Posted on September 6, 2018

Got Mylk? The Disruptive Possibilities of Plant Milk

Iselin Gambert & Tobian Linné, Brooklyn Law Review, forthcoming


Milk is one of the most ubiquitous and heavily regulated substances on the planet – and perhaps one of the most contested. It is tied closely to notions of purity, health, and femininity, and is seen as so central to human civilization that our own galaxy – the Milky Way – is named after it. But despite its wholesome reputation, milk has long had a sinister side, being bound up with the exploitation of the (human and nonhuman) bodies it comes from and being a symbol of and tool for white dominance and superiority. The word itself, in verb form, means “to exploit.” It is also a word at the center of a decades-old, multinational battle taking place in courthouses, the halls of congress, on social media, and in the streets. This article explores the contradictions inherent in the substance as well as the word “milk” and examines the legal, political, cultural, and linguistic forces behind the “milk wars” between dairy milk and plant milk advocates in both Europe and the United States. It examines the US-based battle over the word “milk” through the lens of letters and citizen petitions to the FDA, class action lawsuits, and a 2017 bill called the DAIRY PRIDE Act, as well as the EU-based battle through the lens of EU regulations, a 2017 decision by the European Court of Justice, and a 2014 lawsuit filed by Sweden’s dairy lobby against small-scale oat milk producer Oatly. This article argues that while plant milk should not be legally prohibited from being called “milk,” it may not be a word worth fighting for given the entanglements of milk with the oppression and exploitation of women, people of color, and nonhuman animals. It explores plant milk’s potential as a “disruptive milk,” one that can break free from the exploitation and oppression long bound up in dairy milk, and argues that an act of verbal activism – replacing the “i” with a “y” to create “mylk” – may present plant milk advocates with an opportunity to reclaim and reinvent the word for the “post milk generation.”

[Editor’s Note: A PDF of this study is available here.]