying this because I'm French. All of us watch the daily turmoil in the financial markets with fear and little understanding; wake up in a gut-wrenching panic about the imminent housing property crash; suffer devastating floods and unprecedented heatwaves (don't tell me there is no link between globalisation and climate change). And soon we'll be struck by an even bigger crisis. Globalisation is going to strike us where it hurts most: in our stomachs. Some of us have already forgotten the meaning of seasonal fruit and vegetables and think that Starbucks offers authentic Italian coffee culture. But what's currently cooking up in the food industry will touch us to the core.

If I felt biblical, I'd say it's punishment, but let's call it the Global Boomerang Effect. Having used Asians to produce our fancy goods for a pittance, they may have the last laugh. Due to global economic changes in Asia, people there have overcome widespread lactose intolerance and taken a liking to milk; a novelty in their diet and a product for which they have no industry. China alone shows a 25% year-on-year increase of its consumption of diary products. And this may prove the end of us.

The Asian demand for milk has set the market alight. The problem is that the European Union is the world's biggest producer of milk, but our production has been decreasing, while the next biggest producers, Australia and New Zealand, have seen production stall because of droughts. Besides, we have no more reserves. With the introduction of quotas in 1984, reserves have shrunk from a gargantuan 1.28 million tonnes in 1986, to a laughable 16,000 tonnes this year. As a result, in the last few months the price of milk has rocketed by more than 50% on the world market (and that of butter by 40%). So far, producers and distributors have battled to spare us consumers; but the price of a litre of milk in Germany, for instance, has just gone up from 40p to 60p. This is just the beginning.

To make matters worse, with the moves to cut subsidies to milk and butter producers over the last few years (they were removed all together last May), the number of milk producers has begun to dry up: in France they have gone from 928,000 in 1969 to 103,000 last year. The situation looks even worse in Britain, with only 13,000 milk producers today. We could of course produce more, but to do this Brussels would need to scrap milk quotas, and reintroduce subsidies to farmers which were ended in 2003. Reintroducing subsidies to European farmers? I can hear Gordon Brown's liberalisation brigade scream.

So will milk become like wild salmon and lobsters, once peasants' grub, tomorrow's luxury food? Will we soon be putting rice milk in our tea? The real tragedy is that, unlike lobster, milk is the basis of myriad delicious dishes that form the heart of French cuisine (and a few others); the core of our diet, the steel in our bones and the pink in our cheeks. For milk gives us butter, cheese and crème fraîche, which in turn gives us croissants, brioches, madeleines, biscuits, scones, cheddar, camembert, as many little remembrances of things past, as many little landmarks in our ever-changing world, as many little pleasures one has in life, that bind us to our youth and made Proust the literary genius he was. Would Marcel have been a master of world literature if he hadn't been able to afford a buttery madeleine to dip in his tea? Surely not.

Don't tell me it will be all fine, that they can have our milk and die younger of our diseases, while we drink green tea with rice cakes and live to a hundred. I don't want a dull, pleasureless, butter-free life; I want to live it to the full-fat.

Agnès Poirier