Today, a quarter of the UK’s dairy farmers are at the Houses of Parliament, trying to save the UK’s dairy industry.
The dairy business has run close to the wind, financially, for a very long time – ever since we started to buy our milk from the big supermarkets rather than our milkman, and the supermarkets, knowing that we regard milk as a daily staple, knocked the price down and used it as a loss leader to get us into the shops. In we went, in our millions. Now all the other shops have shut, and we have no real choice but to go to the big supermarkets.
Having got us in, the big supermarkets started to nibble down the price of milk. For years now it has been common knowledge that dairy farmers were just about surviving. Now three of the biggest chains, Asda, Morrisons and the Co-op, have negotiated a way of obtaining milk (from the milk processing companies) that makes their cost significantly lower.
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are all on what’s called “aligned contracts”, where the price they pay for their milk relates to the price of production.
If we do not support our dairy industry, mega-dairies become an inevitability. I could rattle on for hours about what a dreadful, dreadful thing this is – not just directly for the animals kept going on antibiotics, a diet that gives them liver disease, and a short, brutal life; but for the whole of British food production, which has a fairly proud history of being pretty well in alignment with what nature intended. Historically we have fed our cows the stuff that cows are evolved to eat. We don’t put our pigs in farrowing crates. We may have only recently started to be passionate about chickens, but care we do, and the cages of battery hens are slowly getting bigger. Some are even rescued at the end of their year’s prison sentence (although too few, and they come out bald and often with broken bones where they’ve been pulled so roughly from their cage).
Raymond Blanc – who is deliciously expert about food production – has said it so well. Do take a moment to read this.
There are a few points Blanc didn’t touch on, which I want to visit, briefly.
Firstly, antibiotics. We know how antibiotics work. They kill bacteria. We use them to some degree in food production already, but if you have read Blanc’s article (seriously, GO AND READ IT NOW, go on. Shoo), you’ll realise that megadairies require antibiotics in much greater concentration, not as a cure for diseases as they crop up, but as an everyday cure for the basic diseases that are the inevitable – inevitable – consequence of overcrowding and poor diet. Why is this such a bad thing, eh? Cows get sick, give them antibiotics. Cows get well. Game over, man.
Well, yes. But here’s the rub: the things antibiotics kill are some of the fastest breeding life-forms in the known universe. Bacteria. You’ve seen the footage of it teeming across the petri dish. Two, four, eight, sixteen – BLAM! A FRILLION! All you need is one whose DNA contains resistance to the antibiotic you’re using. One. And then you’ve got MRSA, for cows. And here’s the thing: if you are using antibiotics every day, routinely, that one resistant bacterium is inevitable. And then it really is game over, man.
There’s more! The antibiotics from the huge ranches in the US wash into rivers and drinking water. You want that? Really? Because there is no way to avoid it.
Which brings me on to my second point: pollution. Nocton Dairies fought long and hard to put up a cow battery farm – a megadairy – near Lincoln. Last year they lost their battle, and the reason they lost it in the end was because they could not absolutely guarantee to the Environment Agency that waste from the facility (read: cow poo and wee in legendary amounts, not to mention antibiotics etc) would not seep through into the local aquifer and pollute drinking water. They couldn’t guarantee it because it is something that simply cannot be guaranteed, by anyone, anywhere. It’s not that the Lincoln site was unique. We are a small, lumpy island. And shit, as they say, flows downhill.
The third reason we should oppose this, is that we ought to care about the quality of our food. There are just three companies who provide milk to all the large supermarkets in the UK. The dairy farmers sell their milk to these companies, and the companies process it (Pasteurisation etc), and sell it on. So if we end up with megadairies, we will likely all end up drinking their produce. And their produce is not something I would put in my body.
Raymond Blanc’s article deals with the nutritional difference between factory-farmed milk and milk that is more naturally farmed. If you care about the nutritional profile of your milk you’ll go the extra step and buy organic, which is proven to contain more Omega 3 Alpha Linolenic fatty Acid (ALA) than non-organic milk. If you’re baffled: that’s the stuff that helps protect you from heart disease.
My last point relates directly to the previous one and may seem a bit esoteric at first glance, a bit pearl-clutching and middle-classy – but bear with me, it isn’t at all: welfare. We think of this as an animal welfare issue. It is. Not just bovine animals, but humans. We are animals too. Just as with cows, whose quality of diet and quality of life affects their bodies profoundly, the same applies to us. If we have stressful lives and a poor diet, our health outlook plummets. Cows are no different. One of the ways we ensure that our own diet is poor, is bad animal husbandry – eating animals that have had a stressful, poorly fed life.
There is a basic correlation between the respect we afford the food we farm, and the respect we afford ourselves. If we think of the things we eat as cheap commodities, something to be treated any-old-how as long as we can afford the end product, to be propped up with antibiotics and chemicals, fed any old crap, produced cheaply, raised in an environment which shows no consideration for the 3.5bn years of evolution that went into producing that life form’s basic requirements, we are effectively saying “Yeah, it’s fine: feed me any old shit.” The human body is an amazing beast, with its powerful and versatile liver – far more so than most other animals (try feeding a cat the wrong diet. They die. Fast. The same is true for cows, which is why cows in a megadairy have a very short life and, unlike chickens, whose dietary requirements are more versatile, will be too diseased to be rehomed at the end of their stint in the factory farm). The human body will keep going on the most godawful diets because of our powerful livers, for a very long time. But not for ever.
There is a valid argument that most people simply cannot afford food raised to high welfare standards. Most people are simply too close to the breadline to worry much about where their food comes from. I can’t argue with that. It’s a fact. But we should not use that as an excuse to set up ever-cheaper, ever-lower-quality food production. We should address the reasons people can’t afford it in the first place, raise the standards of food production, subsidise good food production so that high quality ingredients are an affordable option for absolutely everyone. High quality British-produced food should be something we regard as a basic right and a pride, not something only the Nigellas and Jamies of the world can afford. If people choose to eat beige food from Iceland, that’s their human right. But a lot of people are eating poorly because of poverty, and that should be a source of national shame and the trigger for political solutions, not a reason to produce more cheap, shit food.
I really hope you tweet and write to and email Asda and the Co-op, and Morrisons about this. The power to change the big supermarkets’ food policies lies with us, not with them. Without us hammering at them, their only concern is their profit margin. Besides, if these mega-dairies happen, EVERYONE who doesn’t drink purely organic milk will end up drinking the rubbish end product. We need look only to the US, the original home of the factory-farmed dairy cow (google “milk” and “pus”) to see what a bad idea this is.