Camel milk is in the news. And his virtue is none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi spoke in October to a gathering of farmers in Anand, Gujarat, how he was ridiculed for once calling camel milk nutritious. During his tenure as Prime Minister of Gujarat, he had tried to promote camel milk for its nutritional value, and was "ridiculed" by the people around him, he revealed.
One and a half decades later, the country not only consumes camel milk, but even camel milk chocolates and ice cream.
Gulneet, a service manager at a multinational company in Gurugram who refused to give her last name, reflects the Prime Minister's assessment. "Without camel milk my son would have been robbed of the dairy for the rest of his life," she says. Her son was diagnosed with lactose intolerance three years ago and the pediatrician suggested taking him off cow's milk. "There is so much milk for milk in India. His grandparents were shocked to know that he can not get milk because he is uncomfortable. They could not believe that a doctor would say that no milk, especially during the years of education, is given to a child. These were traumatic days when we were trying to figure out how to incorporate dairy products into his diet, "recalls Gulneet.
The doctor then proposed camel milk for her then four-year-old son. "At first we did not hesitate. But we researched and read about the benefits of camel milk. Fortunately, our son, despite his saltiness, developed a taste for it, "says Gulneet, who came across Aadvik Foods, which delivers camel milk directly to consumers and sells through outlets like Foodhall in Delhi-NCR and various e-commerce platforms. Her son's health has improved over the past three years, says Gulneet. "I'll buy from them for a week – seven bottles of 200 ml each," she says.
For people like Gulneet, camel is the new cow. The effort to capitalize on this sentiment is none other than the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), India's largest milk supplier, which markets Amul. The cooperative recently announced plans to sell "deodorized" camel milk in India (deodorization is the process of odor masking or neutralization). Amul intends to launch 500 ml pet bottles to be sold in Ahmedabad by the end of the year.
"Camel milk is a niche product and requires a different approach," says Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a German veterinarian and archaeozoologist who has been working with Raastas Raastas of Rajasthan for 20 years (raising camels) and was one of the first to bring camel owners to the country To consider dairy cattle farming. "Large dairy companies that hit the market can be a good thing," she says.
In 1996, Köhler-Rollefson founded Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), a nonprofit organization for camel breeders, in Sadri, Rajasthan, along with her partner Hanwant Singh Rathore to secure the livelihood of the community and their animals. In 2011 she launched Camel Charisma, a micro-dairy in Ranakpur, which produces about 150 liters of camel's milk per week. "Despite the hype, it remains a niche product in Europe and the US, but is growing slowly and steadily because of its remarkable medicinal properties," she adds.
Today, Camel Charisma also sells scarves and dhurries (from camel hair) and handmade paper (from camelpoo). Unique varieties of camel cheese are also available at the brand's Camel Café (attached to the micro-dairy), where visitors can get "camelccino", camel's milk chai, camel's milk ice cream.
Camel milk is widely used in supermarkets in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Interestingly, many e-tailers in these countries sourced it from India in powder form. For the US market, Aadvik Foods' pack of five 20g camel milk powder satchets is priced at 21 USD (1,500 Rs), while India is selling a 40 gram pack for 320 Rs.
The opening of camel research and breeding centers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the surrounding area in Bikaner, Rajasthan, has given great hope to the camel-keeping community in India and around the world. People are made aware that milk can even be eaten raw. Research in 2015 at the National Center for Biotechnology of the US National Library of Medicine says camel milk is closest to human breast milk.
No wonder that the Bedouins (Arab nomadic peoples) and many other desert communities of the world have long been occupied with their harsh living conditions. Although it contains little fat, it has high levels of unsaturated fatty acids that are beneficial to the human body. The high content of vitamins and minerals makes camel milk in the category of superfoods. It is suitable for people who suffer from lactose and is a natural probiotic drink that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Research has also shown that it helps people with diabetes and joint pain.
Despite its availability, however, India was a late participant in the marketing of camel milk. It was not until December 2016 that the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) determined the commercially sold camel milk standards. While state dairy cooperatives were slow to respond, entrepreneurs, including the Raika community in Rajasthan, had already initiated several initiatives before the FSSAI standards were announced.
"We started our journey with camel milk in 2015. Now we have more than 40 camp units of camel milk products spread on camel milk, camel milk powder, flavored camel milk powder, pralines and camel skin care assortment, "says Shrey Kumar, co-founder of Aadvik Foods. The Bikaner-based organization claims to be the first company to introduce, market and process camel milk in the country.
There are other players as well. Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy, operated by LPPS, allows local camel farmers to deliver their milk to customers throughout India after it has been pasteurized, bottled and frozen – it is shipped in thermo-cube boxes containing ice. "Today, breeders know that the benefits of camel milk are enormous, both as a source of income in rural areas and as a health tonic for people with industrialized nutrition. It's beneficial for people who suffer from modern diseases like diabetes, autism, etc., "says Rathore of LPPS. "Most importantly, we need to invest in public awareness," he says.
In Gujarat, the nonprofit Sahjeevan promotes dairy farming among the camel herders in Bhuj and Kutch and encourages breeders to sell camel's milk to the GCMMF. "There are around 3.25 lakh camels in Rajasthan and around 30,000 in Gujarat," says Ramesh Bhatti, who heads the Center for Pastoralism (in collaboration with Pastoral Communities) in Sahjeevan. As the animals migrate and the tribe is nomadic, Sahjeevan organizes the flocks to take turns taking milk at a center in Kutch while they are walking, with the milk flow remaining constant. "The breeders are now optimistic and hopeful as sales have increased," he says.
Besides Rajasthan and Gujarat there are also camels in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There are currently about four lakh camels in India, a significant drop of 10 lakh in 2008.
Rajasthan's decision to turn the camel into a state bull in 2014 resulted in slaughter restrictions as the camel owners were in a bind because they could not sell their animals locally to earn extra income. This led to widespread smuggling to Bangladesh, reducing the number of camels. Now the domestic and foreign demand for camel milk and other products makes the breeding of camels viable for breeders again. The Government of Rajasthan has also started to award Rs 10,000 for each born calf. In addition, the camel trade ban was lifted this year. All this has greatly promoted the sale of products beyond camel milk, which are increasingly used in the culinary world as well. There are camel milk shrimp, kulfi and many other desserts on the market today. The best known is of course camel milk chocolate.
A decade ago, Al Nassma Chocolate, headquartered in Dubai, began selling camel milk chocolates, and by 2015, its artisanal chocolates were sold around the world, including Harrods in London. Amul Milk began experimenting with camel milk chocolates in the vicinity in 2017. It is reported that Amelmilch is now used on a monthly basis in all 700 tonnes of chocolate currently produced at the Gujarat plant. In camel milk chocolate, the milk content is 24%, which Amul uses because of its different texture and taste. Currently, the dairy cooperatives in Gujarat are collecting 10,000 liters of camel's milk a day from the Kutch district.
In India, Saras, a dairy cooperative from Rajasthan, introduced camel milk for some time in 2010, but was soon forced to close due to high production costs and lack of awareness among consumers. Today, however, the scene is different: The market for camel milk products in India has been growing steadily over the past two to three years. "When we started, we only sold a few liters a month, now we process about 8,000 to 10,000 liters a month," says Kumar of Aadvik Foods, which now sells more than 25 unique camel milk products. "What began with two people today has a team of 30 people. Yes, we have developed manifold in the last two years. With all our efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of camel milk in the country, we expect demand to rise to several thousand liters per day / week over the next five years, "he adds.
A big advantage for the camel milk sold in India is that it is not genetically modified. "Camels are not genetically or hormonally manipulated," says Köhler-Rollefson of LPPS, which produces only four to five liters per day, compared to the 40 liters that are common among cows and buffaloes. "Our goal is to deliver milk that is absolutely pure (nothing added or removed and no standardization of fat content like normal milk) and that is traceable to certain camel herds," she says.
But the challenges are immense. First of all there are the questions of storage and transport. "Camel breeders are facing big problems because there is no cold chain and no infrastructure. There is a need to invest in a network of micro camel dairies where the milk can be rapidly cooled and processed. We started with our Kambhalgarh micro camel dairy in the Rajasthan Pali district, but it requires public investment to replicate this approach nationwide, "says Köhler-Rollefson.
A point repeated by Kumar of Aadvik Foods. "The camel milk supply chain is challenging because of its low durability. Although we have created cold chain logistics on the supply side and in markets such as Delhi-NCR, Bengaluru and Hyderabad to reach all parts of the country, we had to launch freeze-dried camel's milk powder in India, "he says.
State governments are also campaigning for camel breeding. "The Gujarat government has assigned Sarhad Dairy, part of the GCMMF, Rs 3 Crore. The construction of a camel milk dairy with a capacity of 20,000 liters is also under way near Bhuj-Kutch, "says Bhatti of Sahjeevan.
Will camel milk ever take cow's milk in India? Time will tell, but right now these players seem to be on the right track.