Monday, 13 February 2012
THE PRICE OF A PINT (PART 1)
Having successfully avoided the need for any panic (or precautionary) buying during the brief flurry of snow last week I had no need to rush out and try and buy sixteen pints of UHT milk and half a dozen loaves of bread and had no need to fight someone in the supermarket for the last broken bag of sprouts. That aside, but with milk on my mind I wondered why successive UK Governments have failed to take any meaningful action to help our dairy farmers (or any of our farmers for that matter).
I suspect that this is down to a combination of nice financial inducements from large Supermarkets and a more marked indifference to the agricultural sector. As consumers we also need to take a share of the blame because we allowed all of these things to happen. If we want quality milk and dairy products (actually produced from UK milk or even made in Wales) then we will have to change the way we buy, then our farmers will get a better deal and we will get a quality product.
One consequence of how we buy and how our milk is produced for us and sold to us is that the number of dairy farmers in Wales dropped by a third in five years (up to December 2009) and this despite repeated warnings that more needed to be done to save the industry. Our farmers have consistently not received a fair price for the milk they produce, which when compared to the price charged by retailers to consumers, which will sadly not come as much of a surprise to most people.
Before our farmers, dairy or otherwise, are driven out of business entirely then need action not words. If our governments at all levels do nothing then the future for agriculture may be grim, semi industrial and serviced by cheap migrant workers. Industrial milk production has been much trumpeted as the saviour of the dairy industry (and a number of important planning applications are in the pipeline) but it is not without its problems.
There are waste issues, slurry production being one of them, which can be enormously toxic and environmentally damaging. There are also likely to be animal welfare issues when it comes to industrial farming. Modern cows to produce large amounts of cheap milk, a modern Frisian may produce as much 4 times as much milk as equivalent cows did 50 years but it only has three (milking years) in which to do this.
Historically the old answer to low milk prices or a surplus was to turn excess milk into other dairy products, like butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt's. The problem we in Wales face is that many local Welsh dairies serving our urban centres are no longer in business – some around Cardiff were bought up and sold off for housing and diary operations in some areas relocated outside of Wales. What this all means is that we in Wales miss out, as Dairy products are potentially big business as some of our more successful organic producers can prove.
The development of railway communications during the industrial revolution provided s means for rapid delivery of farmers milk to towns and cities and lead to a growth of diary production. The first of the supermarkets (Sainsbury’s in Covent Garden, London, in 1869) sold “railway milk” from churns.
The milkman delivered direct to our doorsteps, his near demise came later as a direct result of super market price-cutting which has now, more or less, effectively killed him off. The decimation of rural railways following a Conservative Government (questionably motivated) decision to favour road transport weakened the very infrastructure that had driven an expansion of the dairy industry.
A 29 (gate price) pence litre of milk may end up being sold for 15 times as much, people pay good money for ‘health yogurt’ – which with the addition of bacteria, flavouring and a marketing campaign produce healthy profits for the companies that produce them. We have some excellent and very successful companies and producers doing just that, but, this potentially profitable sector of the agricultural economy in Wales is undeveloped.
As for buying local - around 40 per cent of our yogurt is made in France and Belgium, in 2009 more than 40 per cent of all Cheddar sold in the UK was actually produced outside of the UK. Yogurt and cheese aside; its a pretty similar story when it comes to butter. Only one of the most popular supermarket brands [Country Life] is actually made from UK milk. The bulk of our butter comes from Denmark and Ireland, and this is despite the fact that farm gate prices for milk remain consistently higher in Europe than here in the UK.
We (in the UK) when compared with eleven years ago now import almost half of our butter from abroad, cheese imports are also up, some 60 percent over the last eleven years. We are importing products that have added-value and are busy exporting the low-value milk products which are then ironically turned into butter, yogurt, etc and sold right back to us.
This is total madness; this is what happens in the developing or third world, not in the first world. In the developing world many countries have little choice but to export their raw commodities cheaply and then have little or no choice other than to buy back manufactured products made from their own raw materials.