Milk Wars and Cow Power

We know our UK dairy farmers take a real pride in their animals and their milk, just like the one-cow farmer in Africa, but how do we as consumers share the UK dairy farmer's pride in this highly popular product?

What price do we put on the value of cows and the people who work with them? It's a question that's been troubling me as recent events demonstrate the increasing disconnect between food producers and consumers here in the UK, versus farmers and their community in Africa.

It's an industry I am very familiar with given I head up a charity called Send a Cow, which itself was founded by a group of farmers in 1988 when EU milk quotas meant UK production had to be reduced.

But this summer, when farmers are protesting in supermarkets, dragging cheap milk off shelves and herding nearly one ton Holstein cows down the shopping aisles, we know this is an industry in crisis.

Milk is traded as a global commodity and a headline act in the UK's supermarket price wars. It's often retailed as a loss leader to tempt shoppers, but there is an oversupply. UK dairy farms, many of them family farms, are forced to intensify further with more cows if they want to compete with other countries. Around 10,000 UK farmers have simply given up and left the industry since 2002 - that's around 50%.

Conversely, in many African countries, cows are a prized possession - transforming the lives of some of the continent's poorest families with vital nutrition, a product to sell and manure to fertilise starving soil. Many of the African farmers we work with talk about the pride they feel when, after months of training and planning, they are given a cow. One woman told us she drank her first glass of milk when she was 60 years old, another joked that perhaps it would mean her teeth would grow back!

When I was growing up milk was a highly prized part of our diet, delivered to my parents' doorstep and whipped into assorted sweet and savoury dishes served up by my mother. I benefitted from the free milk at school and, like many of my age group, I was unfazed that a garden bird had beaten me to the full cream by pecking at the foil bottle top.

I know some lucky communities still benefit from a doorstep delivery and many have personal knowledge of the local dairy producing their milk, butter and cheese. They may even see the cows grazing in the field, and they certainly know the person delivering it and are happy to pay a premium for the privilege.

But for many of us, milk these days is anonymous white stuff in a plastic carton available in assorted degrees of fat and vitamins. Unlike the pre-packed fruit and vegetables we buy, we have little knowledge of where it comes from and even if we wanted to pay more, unless it's organic, we can't.

So why are we undervaluing milk? According to the UK's Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) total milk consumption grew by 3.3% in the period June 2014 - June 2015. Each household bought 2.3% more milk and shopped the category 1.9% more often. But the increase seems to have been driven by the high discounting supermarkets.

In comparison, a lack of grazing, rain and refrigeration make cow's milk highly prized in Africa. That's why a local farmer with a cow has a real asset in a remote, rural community. They can sell fresh milk to their neighbours who have already witnessed the sheer effort that has gone into producing the milk - growing enough crops to feed the cow, securing enough water, housing it properly and maintaining its health.

As the CEO of a development charity working in Africa, I was intrigued by a Financial Times blog that explored how many hours some Africans have to work to buy a gallon of milk. I appreciate it's an inexact science, but looking at this, someone working on the minimum wage in Kenya would need to work around 14 hours. If we equate this to someone in the UK working on the minimum wage of currently £6.50 an hour, it would take them less than 30 minutes to buy that gallon of milk. And that doesn't include the saving made when buying a larger size.

So perhaps it's the very accessibility of milk and our emotional and physical distance from the reality of how costly and difficult it is to produce, which makes milk so undervalued here.

We know our UK dairy farmers take a real pride in their animals and their milk, just like the one-cow farmer in Africa, but how do we as consumers share the UK dairy farmer's pride in this highly popular product?

One thought is we learn the lesson from our friends in Africa and return to producing and marketing locally. Artisan milk just like we have artisan bread and cheese. Local milk for local people?

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