We Have to Support Dairy Farmers at Every Opportunity

There is a well documented crisis affecting British farming - not as a result of evolutionary market forces, but of bad politics.

There is a well documented crisis affecting British farming - not as a result of evolutionary market forces, but of bad politics.

Our dairy farmers should be in good shape. They produce about 13 billion litres of milk annually and we drink around five billion litres of milk in Britain each year - enough to fill 2,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Despite our voracious appetite, the UK is virtually self-sufficient when it comes to milk: almost every pint we buy is from a British farm.

The UK is the third largest milk producer in the EU after Germany and France, and the ninth largest producer in the world. And yet, we are losing farmers at a rate of around one each day - there are now currently less than 11,000 dairy farms, compared with 10 years ago when there were 30,000 of them.

Every loss is a tragedy. Farmers don't just churn out milk. They protect and maintain our landscape and shape our rural communities. The knowledge they have, once lost, is almost impossible to recover.

I firmly believe this loss is due to the flawed environment in which dairy farmers are expected to operate. In my book, the Constant Economy, I talked of the need for an economic system where resources are valued, not wasted, where food is grown sustainably and goods are built to last.

However, rather than looking at the options available to us, we seem intent on pursuing a legislative cul-de-sac which could push Britain's farming heritage out and replace it with a similar system to the US which favours factory farming.

In his speech to The Future of Food Conference in New York on May 4, 2011, HRH Prince of Wales noted that in the US, "the system of farm subsidies is geared in such a way that it favours overwhelmingly" mega-dairy models, adding that "this has led to a situation where farmers are better off using intensive methods and where consumers who would prefer to buy sustainably produced food are unable to do so because of the price."

This is not a situation we should be seeking to replicate in Britain - a belief that is shared by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and investor Deborah Meaden, who is backing Weighing up the Economics of Dairy Farms, the latest briefing from WSPA's Not in my Cuppa campaign.

I also back the campaign, set up in February 2010 to fight the industry watershed moment represented by Nocton Dairies' controversial application for an 8,100 dairy unit, and support the conversation they are trying to spark around the need for a more sustainable dairy future.

Weighing up the Economics of Dairy Farms offers an alternative to the much touted 'get big or get out' argument put forward by those promoting 'sustainable intensification' as the means to address growing food security concerns and the plight of struggling dairy farmers.

Comparing the mega-dairy business model against the tried and tested pasture-based system widely adopted by milk producers in the UK, the briefing finds mega-dairies to be highly exposed to global price hikes, spikes and unstable markets.

Also endorsed by farmers and economists, the briefing concludes that dairy farmers looking to secure their future could achieve better returns from average sized pasture-based farms.

Interestingly, Deborah Meaden says that the business case for mega-dairies is "based on unsustainable principles and high risk economic guesswork" and is the sort of investment proposal that would never get her backing. If times are good, she says, a mega-dairy could be more profitable, but in bad times it can easily go bust.

Suzi Morris, WSPA UK Director, told me they met with US dairy economists and industrial farming experts who explained the enormous financial vulnerability of mega-dairies, stating they are a high-risk system because nobody can predict how many years will deliver high milk prices. The American data showed that the small scale pasture based farms actually weathered the recession better.

The briefing suggests it is possible to turn a profit from a farm that allows robust, healthy cows out on to grass, rather than keeping them cooped up in concrete sheds. More money can be made from cows that live longer because they have less pressure on them to keep up with mega-dairy demand.

Unlike the mega-dairy business model, which only really comes into its own if the price of milk were to be fixed for 10 years or more, pasture-based dairying gives farmers a more realistic chance to turn a profit in unstable markets, with an edge of up to five pence per litre.

Most importantly, this farmer and cow-friendly approach to a secure future is a reality that can happen without all the noise, pollution, devastation to rural communities, and environmental and human health impacts that are linked to industrial dairies.

As consumers we have to support dairy farmers at every opportunity, principally by demanding that our Government does its bit. Only Government can balance the imbalance of power between the giant supermarkets and farmers.

Only Government can renegotiate the EU Common Agriculture Policy so that it supports the sort of farming consumers welcome, and only Government can choose to use the public food budget for schools and hospitals to support the right sort of farming.

WSPA has said that there should be a wider discussion before more farmers feel pressured to go down the industrial route. We should support them.


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