FRIDAY 18 JULY 2012 THE PRICE OF MILK
The Price of Milk
In a letter to The Times on 19 July, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver called attention to the fact that some supermarkets are paying the dairy farmers less than the cost to them of producing the milk the supermarket sells.
As everybody know the best way to embarrass a politician is to ask him if he knows the price of milk. It turns out that the answer is more complicated than we thought – and in some cases, scandalous. In a letter to The Times on 19 July, Hugh F-W and Jamie Oliver call attention to the fact that some supermarkets are paying the dairy farmers less than the cost to them of producing the milk the supermarket sells. In these retailers milk often costs less than bottled water!
What is wrong with this? you might ask. Doesn’t it simply represent a bargain for us, the consumers? The answer, sadly, is that it’s no bargain at all – in fact it threatens more than just the quality of our milk – as Jamie and Hugh say, it is making dairy farming in this country unviable. I’ve long thought that our support for and concern about Fair Trade food and wine imports from Africa and other non-developed countries ought to be shown at home as well. It is absolutely noble and good to buy Fair Trade coffee from overseas, but why shouldn’t our British farmers get a fair price for the milk that goes into the coffee?
Of course it is crazy that water, which “droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven” and bubbles up from the earth, all for free, should cost more than milk, whose production means man husbanding his livestock, with care and we hope, kindness.
Certainly, dairy farming can be industrialised (though at a cost to the goodness of the product we’ve long known) – but dairy farmers can’t go on strike. Their cows have to be milked once or twice a day no matter whether the milk is sold fresh and unpasteurized or turned into the nastiest of processed cheeses.
There’s no way out. If independent dairy farmers lose their family businesses there’s a loss to us all: our countryside. As Hugh and Jamie wisely point out. “All over Britain the patchwork of hedgerows and grass fields owes its existence to the traditional production of milk.”
They suggest – not exactly a boycott – but moving our custom to those who offer a fair deal to dairy farmers. A Times news story the same day quotes Luke Ryder, “a dairy adviser for the National Farmers Union, [who] said the Co-op, Asda and Morrisons were the worst culprits” and “called on the worst offenders to follow the example set by Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury, which set their prices according to the cost of production.”
On the other hand, an unnamed spokesman for the British Retail Consortium told The Times: “Supermarkets are the wrong guys to target here. The fact is that the supermarkets are actually the best payers for milk….What I don’t see protesting farmers of TV chefs doing is questioning the amount that the big buyers of milk, who include manufacturers and the public sector, are paying.”
Well, I’m happy to remedy that. This chef would like to be on record as calling for food processors (many of whose products we shouldn’t miss if they disappeared from the market anyway) to pay a fair price for their raw material – milk. And surely public sector buyers, local authorities, schools, hospitals and government departments ought all to be ordered to pay something just over the cost of production of all the milk they buy.
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