Helen Martin: Plenty people would pay for ethical milk

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ONE of the most successful food marketing exercises of modern times was for free-range eggs. In almost every respect, they are no better and no tastier than eggs from caged or battery hens (even if older people – like me – swear eggs from granny’s hens were out of this world). And they are more expensive.

A couple of decades ago, a supermarket might have had a small stock of free-range eggs from one supplier for a tiny number of green or ethical shoppers, old hippies who knitted their own muesli in the mornings. Now there are shelves and shelves of the things as more and more of us are increasingly concerned about animal welfare and prepared to pay extra.

And even though standards of husbandry have been raised to the point that most hens are now free to wander in huge cages or barns, we still pay more in the totally erroneous belief that “free-range” hens are pecking about in an idyllic sun-drenched farmyard rather than living in a barn and having the option to go outside in the rain if and when they want to. . . which they often don’t.

Animal welfare is a selling point, quite apart from being a moral necessity. So why – especially now with dairy farmers squeezed beyond sustainability – doesn’t it work for milk? Why aren’t supermarkets and processors using the same successful 
formula to create a market for humanely-produced milk that costs more? Why does the whole milk business seem so confusing, between retailers blaming processors and vice versa and beleaguered farmers left at the bottom of the chain?

Maybe it’s because if they told you what really went into producing cheap pintas (or litres), they are afraid they might put you off the white stuff altogether. It makes Chicken Run look like poultry’s version of The Ritz.

A cow is not just a cow. In order to have plentiful and cheap milk, dairy farmers have to use dairy cattle rather than beef cattle, bred specifically for their high milk yield. And in order for that cow to produce milk, she must have a calf every 400 days. The worst is yet to come. A female calf born to a dairy cow will grow up to be a dairy cow. A male calf can’t produce milk, but coming from a dairy cow, neither is he particularly good for beef. So he is shot at birth, and the milk produced for him to suckle goes on your cornflakes. Nice eh?

Before we all get outraged, the important thing about this whole mess is that the farmers don’t want and never asked for this ugly scenario. We did.

I interviewed an East Lothian dairy farmer last year who told me that while the public rightly think farmers are there to produce food, their day-to-day work and reason for getting up in the morning is looking after and caring for their animals. It breaks their heart to shoot a healthy calf that their poor cow has carried for a year and risked her life to deliver (calving is not an easy process).

Cows may not be perceived as particularly bright, but given the chance they are very maternal. They’ll attack to protect a new calf. And having been partly brought up on a farm, I can still hear the plaintive, agonised roar of a cow whose calf has been taken away.

The dairy farmer I spoke to keeps bull calves for months then sells them at a loss to be fattened and sold cheaply, simply because he cannot bear to shoot them. Others whose backs are pressed even closer against the wall can’t afford to do that and resort to the gun.

But the public wants cheap milk and lots of it. It would be perfectly possible to get milk from beef cows and avoid this unnecessary slaughter . . . but supply would be lower and prices would go up.

It is ridiculous that we expect to pay farmers less for a litre of milk than it costs to produce it. The offer of some supermarkets to pay farmers a “break even” price is almost as insulting. Farmers deserve a reasonable profit, protected from middle men. We deserve supermarkets with the courage to offer at least the option of ethical milk from mixed herds.

Unless we all go vegetarian, we will continue to eat and farm animals. But there has to be some limits on animal cruelty rather than an acceptance that anything goes to meet commercial greed or public demand.

Offering ethical milk to those who can afford it, at £2.50 or £3 for two litres, with the lion’s share to the farmer, would be a good start. I’d buy it, even if it meant buying less, just as I now only buy British pork, free-range eggs and Fair Trade coffee. I want to support farmers’ incomes. Most of all I want to save them from this hellish, soul-destroying, heart-breaking, destructive, dirty work that wasn’t part of the country life they signed up for.