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Dairy, dairy, quite contrary. Dairy divides opinion.

Some believe dairy – and indeed any animal-derived product – has no place in our future. Others argue it can play a role, as long as the people, animals and land involved are treated well.

I respect both perspectives. But like most contentious issues, it’s too simplistic to argue all dairy is either good or bad. Thinking about the future of dairy, I prefer the viewpoint of a glass half-full – of milk – rather than half-empty.

Dairy farms shouldn’t be factories that focus on churning out milk as efficiently as possible from machines with four legs that happen to be cows. Dairy cows are sentient beings and deserve our respect, and we must treat farmers and all those working in dairy fairly.

I’m a hopeful pragmatist and I realise we’re not going to shift to a sector full of micro-dairies overnight, albeit more localised dairy has lots of appeal. The journey to more ethical dairy is not simple, but it is possible and necessary. The good news is we can all participate.

If you’re working for companies that produce or sell dairy, then you can be part of the shift to higher animal welfare, fairer treatment of people and better environmental impact. Central to this is empowering farmers wanting to transition to fairer dairy, but many of whom are living on the edge and who will leave farming unless we make big changes.

Many dairy farmers feel trapped – for example, they may have big bank loans, feel locked into using particular expensive bits of machinery, or they’re constrained by particular farming systems reliant on chemical inputs and with unsociable working hours. This can negatively impact their own wellbeing and their ability to change the way they farm.

Dairy processors, retailers, food manufacturers and foodservice companies can all take steps to transform dairy, via a series of key actions set out in the Food Ethics Council’s latest dairy report. We want retailers and foodservice providers to pass premiums on the shelf down to farmers more fairly. We call for an end to the sale of milk as a loss-leading product, so it becomes more valued. And looking beyond liquid milk, we call for an end to the lower hidden standards in processed dairy products – a key action for foodservice.

A further action we ask of processors is to create a regional relief milking labour pool to take the pressure off farmers and farm workers – particularly those milking two or three times per day and who haven’t been able to get off the farm for months at a time. It’s surely a reasonable ask to provide support, via relief milkers, and to give more opportunities for dairy farmers to learn from others how more ethical dairy can be done in practice.

Underpinning these changes, we need secure, fair and flexible milk contracts. The long overdue Dairy Code of Conduct should be out soon. Beyond dairy, the ‘Get Fair About Farming’ petition initiated by Riverford Organic will see fair dealings for farmers debated in parliament.

Together this set of actions will help eliminate the worst of dairy, and enable better dairy, in the UK. I firmly believe if we shift our mindsets to focus more on the collective good, rather than the individual, then our food systems will be fairer for all.

At a time when many new year’s resolutions will be to get on the treadmill in the gym, my new year ask is for you to act to help dairy farmers get off the dairy treadmill. In doing so, they will have more headspace and resources to do dairy in ways that are fairer for people, animals and the planet. If the dairy sector is going to continue, amidst growing pressure to produce and consume less, let’s shift UK dairy to ‘only the best’.