Dairy farming without legs

An estimated 84,000 workers are employed in the dairy industry. According to this June 2011 parliamentary briefing, the UK produces around 13 billion litres of milk each year, ninth in the world.  In 2010 the UK milk industry accounted for 16.1% of total agricultural output, worth £3.3 billion at market prices (the National Farmers Union puts the figure at 6bn). 51% of the UK-processed milk was sold as liquid milk, 26% became cheese, 10% became milk powder and condensed milk, 2% cream, 2% butter, 2% yoghurt, and 3% other products.

Despite this large stake in the UK economy, dairy farmers fear bankruptcy. Average production cost is 29.5p per litre, in order to invest in the industry farmers need 32p but many will receive less than 25p. Meanwhile milk retails at around 85p per litre, an enormous markup. National Farmers Union members have been campaigning to ensure three large supermarket chains Morrisons, Asda and the Cooperative pay dairy farmers according to a formula which ensures that farmers receive a ‘farm gate price’ that is at least the cost of production, and to regulate the sector to ensure that milk processing businesses (the largest being Arla, First Milk, Robert Wiseman, Dairy Crest) do not unduly influence the price with restrictive contracts.

As things stand even if, say, the Coop raises the shop floor price of milk (as it just has), the amount the farmer receives may drop even further because of the price set by the milk processor (as it just has). What processors pay dairy farmers dropped by a third over the past three years. And of course, processors are likely to cite reasons such as “continued price inflation in the commodities and food markets”.

Agriculture minister James Paice says that the Conservative-led coalition won’t regulate processor contracts. So the NFU are lobbying and the militant campaign group Farmers for Action are currently blockading milk processors in Somerset, Worcestershire and Shropshire. If they are successful, and if there are no significant efficiency savings to be made, the pressure will centre on consumer milk prices. Supermarkets may or may not decided to reduce their markup, but if shop floor prices rise higher than consumers are willing to pay, they’re likely to entertain alternatives to milk.

Just as it would have been good if Nokia had been more receptive to the smart phone concept early on, it would be good if the dairy industry were more receptive to alternatives to milk. I notice the Californian Milk Board is threatened enough by plant milks to try to create an aversion to them as unnatural – as if there’s nothing more natural than adult humans drinking from the mammary glands of a mother from a different species who is producing freakishly large amounts of milk, who needs antibiotics because high mastitis incidence has been bred into her, whose babies have not only been taken away but, when superfluous to farmers’ requirements as is often the case, carted hundreds of miles to the desolation of a veal farm, or shot at birth, who has a twenty-year life-span if left to herself, but who on a farm meets a premature death when no longer an economic asset – often because the antibiotics aren’t working and she’s too ill for her milk to meet EU somatic cell count limits. If she’s producing antibodies to heal herself, she gets the chop.

Only 3.1% of UK milk (Freedom Food or Soil Association) has more humane provenance than this, and I personally don’t accept that their regulations are humane. So milk is beyond unnatural. And that’s without even touching on the environmental degradation including the 990 litres of water it takes to produce each litre of milk. If you need milk, plant milks are better on so many levels. There’s bound to be one to suit anybody’s taste. And just like when you are encouraged to give up salt, things taste strange at first and it takes a bit of time to adjust to the taste – but everybody does.

And for the record, despite a recent butter binge, milk consumption isn’t burgeoning in the UK. I take my hat of to the NFU and Farmers For Action for being organised, solid and effective. All workers deserve a price that covers their costs and affords them padding and investment. It’s indisputable that dairy farmers and milk processors need a break and a decent living. I can’t see that dairy farming has legs. It’s obvious that ‘sustainable’ means addressing the interlocked issues of dairy farmers’ livelihoods, milk producers’ livelihoods, the environment, and animal welfare. Who is doing this? Apparently not the slumbering Vegan Society with its two news items since the end of May. Not the Food Ethics Council. Not the hilariously-named Fair Milk Campaign where the animals are voiceless. Not agricultral minister Jim Paice who doesn’t know the price of milk and so should be taken with a pinch of salt when he calls for cutting production costs (with presumed knock-on effects for cow welfare). Not the “does not consider alterations to the size of the dairy sector” Food Climate Research Network. Not DEFRA.

Hazelnut milk is good in coffee, hot chocolate and sweet cuisine and currently costs a pound at Sainsbury’s as part of a three-for-£3 multibuy which includes other plan milks. Soya grows in this country now and the taste of the milks has improved immeasurably. Alternatives to this primeval habit of stripping breast milk from cows and feeding it to grown-up humans are looking more and more feasible every day. But there are certain to be obstacles.

I wish that Animal Aid, the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, The Vegan Society, &tc would combine their resources to fund research work – complementary to the work carried out by FCRN and FEC above – into alternative economies to sustain the 84,000 people currently employed in the dairy industry.

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