The milk industry has moved on from milk maids and fully thrown itself into the 21st century with equipment that makes some sci-fi movies look outdated but many are questioning whether economic or environmental sustainability is possible on modern dairy farms.
Several years ago the milk trade body DairyCo released a report detailing the average price of milk and the amounts made by both farmers and supermarkets. In the year 2007/2008 the average price of a four pint pack of milk from a supermarket was £1.45; supermarkets passed £1.07 onto processors, who then passed 58p onto farmers. Just under half the total price going to farmers doesn't seem bad considering all the work that goes into the processing, marketing and delivery to shops; that is until you realise it costs the farmer 61p on average to produce those four pints of milk in the first place. So, on average, in 2007/2008 farmers lost 3p for every four pints of milk they produced, surely this isn't sustainable? Not all farms are making a loss but many dairy farms have been going out of business in the UK as milk from abroad is produced at a lower cost allowing it to be imported at a lower price to the supermarkets. Since 2007/2008 we've had the credit crunch and supermarkets have been pushing prices down and I wonder who is taking the hit as milk prices drop even lower. This reminds me of a quote from the brilliant television series the West Wing where, during an argument about farmers being victimised because food prices are dropping, a character points out that "when life expectancy goes up, that's not victimising undertakers." It's true that farmers sometimes seem to get special exceptions but it's not really a like-for-like comparison. If the population went down there'd be less demand for farmers products, but what we're talking about is the price of food dropping below what it actually costs to make it, and I'm pretty sure undertakers would stop digging graves if they were actually losing money each time they did it.
So what can be done? Unless the markets start to pay higher prices for milk either change jobs or make your dairy more cost efficient. Unfortunately making a process cost efficient can often mean bad news for the environment. Fertilisers, methane and ammonia emissions and intensive land use all have an impact on the environment. Recent studies have shown that variations in practices leads to a large difference in carbon footprint. Perhaps by looking at best practices farmers can become more environmentally friendly and more economically sustainable.