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Sunday, 25 January 2015

We Need to Save Our Farmers with Fair Trade Milk

Britain's dairy farmers are currently in a state of crisis. The big supermarkets have driven milk prices well below production costs and as a result farmers are having to sell up or are going bankrupt.Last week the number of dairy farms in England and Wales dropped below 10,000 for the first time and all the signs suggest that the exodus from farming will continue unless government action is taken.
Some readers of this blog may be thinking that this is actually a good thing either because they are vegans or because they see over-consumption of meat and its related products as contributing to global warming. While I myself am neither vegan or vegetarian, I do accept that ecologically it would be beneficial if worldwide meat consumption went down in the long term. However it is essential that any attempts to achieve this long-term are achieved in partnership with livestock farmers and via offering them financially beneficial alternatives rather than working against them. In the short-term however we must do everything to support British dairy farmers and for a number of reasons it is green to do so.

Why Should We Help Dairy Farmers?

Firstly if we don't help the small family dairy farms then they will disappear to be replaced with ever larger industrialised farms where the cows are put under even more pressure to produce milk yields beyond their metabolic limits. Already in the USA there are huge 'battery-cow' farms where 1000s of animals are kept permanently locked up inside narrow pens and injected with umpteen hormones in order to increase production. There are plans to set up similar institutions in the UK. Such institutionalised animal abuse is a far cry from the cow in the field who gets to live a natural life grazing in the open air. If, like me, you eat meat then the key consideration should be whether the animal has led a decent life before going to slaughter. Letting our dairy farmers go to the wall in order to be replaced by huge agribusinesses with battery style housing pens would be a huge setback to any real notion of animal welfare. See below:

If we are to avoid the above becoming the norm then we must defend our family dairy farmers.
Secondly if more of our farmers cannot survive in farming then the pressure will be on to sell their land to developers. The coalition government has removed virtually all planning protection from the ordinary countryside and created a 'presumption in favour of development'. In other words, if the land isn't farmed there is a high chance that the land will disappear under housing estates, shopping centres or warehouses. It will certainly not become a nice ecological meadow, well not as long as any of the other parties remain in government it won't.

What is Causing the Current Crisis?

The root of the problem is the distorted economic system and the supermarkets. The latter are driving down prices to a level that is destroying farmers economically. Most of the major British supermarkets are now selling milk very cheaply, in one case four pints of conventional whole milk for 89 pence (£0.89). Apologies for dancing between pints and litres, but four pints of milk is 2.27 litres, so divide that into 89 pence and you get just over 39.2 ppl (pence per litre). This is theoretically the total amount of money that has to be divided between the farmer, processor and retailer.  On the other hand two pints of organic milk cost on average around £1.14 instead. Doing the same maths, that makes the retail price of the organic milk almost exactly £1 per litre, more than twice the price of the conventional product.
As a result of the supermarkets, farmers are under pressure to produce more and more milk in order to make ends meet. Yet the result of doing so is even lower prices. It becomes a vicious circle. In addition Russia has banned imports of dairy products from the European Union in response to EU sanctions over the Ukraine. This has led to more milk staying in the EU and a further catastrophic downward slide in farm gate milk prices.

What is the Solution?

Ultimately the best solution to this would be regulation from on high either from governments or the institutions of the European Union. They would need to take on the supermarkets. However realistically this is not going to happen because national governments remain wedded to neo-liberalism and free-market zealotry. Until the UK and Europe goes politically green nothing will change this.
Therefore an alternative way to improve the financial fortunes of dairy farmers could be through the emergence of some kind of public contract, based on the principles of fair trade, where consumers can buy milk and dairy products knowing the price the farmer has been paid is equitable and fair.
This means using our purchasing power right now to support all those beleaguered small family dairy farms on the edge of a precipice, through the introduction of a fair trade milk scheme which gives them a guaranteed fair price, providing their production systems are ethical. We could challenge the various certification organisations to introduce a fair trade milk label, with some conditions for entry. A fair price should be agreed and then all fair trade milk given clear labels.
While I am often skeptical about green consumerism and its power to change things, it seems to me that in this case the only realistic short-term solution is a fair trade scheme, combined with a publicity drive to highlight the issues to the public.

1 comment:

  1. Agree this is why we are lucky in Colchester to have Colchester Dairy. It's a step in the right direction and they're proving extremely popular. Yes, it's pennies more but we know that they are sourcing the milk locally.