Milk Price Wars
In June 2017, the UK average farm-gate milk price was 26.75p per litre compared to an average of 32p per litre for the cost of production for a high-standard conventional dairy farm.
In response to these unfair prices, a number of protests and actions against supermarkets and dairy processors have occurred over the years, with milk buyers being accused of forcing further price cuts on farmers when liquid milk prices were already below the cost of production.
For example, in August 2015, dairy farmers called for a boycott of Morrison’s, Aldi, Lidl and Asda as milk processors cut prices further. Protests and direct actions involving ‘trolley dashes’ and live cows were held outside supermarket distribution centres and in stores – attracting media attention.
“Many shoppers see milk price cuts as disadvantaging farmers and are consequently prepared to boycott milk from a supermarket seen to be undertaking these,” reads a 2016 Mintel market report on the dairy industry.
This raised public concern over farmers’ pay and appears to have encouraged an industry response, with some companies treatment of farmers.
Morrisons and Arla have launched farmers’ milk ranges over the last couple of years, with products detailing how many pence-per-bottle goes to the farmer. The Free Range Dairy Network launched a ‘Free Range Dairy Farmers Milk’ range at Asda in March 2017 and The Free Range Marketing Board launched the ‘Enjoy Milk’ brand in January 2017. ‘Enjoy Milk’ costs 25% more than the average supermarket own-brand milk, with the extra money going to farmers.
Of the supermarkets, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, Co-op and Sainsbury’s are reported to have dedicated suppliers who are paid the cost of production – 32.41p per litre.
The rise of the mega-dairy
Mega-dairies present themselves as one controversial technique for surviving low milk prices. In 2015, there were approximately 20 American-style factory dairies in the UK which kept herds of 700+ cows inside all year round, and 50 smaller ‘confinement units’ where animals were fed from troughs rather than in open fields. More recent data could not be found.
Mega-dairies have long been criticised by campaign groups for leading us further down the path of dairy intensification and, in doing so, pushing even more traditional and small-scale farms out of business. Their animal welfare standards are criticised and they present an environmental pollution risk through handling concentrated slurry. In June 2017, for example, an 1800-cow operation in Wales was fined £45,000 for the contamination of the local waterway.
Compassion in World Farming continues to run a campaign against mega-dairies following its success in halting plans for a 3,700-cow zero-grazing farm in Lincolnshire by Nocton Dairies in February 2011.
Environmental Impact of Milk
Globally, dairy production accounted for 2.8 percent of all man-made climate-warming gases in 2005 (the last reliable set of stats) and this figure is likely to rise as demand from China and India is on the increase.
The main greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted from dairy farming are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is produced in the rumen (one of a cow’s four stomachs) and is released mainly through burping. Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is emitted when urine, faeces and fertilisers are broken down by microbes in the soil. Methane is 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide is almost 300 times as potent.
Additional GHG emissions come from feed production, milk processing and transportation.
A long-term trend of increasing pollution incidents from farming has been identified by the Environmental Agency, with slurry from dairy farms being a common offender.
A Bureau of Investigative Journalism report claims that 424 ‘serious pollution incidents’ were recorded from pig, poultry and dairy farms between 2010 and 2016, having a potentially major impact on the environment.
Its “Dirty Business: the livestock farms polluting the UK” report describes some farmers acting as ‘repeat offenders’ and treating the pollution fines they receive as part of routine running costs. What’s more, some of the farms linked to serious pollution incidents or poor environmental management received millions of pounds in government subsidies in 2015 and 2016.
Incidents were reported to be commonly caused from the “storage, handling and spreading of waste”, due to “lack of investment in infrastructure” or “inadequate planning and management of these substances”.
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and The Co-op were supplied by companies operating farms linked to serious incidents and two other incidents were linked to an intensive farm – Pawton Dairy – that supplies Arla Foods, who in turn supplies The Co-op. All companies mentioned in the report lose half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s Pollution and Toxics category, as do other companies linked to pollution incidences.
Dairy farming has inherent animal welfare issues that boil down to the simple fact that, if you want a continuous supply of milk, you need to keep female cows in a perpetual cycle of pregnancy and birth to encourage lactation.
This results in cows being impregnated every year and newborn calves being removed shortly after birth. Male calves don’t have a role in this dairy system and so are often sent for slaughter for veal, or raised for beef, or shot. Female calves are raised for milk production.
To enable a constant supply of milk, female cows are artificially inseminated two to three months after giving birth and therefore produce milk whilst raising a calf inside. This inevitably takes its toll, and many cows are slaughtered in the UK, physically exhausted, shortly after their fifth birthday. If a cow produces less milk, becomes infertile or becomes ill or injured they may also be slaughtered for cheap beef.
To ensure high yields, cows have been selectively bred for dairy farming and can now produce six to ten times (20-45 litres) what they naturally would for a calf. This can have health implications which include difficulties in moving, and calcium deficiencies which may lead to ‘milk fever’. When coupled with reduced pasture time or zero grazing (no time outdoors), it’s not surprising that dairy cows commonly suffer from Mastitis (an infection of the udder) and lameness (a foot infection).
Because of these inherent issues all companies offering dairy products are marked down under Ethical Consumer’s Animal Rights category – as highlighted in the score table above.
Where we differentiate between best animal welfare practice is under the Factory Farming, Product Sustainability, and Company Ethos categories.
If a company offers only Organic or Free-Range milk it will not be marked down under the Factory Farming category and will gain a positive Company Ethos mark. This includes Calon Wen, Daylesford and Yeo Valley.
If a company offers an organic product (look for the [O] on the score table), it will gain a positive Product Sustainability mark.
Welfare assurance schemes
Concern around animal welfare issues has led to a number of welfare assurance schemes emerging in the UK.
Organic standards for milk can vary between different certification bodies but common requirements include:
- Cows should be grazed outside for most of the year (however no guaranteed minimum number of days is specified).
- Cows should be allowed a minimum space of six metres squared per animal.
- The minimum weaning age for calves is 12 weeks.
- The routine use of antibiotics is prohibited.
- Artificial pesticides cannot be used on the land.
- No use of GM feed.