France is sliding into an existential butter crisis, and guess who's responsible? Well, at least in part, it's China and Iran. But equal blame could be parceled out to government over-regulation, even global warming.
In the past year, the price of butter in France and indeed much of Europe has nearly doubled as the number of milk-producing cows has plummeted, not to mention the fat content of the milk they're pumping out. Milk fat is where butter, as well as cream and cheese, come from.
And while the French, who per capita down more than 17 pounds of the yellow stuff each year, (no big surprise to any lover of croissants, petit beurre cookies or pain au chocolate), are suffering, across Europe and America this crisis of comestibles is very much starting to bite.
The situation is so severe that the price of croissants—comprised of 25% butter—may have to rise as much as 10%, or 10 times the annual inflation rate, when the French return from their summer holidays. Or, as the Paris business daily Les Echos warns, "the French may have to give up their continental breakfast for an English breakfast with bacon and eggs. Shocking."
Elsewhere, there is already extreme concern brewing in Britain over a potential cream and butter shortfall at Christmas.
So how did Europe arrive at this crisis of cream, and even more importantly, especially to someone like myself who spends a third of his time in Paris and delights in the flaky, buttery pastries I buy at the Raspail market every Sunday morning, what can we do about it?
To begin with, across Europe, according to Eurostat, butter exports are also surging -- up 49% to the United States in the first five months this year over the same period last year. Yes, the United States is actually a net importer of butter.
But elsewhere, the numbers are even more dramatic. Exports of butter are up nearly 70% to China, where a rising middle class has suddenly discovered the tastiness of this spread, and five-fold to Iran from 2015 to 2016. All of this is more unforeseen fallout from the end of sanctions provided in the Iran nuclear treaty, which suddenly opened a whole new world of butter to the Iranian palette.
People everywhere are also eating more butter now than before because they can feel better about doing it; there has been an evolution in thinking about all the bad things doctors thought butter could do to you.
"It's not a sin," says Steven Nissen, MD, chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, explaining why butter should no longer be verboten. At the same time, palm oil fell out of favor, especially among ecologists who feared the destruction of rain forests in developing countries. Now, suddenly butter is back in vogue. Indeed, McDonald's is even switching to butter from margarine, which means another 20,000 tons of demand each year, Gerard Calbrix, director of economic affairs of the Association de la Transformation Laitiere Francaise, told Les Echos.
But the real cause of Europe's butter shortage offers a case study for advocates of deregulation, especially in the supremely over-regulated European Union. It's also a pretty good case for those pushing to keep climate change in check.
Just before the milk, and hence butter, shortage, there was a dramatic surplus in Europe that sent prices plunging. As a result, a million milk cows were sent to the slaughterhouses across Europe in 2016, the largest numbers in the three leading milk and butter producers -- France, Germany and Poland. In the Netherlands, 160,000 cows met their maker, largely thanks to a subsidy of 1,200 euros apiece paid by officials to the farmers.
As if this weren't enough of a blow, then along came a succession of heat waves and the droughts they spawned over the last couple of summers, hitting much of the European, particularly the French, dairy regions. The cows began giving out milk that was light on richness because the fat content thinned out, according to producers. At the same time, the same kind of weather in Australia and New Zealand, countries that should have been able to step into the breach and satisfy exploding Chinese consumption, left the world in desperately short supply. In short, a perfect storm.
The baking industry is in real trouble, especially in France with some 30,000 boulangeries and patisseries -- a bakery, it sometimes seems, on nearly every corner. In April 2016, the bakers were shelling out 2,500 euros for a ton of butter. A year later, that was up to 5,300 euros, even before this summer's next colossal heat wave.
Before things get any worse, the major milk-producing nations must henceforth stop tinkering with the market. State-sanctioning slaughter of legions of cows during fat times can only make the pendulum swing that much further during the lean times that will inevitably follow.
There must be a broader recognition that there is no longer any such thing as local markets in any product humans may consume. Traditionally local appetites can in the blink of a bureaucrat's eye suddenly become worldwide fads, even global obsessions.
Finally, there must be a clear recognition that climate change can and will have an impact far broader and deeper, indeed more immediate, than any climate denier might recognize. Its effects are not decades in the future, but quite immediate -- if you live in France, look no further than your nearest dairy counter, or your corner boulangerie.