This time last year, thousands of litres of milk were being dumped down drains, as Covid-19 led to the foodservice sector shutting down and closed off vital routes to market for dairy processors. This heaped further pressure on a sector where UK dairy farmer numbers had fallen by two-thirds between 1995 and 2019, even before Brexit and the pandemic.
Milk has long been treated as a commodity and been undervalued. A litre of milk in store is typically cheaper than a litre of sugary soft drink, but at what cost? It is hard to claim the work of dairy farmers, and the lives of farmed animals, are truly valued when farmgate milk prices can be as low as 26p per litre.
A fairer price for farmers is not the only ethical issue facing the dairy sector. Concerns include dairy cow welfare, routine use of antibiotics, climate change impacts, on-farm biodiversity loss plus recruitment, income and work-life balance of farm workers. There are also important debates about dairy’s future role and how environmental impacts compare with dairy alternatives.
This is not an endless list of insurmountable problems. If we push for a joined-up, ‘in the round’ approach, then positive change can happen. For example, the dairy sector came together to seek to end the routine euthanasia of bull calves in the UK. The NFU, AHDB and Red Tractor worked with retailers and others to develop a market for bull calves. Science played a part too, with a rise in use of sexed semen, which reduces the number of male calves born.
Some dairy processors and retailers are showing leadership on specific issues. For example, Marks & Spencer has eliminated the use of soya as feed for farmed animals in its milk supply chain, to curb deforestation in the Amazon.
Many farmers are also working to build a better dairy sector – unsung heroes, experimenting with different farming systems and with direct selling. We often forget what farmers give back to the local community too, for example those voluntarily spending hundreds of hours hosting trips for local school children to learn about how milk is produced.
Farmers want to be able to pass on their farm business in better shape than they inherited or started it. In my experience, farmers want to do what’s best for their land, soil, nature, workers and animals. However, the market doesn’t fairly reward them, often hindering rather than encouraging progress. It’s time to change that.
The Food Ethics Council is co-ordinating a dairy project, bringing dairy farmers together to learn from each other. We want to help them share stories, engage openly on tricky issues and overcome challenges. Dairy can work better for people, planet and animals – if we listen to farmers and ensure business and policy environments reward dairy farming done well.
Farmed animals and farmers must be treated with respect, not as machines churning out units of product. Milk is precious. Let’s put forward-thinking dairy farmers at the centre of driving fairer, more ethical dairy systems.