Making milk sustainable amid the dairy crisis

The UK is facing the biggest dairy crisis for years, with prices slumping to 2003 levels and farms going out of business with alarming regularity. But, as Rin Hamburgh finds, there are several initiatives determined to make the most of milk in a truly sustainable way

For anyone following the news today, the word ‘dairy’ may well come with another word close on its heels: ‘crisis’. With prices falling and farmers going out of business on an almost daily basis, there have been protests outside supermarkets, meetings in government, and even a social media campaign, with people sharing Facebook posts pledging to pay more for their daily pint of the white stuff.

The key issue is around farm-gate prices – those received by the milk producers themselves – which are monitored on a monthly basis. A government report published in January showed that rates fell sharply in 2014, to 29p per litre, the lowest in two years. Retail prices have been dropping too, from an average of 59.7p per litre in the year to March 2014, to 55.7p in the following 12 months: a drop of 6.7 percent.

And it only seems to be getting worse, according to Sian Davies, chief dairy advisor at the National Farmers Union. “I’ve been keeping an eye on the average price of four pints of milk across UK, and it fell to 98p in August,” she said. “The last time it was that low was in March 2003, so we’re going back 12 years.”

There are a number of factors influencing the current crisis, many of which are global in origin.

“Most of our customers are people who care about cows, who have woken up to the cruelty in the industry and are willing to pay a premium for their milk.”

Davies explains: “There’s the Russian trade ban; the fact that China – which was the world’s biggest purchaser of dairy products, especially milk powder – stopped buying milk powder in 2013; the fact that the price of oil has fallen so there’s less money in the Middle East, where the change to a more westernised diet meant they were spending more on dairy. And then there’s been very good weather across most of the milk producing countries in the world, so production has been high over the last two years and so in the end supply has far overtaken demand.

“On top of that in the UK we’ve got a very brutal retail price war; the big players in the retail centres are trying to bring back customers from the hard discounters like Lidl, Aldi and Iceland, by discounting household staples like milk.”

While there has been some progress on the supermarket front – Lidl, Aldi and Asda agreed in August to a minimum price of 28p per litre, 4.34p above the average at the time – the overall picture still remains rather gloomy.

Figures covering the last decade, published in Dairy Statistics: An insider’s guide 2015, show just how far the UK industry has fallen. According to the report, by AHDB Dairy, a levy-funded, not-for-profit organisation working on behalf of Britain’s dairy farmers, the number of dairy farms in 2004 stood at 21,616 – by 2014 there were only 13,815: a drop of 36 percent. And according to the National Farmers Union, during August of this year roughly one dairy farm closed per day throughout the month.

The response from many farmers has been to increase production levels in order to generate a profit. Herd sizes grew from an average of 97 to 133 between 2004 and 2014, according to the AHDB report, while the average milk yield per cow has risen by 17 percent, from 6,763 to 7,916 litres per year.

But not everyone is convinced this is the way to improve the situation. Neil Darwent, who is based in Frome, Somerset, has been farming for 30 years. At one point he was responsible for nearly 3,000 cows, milked in 13 herds and run over 4,500 acres – and it was then that he began to question the ‘bigger is better’ nature of the industry.

“There was this relentless pursuit of more and more output, and I began to worry that we are all running faster in order to stand still,” he says. “We were making our cows deliver more, using more and more advanced technology, but the bottom line for farmers only seemed be going down. I began to question what this shift towards industrial milk production would do to our perception of the dairy industry.”

This concern about the devaluing of British milk led Darwent to set up the Free Range Dairy Network in July 2014, a community interest company whose stated social mission is “to promote the value of milk and dairy products from traditional pasture based dairy herds”.

With 50 members across the UK, their aim is to promote a way of farming that delivers a fair price to farmers – by asking for a 5p per litre free range premium over and above base rate milk prices – as well as a healthy and affordable product to consumers, and a lifestyle for the cows that includes the freedom to graze outdoors for six months of the year.

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This is in direct contrast to the trend towards so-called ‘mega dairies’, where cows are kept indoors year round in industrial conditions labelled by critics as ‘battery farming’. While these are more common in countries such as the US, the UK is not immune to the idea; in 2009 an application was made to create a 3,770-cow mega dairy in Norton Heath, Lincolnshire, although it was eventually denied in 2011 thanks to an official objection from the Environment Agency.

“The British public have lost sight of the value of milk and that’s what we’re trying to address,” says Darwent, who was named BBC Outstanding Farmer of the Year in 2014. “The FRDN is about getting people to think beyond the colour on the top of the bottle and back to the farm gate, the way we produce the milk.”

Darwent hopes to educate the general public about the choices they have as consumers, and the differences between milk produced under various systems, using a combination of social media and other awareness raising campaigns, and working with animal welfare and other relevant organisations, such as the Sustainable Restaurants Association.

“People don’t understand the true cost of large scale milk production, whether that’s to the environment through increased pollution, the welfare of the cow or the quality of milk, and that’s what bothers me,” he says. “The true cost is not what’s on the bottle, and for sustainability we need to look beyond that.

“It suits the large companies to just call milk ‘milk’ and maintain a perception that all milk is the same, but it’s not. Everybody loves to use pictures of pretty cows in fields to promote their milk but the farmers who are actually doing that aren’t getting the rewards. This perception is not allowing people to make an informed choice about the milk they buy, and until they can we’re never going to have any value in the job.”

“The true cost of milk is not what’s on the bottle, and for sustainability we need to look beyond that.”

Another producer striving to raise consumer awareness is the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, a not-for-profit, cruelty free micro-dairy working in conjunction with Commonwork, an organic farm in Kent. As well as grazing their cows outdoors for much of the year, they have a strict no slaughter policy.

“A cow can live until she’s about 20 but in the modern industry she’s lucky to make it to her fifth birthday,” says Ahimsa co-director Nicola Pazdzierska. “Our cows retire after they’ve given their best and we don’t kill the bull calves.”

Pazdzierska believes that helping consumers understand the benefit of ethical farming methods – which she says can be overlooked in the larger, more industrial dairies – is a key to improving farm-gate and retail prices.

“Most of our customers are people who care about cows, who have woken up to the cruelty in the industry and are willing to pay a premium for their milk,” she says. “Why should milk be cheaper than water? It’s a miracle food, we can do so much with it and it has so many health benefits.

“It’s a consciousness raising thing, that’s how we see it,” she adds. “The better informed people become, the more they’ll vote with their feet.”

The FRDN and Ahimsa are just two examples of the ways in which modern farmers are taking a new approach to their branding, something the NFU’s Sian Davies believes is an important step towards recovery in the dairy industry.

“Farmers are looking at new products and how they brand them so consumers understand the story behind the product,” she says. “There are lots of initiatives – farmers doing their own processing of yoghurts, cheeses and so on – and there’s a lot of support for them to do that, which gives them ways of adding value to their own farm.”

Although the figures may still show a relatively bleak picture, Davies believes that there is hope for the UK dairy industry yet.

“We’re really efficient, we pick up technology really quickly, we have good farmers, we’re a grass-based industry in this country, we get a lot of rain so the grass grows throughout the year, so the cost is lower than in lots of places in Europe – all of those things are positive,” she says.

“We believe that the future of the dairy industry is positive, we just need to get through this current downturn and keep as many farmers as possible in the industry through this period.”

Photo credit: © Krishna-Mayi Ferreira

  • Buds

    Milk is for babies, cow milk is for baby calves. 9

  • Matthew Boyle

    I do agree with Bud. First, we need to ask: should humans even be drinking cow’s milk at all? You may want to, but let’s make it clear it is not necessary for your well-being at all. In fact, it is very possible it will harm you. And second, is there really a SUSTAINABLE future for animal agriculture? The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy definitely gave me a new perspective on what is truly sustainable. Do check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

    The documentary pokes holes in the “we need milk myth” and the “free-range solution myth,” which won’t work because there is simply not enough land anymore. Now, I seriously, seriously doubt that raising animals to feed the world’s burgeoning population really has a future at all. I believe we should focus on plant-based solutions.

  • Susan

    It is interesting you are want to consider the dairy industry through the lens of ‘positive news’. I wonder if this will be a challenge for your group moving forward about your ethics in relation to what you choose to focus on? Personally, I don’t view intentionally making cows pregnant, removing their baby, who is either killed or starved, so that humans can drink the milk intended for said baby that is linked to cancer and ill health as something to be promoted. This industry is not positive for the health of humans, cows or the environment.

    I think the need for positive news is imperative however, I was disappointed to see that I do not share your notion of positivity.

  • Mark

    Thank you for pointing this out! The subject line of the email I just received pointing me to this story reads “Rescuing the rainforest, the dairy industry and a nearly lost language”. As the film Cowspiracy and other sources point out, the raising of animals for food accounts for 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest–as well as 1/3 of all fresh water use in the world, 45% of all land use and 51% of all greenhouse gases. That means that at least one of these stories is very far from being Positive News.

    Matthew is right to ask whether there is really a “sustainable” future for dairy farming.

  • Mark

    A few more figures (if you’ll forgive me):

    –1 gallon of milk requires 1000 gallons of water to produce.

    –There are about 7 billion humans on the planet, but 70 billion farm animals. These animals eat 50% of all the grains and legumes in the world.

    –[US-derived figure about meat, but pertains to the free range myth that Matthew mentions): the average American eats 209lbs of meat per year If all beef was grass-fed and free-range, only 382 Americans could eat meat in this quantity.

    –You can produce 100 times more vegetables (by weight, per acre) than you can meat.

    The end of the meat and dairy industry would be nothing but Positive News for the many millions who do not have enough food, water, or land to live.

  • Mark

    How about re-purposing the dairy farms as organic market gardens and sustainable permaculture initiatives? How beautiful would that be?

  • Hella G.

    totally agree with Buds and Matthew!

    I can’t wait to see the end of dairy farming-the exploitation and cruelty within this ‘industry’ is horrendous.Cows are nothing more than mere milking machines and nowadays forced to produce 10% more milk per animal than a decade ago.They have to endure a constant cycle of pregnancies til they are ‘spent’,their calves are taken away soon after birth so that humans can drink the milk which nature had intended for their own offspring,and the surplus male calves are shot or taken to veal farms.
    The notion that it is ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ to drink the milk of another species is in itself bizarre-apart from the fact that humans are the only species who drink the milk of another species into adulthood, cows’ milk contains hormones,notably IGF1,a growth hormone,which stimulates the growth of malignant cells and is identified as a key factor in various cancers.Many people also suffer from lactose intolerance which can lead to severe digestive disturbances.
    The dairy industry is also responsible for the killing of our precious wildlife.Farmers blame badgers for the spread of bovine TB,even tho there is plenty of scientific evidence to prove that ‘dirty’ dairy farming practices are at fault.
    last but not least,I find it extraordinary that those farmers wail over their so-called ‘crisis’ which is largely self-inflicted (overproduction),but are rather quiet about the amount of huge public subsidies they receive!

  • charlotte moncrieff


  • charlotte moncrieff

    Hmm another article that does not fit into Positive news …………Dairy farming is as others have said aboveappalling and cruel, there is nothing positive about it. We are the only species to steal milk ffrom another species , it is about time it stopped, that would be Positive News

  • Phil Senior

    There is little one can add to the excellent and intelligent remarks posted above. Having worked in close proximity to an organic dairy farm I was “privileged” to see the details of animal husbandry at first hand and – in spite of the sophistry bandied around about “sustainability” – the farmer himself informed me that they were hard put to “sustain” the herd without considerable input of funds from the Lottery!! These funds were made available largely on the basis of a) the organic environment of the farm, b) the reduced use of veterinary medicines, c) the “ethical” approach involved in sending calves only to a local abattoir thus obviating long journeys to their execution and, finally, to the educational programmes and courses which were a part of the farm’s remit. By the time I left, the herd had been reduced by a third and a special well had been dug on site to reduce the input of water from the nearby reservoir. Good sentiments, perhaps, but completely failing to take on board the simple facts that dairy farming is NOT sustainable (self-sufficient) and neither is it necessary – particularly in view of the excellent alternatives to cows’ milk available and the potential on the farmland for growing arable crops for human consumption. As a parting shot, I recall the large blue barrels (empty) which had contained an anti-mastitis fluid accumulating in the farm yard. Not only is animal farming a dirty business, it is ethically untenable and gastronomically unnecessary.

  • Simon

    Organic farming is better than non-organic equivalent in a number of ways. However, I work in the organic sector and have never heard of an organic farmer receiving Lottery money. Perhaps this was related to the educational facet of the farm. If that was the case they would have to put a very convincing case to the Lottery grants people before it was even considered.

    All farmers get grants, mostly in the form of the Single Farm Payment from the EU (we could have a very long discussion about CAP, grants and their effect on land use in the UK!). Anyone farming organically (i.e. they are certified, not just claiming they are ‘as good as organic’) will have higher costs and significant restrictions on what they can buy/do such as fewer options when treating crops or livestock.

    However, I agree with the many comments that dairy farming – whether organic or not – cannot a sustainable, cruelty-free, ethical or environmentally benign practice.

  • Monique La Roche

    Dairy farms going out of business is indeed good news as milk is intended for the calves born and then torn away from their mothers and not for humans in whom it encourages disease as well other consequences (see Cowspiracy).

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