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The price of milk: we must value dairy more

The price of milk: we must value it more

Cost of living pressures are escalating, and milk prices are also rising. But what if a pint of milk was too cheap to start with?

British milk prices haven’t increased in the last 14 years and have in fact declined in real terms, and this poses serious risks for both our food security and the welfare of dairy cows.

British television viewers responded with outrage when a recent BBC Panorama show revealed scenes of animal abuse at a Welsh dairy farm. But this valid, high level of concern for dairy cows is in direct contrast to the low prices paid for their products.

Assaults on animals are criminal and unacceptable. But we shouldn’t tar all farmers with the same brush. And these isolated actions are not the revelatory answer to the question the show posed: “What is the true cost of milk?”

We should instead ask – why do we value milk so little? What kind of life must dairy cows live for the price we pay? How could their lives improve if we all paid a little more?

A new report by Kite Consulting revealed that UK raw milk prices have been lagging behind world prices. At the same time, ever increasing global dairy demand has outgrown supply.

This puts the British dairy industry in a position where the most financially viable option could be to further cut costs and maximise production to export liquid milk as a commodity.

With increasing demands on the animals, their welfare is likely to stay the same at best or get worse – especially as farm assurance scheme (like Red Tractor) are less important in global trading.

If British farmers choose to sell their milk abroad, that could also threaten UK food security at a time when the Ukraine crisis is already posing risks to food supply chains across Europe.

The market has become completely dysfunctional if it becomes more profitable to export what is one of the ultimate perishable products, rather than to sell it to a public that wants to buy it, in one of the richest countries of the world.

British retailers and shoppers need to pay more

We are facing a cost-of-living crisis, and the impact this is having on people cannot be understated. But if we truly value British farmers and animal welfare, we need to pay a price for milk that ensures the farmer a good return while investing in a high welfare system.

At the very least, a dairy cow must be fed, housed, cared for, and milked. She needs shelter in cattle housing if wet weather requires it. She needs a nutritious diet – predominantly pasture based. Grass grows well in much of the UK, but not all year round so farmers must plan ahead to preserve forage as silage.

All dairy cows, no matter how well looked after, will need vet attention. They will need treating for anything from calving difficulties to lameness, which can be caused by standing on concrete for too long, or mastitis, a common udder infection.

Crucially, our dairy cows must give birth every year to produce milk, which itself must also be processed, bottled, and transported. Even before we think about what we can do to give her a good life, that’s an awful lot to ask from an animal – and from her farmer. But farmers are paid around 34 pence per litre – with supermarket shoppers expecting to pay less than a pound per litre, even with recent price rises.

We pay more for water

It is mind boggling that we regularly pay more for bottled water, the production of which doesn’t ask anything from an animal.

And yet there’s widespread surprise when people hear that factory dairy farming is on the rise in the UK, and that calves are separated from their mothers on most dairy farms.

Even most organic dairy farmers, who must abide by the strictest animal welfare and environmental standards, are yet to find a solution to this challenge while milk is so undervalued.

The Ethical Dairy, who are certified organic, keep calves with their mothers for several months, but they go down the high value artisan cheese and ice cream route to make a profit.

BBC Panorama pointed out that around a quarter of dairy farms are failing to break even, let alone capable of taking financial risks by trialling different production methods.

There remains just a small number of farmers, generally those with small herds who sell directly to the consumer, who can demand a price that allows them to practice systems where calves stay with their mothers.

Dairy farmers will provide whatever consumers want

The struggle for people to afford to feed themselves is a separate issue that needs to be tackled across society. For our part, we are working harder than ever to campaign for fairer food supply chains. And we are helping many schools, hospitals, local councils, and communities to grow and source healthier and more environmentally friendly food, through our Food for Life and Sustainable Food Places programmes.

But the current crisis doesn’t mean we should abandon the drive for better animal welfare standards – especially as we haven’t seen increases in the cost of milk for a long time. And if British milk is increasingly exported, we will likely end up paying more for it anyway.

If we want cows to spend more time outside, or want calves to stay with their mothers longer, we need to pay for it. We need to re-evaluate what we want from dairy farmers and work out what a fair price would be, rather than starting with the price the retailer would like to pay.

And our government must ensure vulnerable households can afford to eat, while also providing support and training to help farmers develop different systems.

Just 5p could make a huge difference

When you consider a dairy cow produces thousands of litres of milk in just one year, even just five extra pence per litre could make a huge difference.

It could provide security that is essential to helping all types of farmers trial higher welfare practices. When they are barely making ends meet, how can they be expected to take those risks?

A change to less but better – eating less meat and dairy over all so we can afford higher welfare products when we do – would also help cows, farmers, and the environment. We must do better to reflect the true value of milk – and that of the dairy cows and farmers who work so very hard to provide us with this staple.