I love milk and I like cows. When I was a child I sometimes stayed over at a friends farm, having fresh milk on my breakfast cornflakes, so fresh that it was still warm was a heavenly experience. Unpasteurised milk does taste different, really in any animal product, more processing leads to less flavour. I don’t understand this culture of using skimmed, homogenised ‘milk’, it’s almost tasteless, so what is the point?
It’s the same situation with beef. As a teenager I remember farmers adapting to breed lean beef cows as fat was the enemy, this was not the real cause of increasing obesity in the British population, what this did lead to was beef that lacked flavour and an increased use of continental breeds whose meat lacks flavour of traditional breeds and hence discouraged people from choosing beef on taste grounds.
The dairy industry, like all parts of British agriculture has undergone massive changes and upheavals since the second world war. Many farmers have abandoned dairy as the relative price of milk has fallen in real terms. There continues to be a crisis in the industry as prices remain low and supermarkets charge £1 for 4 pints, whilst the farm gate price has fallen to 20p per litre, despite the intensification of the industry. Arguably no-one has benefited from this change as the price saved on a pint of milk is made up by the supermarkets on other products.
Modern intensive production of milk, with the recent importation of the idea of ‘mega-diaries’ from the United States, is a far cry from the sustainable, family farm production of my youth, in the name of cheap bland milk. Dairy cows are increasingly housed indoors, even in the summer, which for social animals seems cruel. They have been bred to be high yielding, leading to huge udders that leads to lameness, increased disease and a shorter productive life span. There have also been moves to a grain based diet, from a forage based one to increase yields further, despite this requiring cereals from high grade agricultural land. The true production costs are distorted.
I feel very strongly that intensive animal production is both unsustainable and unacceptable in terms of animal welfare. There is no true market as the consumer has little choice over the quality of milk that they consume. The only choice is between organic milk, which is traditionally produced and intensive milk. I strongly advocate proper point of farm labelling for all animal products, so consumers know where something comes from and how it was produced. In the UK we only really have a reasonable system for eggs, it’s absurd that something like 50% of eggs are free range, yet only 2% of chicken is free range. Consumers should be able to choose between traditional family farms and highly intensive production of mega dairies, here the production cost between the two systems is tiny, 1-2p per litre. Personally, I only buy organic milk, not because I am a mad keen advocate of organic agriculture, but it is the only choice available to me as I refuse to support ‘mega-dairies’.
This lack of a true market, pervades both agriculture and wider society. A true market would exist where producer and consumer interact to determine price and production system. This traditional market mechanism has been lost. It has been lost as it is now the middle man/ the supermarket cartels that determine price and quality, as such there is less regard for creation of sustainable markets as the decisions are not made by either producer or consumer.
The supermarkets distort the prices. The major supermarkets discovered that consumers decisions concerning where to shop are principally determined by perceived value, the price of individual foods is less important than the perceived value of the shop as a whole. The perceived value is determined by the prices of a small number of key products, one of these is milk, hence we have the absurd loss-leader situation of 4 pints of milk for a pound. Tesco, laughably, advertised this promotion with pictures of Belted Galloways, a beef breed!
This loss of true traditional market mechanisms, the necessity of subsidising farmers to keep produce prices down is also absurd. Yet as markets develop they seem to be increasingly distorted and people in general are less happy with how their food is produced but have less power to influence it.
I would urge anyone reading this to go out and buy a pint of organic unhomogenised milk, taste the difference and support local farmers.