Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, you cannot have failed to notice the ongoing kerfuffle over milk prices. This is an issue which the farming community (vets included) have been aware of for years (I remember having lectures on the price of milk at vet school, I think I even stayed awake for some of them), and what it boils down to is this: dairy farmers are being paid such a low price per litre of milk they produce that in some cases it doesn’t even cover the cost of production. They are making a loss. Bear in mind as well, this ‘cost of production’ rarely takes into account the farmer’s time – most farmers do not pay themselves a salary, and the hours they work go undocumented. For the majority, the Working Time Directive is a mere speck on the horizon.
Those that are making more than the ‘cost of production’ (and still not paying themselves a living wage) are not making anywhere near enough profit to re-invest in the business, and so buildings are becoming dilapidated, equipment is faulty, and eventually the welfare of the animals will suffer. This is not a choice farmers are making – they have no option. There is no money to spend on anything non-essential, and sometimes things that are essential have to just be patched up and made to last a bit longer.
Supermarkets are the main buyers of fresh milk in this country, and they are demanding more and more from dairy farmers. Some of the things they demand are box-ticking exercises, but some do have tangible benefits for the welfare of the cattle or the quality of the end product. So surely that should be a good thing? Surely they are raising industry standards? Theoretically, yes, but farmers are not being paid more for doing these things or meeting the requirements – they are being penalised if they don’t do them. And when they are getting such a low price in the first place, that leaves them a bit stuck. All the demands from the supermarkets require an investment of time and money, which most farmers would be happy to do, but both are in ridiculously short supply. If there is no increase in profit from fulfilling these demands, or ticking these boxes, then farmers simply cannot afford to do it.
Incidentally, the profit margin on milk for supermarkets has increased far above the rate of inflation every year for the past 50 years or more. The profit margin for farmers has not. As a percentage of the price we pay in the supermarket, farmers are getting less now than they were fifty years ago. Far less. The capacity for increasing the price paid to farmers is there, in the supermarkets’ share of the profit, without even the need to charge consumers more. All it would take is the sacrifice of a few pennies per litre on the part of the supermarkets (yup, even the most boundless optimist is scoffing at that one – we can but hope).
So why does it matter? Why should we care? And why should we have to pay more? Sure, farmers work hard, but it’s not our fault if they can’t sustain a business. The supermarkets can just get milk from other countries, right? As far as I’m concerned, there are three big reasons why we should stand up for British farmers before it gets that far.
First reason is simple – food miles. If we want to protect the environment, save the planet, reduce pollution, cut our carbon footprint, reverse climate change, whatever you call it, we should be buying everything as locally as possible. This is quite tricky to do with, for example, bananas, but as far as milk and meat goes, we have excellent quality products on our doorstep. If supermarkets (and consumers) continue to price farmers out of farming, we will lose the ability to buy local, or even British milk, and we will have to ship it in from the rest of the world – New Zealand, America, China – burning fossil fuels to do it.
This brings me neatly to the second reason – animal health and welfare. As a nation of animal lovers, we should care deeply about where our food comes from, and how the animals that produced it were treated when they were alive. In the EU, we have strict welfare codes governing how animals must be treated – pets, livestock, zoo animals, everything. Some EU countries adhere to these codes more than others, but I have no hesitation in saying that the welfare of farm animals in the UK is some of the best in the world. That alone is enough to ensure that I will not buy milk from anywhere but the UK. If that doesn’t quite persuade you, the other issue is health – not just the animals’ health, but ours too. In the UK, there are very strict rules about what drugs can and cannot be given to animals intended for food production. Any drug that is licensed for use in these species has specified withdrawal periods for meat and milk to ensure that drugs given to animals do not make their way into our food chain. A lot of products (almost all hormone treatments, for example) are banned outright, which is certainly not the case in other countries such as the USA. Knowing what I do about some of these drugs, I would rather eat just vegetables for a week than have them in my food.
So the third reason. Wildlife. Farmers own or manage a vast proportion of the English countryside. Whilst they take pride in this stewardship of the land, and for the most part do everything they can to improve habitat and encourage sound ecosystems, they are not charities, and they do have to make a profit to survive and to continue farming. They certainly have to make a profit to be able to put money into schemes to further encourage wildlife (planting wildflower set-aside or creating beetle banks, for example). If supermarkets and consumers continue to price farmers out of dairy farming, the land they farm would not be left to ‘go back to nature’ (a questionable concept anyway, given that the ‘natural’ state of England is dense, impenetrable forest with relatively little biodiversity – but more on that in future blogs). The land would still have to make a profit for whoever owned it. So perhaps the farmer would continue to farm, but only grow crops instead of keeping livestock. This means no hay meadows, no pastures green, no lovely cowpats for woodcock to get stuck into (explanation of that here) – just fields and fields of intensively farmed rapeseed or maize, and a huge loss not only to the classic view of the British countryside, but also to diversity of wildlife habitat. Or maybe the land would be sold for development, and housing estates or shopping centres would spring up – plenty of blackbirds and urban foxes, but no skylarks, no corn buntings, no hares. Again the biodiversity of our countryside would be decimated.
Simply put, whilst it would be lovely to have the whole of the UK managed as a nature reserve, it is just not practical. We have a growing population that requires feeding, and land in the UK is a precious commodity – it has to make money for someone. Surely it is better to have farmers making money from the land, making food for the country, and preserving the habitats for all our farmland wildlife? I certainly think so, anyway. To finish, here is one of the best campaign slogans I’ve ever heard (thanks to the farmers raiding Morrisons), and one good thing to come out of this: You’ve Been Milked.
Information on British Dairy Farming – http://www.nfuonline.com/sectors/dairy/?hpbox
How to support British Dairy Farmers – http://www.rabdf.co.uk/latest-news/2015/8/12/how-to-support-our-british-dairy-farmers
More fun stuff on British Dairy Farming – http://www.thisisdairyfarming.com/