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I was brought up on a dairy farm, I spent many summer evenings walking along with my grandfather behind our herd of 70 black and white cows as they plodded from the pasture to the parlour.
My grandfather’s familiar call and whistle to the cows was one handed down from his father and his father before that.
I lived, and my parents still do, on a small, traditional family farm in the Somerset countryside. Just one short generation later the simple and symbiotic relationships between people, animals and milk has radically changed.
Market demand and oversupply of milk in Europe, driven by race to the bottom milk prices set by the supermarkets and huge dairy conglomerates has forced farmers to intensify and modernise in ways that make my idyllic childhood farm life seem like a far-fetched fantasy. But this fantasy is still firmly in the mind of most dairy consumers, and is perpetuated daily by false propaganda and advertising.
As children, we were shielded from the horrors of the dairy industry, including the obvious maltreatment of animals as genetically modified machines, and the politics and the economics which finally drove my Dad to give up on dairy farming, to diversify the farm towards beef and tourism and to steer myself and my two sisters against a life on the land.
Despite having grown up surrounded by farmers and having very little interest, as a recent vegan I find myself fascinated by our food production and how animals are enslaved in that process.
But I realise people too, especially those small family farmers, are getting eaten up by insatiable appetite for profit and growth of big business.
And dairy is big business. In Europe alone the dairy industry is worth €100bn annually and produces 200 million tonnes of milk.
It is controlled by a handful of multinational conglomerates (Nestle, Danone and Arla being a few), which set the prices and determine outputs and markets. Farmers take the fall for rock-bottom prices and animals are the ones who feel the real brunt.
In order to supply the big dairies with sufficient milk, small farmers have been forced to bring in new technology in breeding and milking and cut costs in ways that hurt animal welfare.
Sadly, the demand for dairy shows no sign of abating. In 2000, a largely protectionist European Union opened up the market for European milk to China, Middle East, Africa and some parts of South America.
The demand was fueled largely by false propaganda of the health and nutrition benefits of milk put forward by the big daily conglomerates. Despite a rise in plant based diets, ethical and health-driven vegans are not quite yet a match for the demand for dairy coming from China which is expected to triple by 2050 (Wargeningen University Research).
This created even greater pressure on farmers in Europe to intensify. The result: smaller farmers who grazed their cattle and had smaller herds (similar to my Dad) were consistently undercut by those who had intensified their practice.
Impact on cows
Not only did herds increase, cows spent less time outside because of the costs involved. And genetic modifications were made to increase performance and yields of cows as milk making machines. Cows are sick because very little about their lives is natural.
The Holstein-Freesian cows are now genetically modified to be nothing like their low milk producing ancestors. Holstein-Freesians are exclusively bred for milk production and are task optimised.
They are bred to have a docile nature, to be highly fertile and efficiently turn cheap grain, rather than pasture, into milk at a yield roughly seven times higher than their ancestors would have 40 years ago (modernfarmer.com).
Under the thumb
Milk is super cheap, way cheaper than it should be. The price of milk to the consumer tells nothing of the costs of producing it.
The farmers are under the thumb of the big dairies. As they create more milk the price reduces further, putting increasing pressure on farmers and animals to drive enough supply to scrape a meager living.
And then to make matters worse for animal welfare everywhere, China and vast swathes of Asia joined the ranks of the major intensive milk producers able to service part of its own market with farms of up to 10,000 heads of cattle. European dairy conglomerates have even started investing outside of Europe in these super-efficient, intensive factory farms. I don’t even want to think about the horror that exists inside those.
So the massive oversupply of milk in Europe has resulted in most farmers in Europe being unable to make a living from farming. Most farms are unprofitable with the cost of production outstripping the price received.
So in order to keep farms afloat (and to ensure an ongoing supply of cheap food material), the EU provides a vast array of farming subsidies totaling €45 billion annually as part of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which has been widely criticised as being the most expensive and environmentally destructive policies of the EU.
I will not go into the details here, but one crazy part of the policy is to subsidise farmers based on the amount of land they own, meaning that rich landowners are receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds each year of tax payers’ money to subsidise the low prices paid for agricultural produce by the major European food conglomerates and supermarket chains.
It is mind boggling to me (and Guardian columnist George Monbiot) that there isn’t more of a public outcry about this blatant misuse of public funds (Farm Subsidies: the most blatant form of cash transfer to the rich – The Guardian).
Smallhold farmers, who generally care about the welfare of their animals and refuse to go into massive debt to automate and intensify to maximise yields and profits have been rendered bankrupt. They rely on these subsidies to survive. In 2016 the average English farm made only £2,100 from agriculture with benefits amounting to £22,400 coming from farm subsidies (fullfact.org). It’s a totally unsustainable industry. My own father caved to this pressure and focused his attention on raising livestock for beef.
So while we may be seeing decline in dairy farms, we certainly aren’t witnessing a reduction in dairy farming, it’s just the bigger, more intensive and downright scary factories that are doing it.
Then in 2014, a 30-year milk quota system which was in place in European members states to control the oversupply of milk in Europe was abolished in order for the European dairy industry to compete with intensive farms internationally (i.e. the huge farms emerging in Asia), but this accompanies further falls in the milk price and greater mechanisation of farms and in turn worse conditions for animals.
Staggering isn’t it, that milk and meat are so cheap to the consumer when their real costs are so much higher?
So why do the big dairy industries want to keep the price to the consumer so low? The average price of milk today is less than a bottle of mineral water. Supermarkets and their price wars have a large part to play, plus the massive drop off in demand from China due to the South East Asian production, the Russian trade ban and global market volatility.
Sadly because milk is still such a ‘normal’ product in the fridges of most families, supermarkets use the lure of its rock bottom price to get shoppers through the doors and away from the competition.
It is sad to think that factory farming has come about because people are absent-mindedly picking up a 2,27 litre bottle of milk at 99p instead of £1.39, which would reflect the real cost.
If consumers knew the misery of factory farms they would be happy to pay the difference and cut down on their milk intake. We need to find ways to bring that to people’s attention: to boycott cheap milk, and ideally all dairy entirely.
The whole system is extremely exploitative, cruel and profit hungry and yet people still slop milk in everything as if it wasn’t produced by the most horrendous means imaginable.
Knocking milk off that top spot as a staple in the British diet will probably be the best way of encouraging supermarkets to think of the true price of milk, the huge costs borne by the animals, small scale farmers and the environment.
This article was originally published byIn Kindness and In Health here