Food writer misses the point
Jay Rayner may be a great food writer. But his understanding of agriculture is limited. In his Observer article he presents dairy farmers as helpless victims at the mercy of global economic forces. But farmers are owners and occupiers of a scarce and valuable resource – land. This gives them choices that arenâ€™t available to most of us.
For decades now â€“ through good times and bad â€“ UK dairy farmers have chosen a style of production that makes them uniquely vulnerable to volatile world markets. Theyâ€™ve bred a high-maintenance cow â€“ the high-yielding Holstein â€“ that canâ€™t thrive on the mainly-forage diets evolution adapted ruminants for. To support their chosen animal producers must now spend a sizeable part of their incomes on nitrate fertilizers, imported grain and protein crops, vet bills and replacement animals. The over-worked Holstein doesnâ€™t live long.
If there are victims in the whole sorry saga itâ€™s us, the consumers. Supermarket milk may seem cheap. But much of it is robbed of the health-protecting nutrients found in the milk of cows grazing pasture. At the same time our rivers and streams are polluted with nitrate fertilizers, our soils are degraded, and the biodiversity of our countryside is diminished. The winners in the system are the global corporates trading in feed grains, selling chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and peddling cow genetics.
Through all this the dairy industry maintains the fiction that milk produced this way is as good as milk from cows on pasture. The science of the last ten years shows this to be untrue. But still consumers are denied the facts to help them make a real choice. The industry refuses to separate and brand healthy, grass-fed milk. Now when plunging global cream prices expose the flaws in the dairy business model, Jay Rayner would have us believe that weâ€™re to blame.
He might be interested to learn that thereâ€™s nothing new in UK farmers being exposed to global markets. Cheap food imports have been flooding into this country since the late 19th century. In the 1920s cheap dairy products poured in from Europe and beyond. Then, as now, dairy companies were paying rock-bottom prices â€“ if they bothered to collect the milk at all. Yet this was a period of huge expansion in British dairy farming.
Farmers responded to the crisis by cutting their dependence on bought-in feeds, relying instead on home-grown grass and forage. Many then cut out the dairies completely by setting up local retail rounds, supplying milk direct to the doorsteps of Britain. Even in pre-war austerity times there was a strong interest in healthy fresh foods like pasture-fed milk.
These same options are open to dairy farmers today. An increasing number are already switching to the more resilient model of grass-based production. Some like Tom Foot and Neil Grigg in Dorset are setting up brand new herds which will stay on grass all-year round. For a country like Britain â€“ uniquely placed to grow grass, the cheapest and best feed for cows â€“ it makes no sense to produce on the US model, with herds kept in sheds and fed on maize and soya.
No doubt the protesting farmers will see their pared back prices restored. But it would be good to see food writers like Jay Rayner taking an interest in the quality of milk in supermarkets and coffee chains rather than defending a destructive and uneconomic system of farming.