Milk prices continue to tumble as First Milk announces latest cut

The Grocer – Friday 2nd January

The UK’s milk industry remains in a terrible state as milk prices are cut yet again. Processor First Milk has further lowered the price it pays to suppliers, following price cuts made by Dairy Crest and Arla. The tumble in prices is driven by the weakening of milk values on the global commodities market and a fierce price war between UK supermarkets. Asda is now offering four pints of milk at 89p in its ‘biggest ever Rollback’.

We have to ask, how is this sustainable? The industry is operating on a model that has ceased to be economically viable, subject to the manipulations of middle men and beholden to the global commodities market. In Britain, dairy farmers are going out of business in record numbers – there are currently less than 10,000 producers operating in the country. Further, the industry is changing as far more small-to mid-scale dairy farmers are leaving the business.  This will serve to industrialise milk production further as ‘mega-dairies’ gradually become the norm. It will be harder for organic and other sustainable milk producers to survive in this climate and consumer choice will be reduced. If the mega-dairy proliferates in Britain and the rest of Europe, animal welfare will decline and the growing tide of prophylactic antibiotics in our milk will be hard to stem.

One sustainable solution is to embrace the ethos of small is beautiful and opt out of the global commodities market through small-scale milk production sold direct to the consumer (see our piece on micro-dairies). However, this is unlikely to be available to most milk drinkers in the near future, so we need to develop a more equitable economic model for the dairy industry in general. Perhaps a little market regulation is in order?

Chief Executive Patrick Holden, commented:

“As Robert Craig, who just won the Dairy Farmer of the Year remarked, these continuing price cuts graphically demonstrate that we cannot expect the globalised food market to protect the interests of farmers or consumers.

This is a race to the bottom, where the survivors will be the largest, most industrial and exploitative, with the victims the custodians of our rural and cultural heritage, the small family farms. It is a kind of cultural cleansing by price, but without the profile and outrage, since these tired, devoted family farmers are squeezed until they quietly give up. We urgently need the introduction of a fair trade milk label to give consumers a chance to support them in the market place.”

Antibiotics: US discovery labelled ‘game-changer’ for medicine

BBC News – Wednesday 7th January

News that researchers in the US have developed a new antibiotic called teixobactin has been widely welcomed. The antibiotic is effective against both MRSA and tuberculosis and is likely to be effective against other broadly similar infections as well.

The news is also welcome because the scientists developed a technique which allowed them to grow types of soil bacteria which have previously not multiplied under laboratory conditions. This suggests that other antibiotic compounds may now be found as well using the same methods.

However, the scientists had to screen 10,000 different types of soil bacteria to find this one with potential as a new antibiotic. That gives some idea of the scale of the challenge and what will be involved in finding a second new antibiotic.

SFT policy director Richard Young is cautioning everyone not to assume the antibiotic resistance crisis will be over any time soon or that we can continue to overuse antibiotics in either human medicine or food production in the way that we have been.

He said, “It’s going to be at least 5 years before this drug becomes available and longer still before there are other new antibiotics to address some of the most serious resistance problems. Teixobactin is not effective against Gram-negative bacteria – half the bacterial kingdom which includes infections caused by E. coli, klebsiella and gonorrhea, where resistance is already becoming a critical problem.”

Developing new antibiotics to treat Gram-negative infections is much more difficult because of the way in which the bacteria are structured. So the advice has to remain, use antibiotics with extreme caution and only when they are really needed.

Jamie Oliver leads drive to buy misshapen fruits and vegetables

The Guardian – Thursday 1st January

Waste is unquestionably one of the biggest issues in our food system and it stretches across all areas of production. A startling amount is wasted before we even get the chance to eat it. This pre-market stage includes failed and damaged crops, but also food that never reaches the point of sale for other reasons: it never makes it off the field because price fluctuations have deemed it too expensive to harvest; or it rots and goes off because of delays in the supply chain; or, most notoriously, it’s not pretty or perfectly shaped.

The idea that good food is wasted because it doesn’t look right rankles many of us, and UK chef Jamie Oliver has taken up the cause on Channel 4 series Friday Night Feast with Jimmy Doherty. They have persuaded Asda to take on the issue by marketing a new range of “wonky” vegetables at reduced prices, branded as “Beautiful on the inside”. Giving the issue a new level of public profile is a great thing and it will certainly support organisations such as the Gleaning Network, which helps get food to market when it’s been designated as waste. This year they saved 54 tonnes of fresh food.

Study predicts no farmers under 35 by 2033

Farming UK – Monday 5th January

A new study on demographic trends in farming in the United States does not point to a hopeful future. The continuing decline of young people going into farming (despite a resurgence of interest in agriculture and food issues among university students) is not stopping. This study predicts that by 2033, less than 20 years away, there will be no one farming under the age of 35 in the United States.

While Britain may be bucking this trend, there is much more to do to support a resurgence of interest in farming from young people. Access to land continues to be a critical issue for those wanting to go into the profession. The family farm is becoming rarer, with many sold off because sons and daughters have decided to pursue other careers – often the land is sold and the farmhouse turned into a ‘lifestyle’ smallholding with a few remaining acres. We need more agricultural covenants on land that ensure it is sold to other farmers who will continue to work it; this could also make land more affordable as it would keep the market small and sincere. Further, there needs to be more land put in trust that is made available to young farmers wanting to start up. And where possible, older farmers need to invest in the future of the profession by giving a leg up to new farmers – see our profiles on Fatstock Farm and Ragman’s Farm for examples of what can be done.

We need more new farmers because the question of who will feed us in the future is very real.

New diet guidelines might reflect environment cost

Huffington Post – Friday 2nd January

The United States is debating what will go into new healthy eating guidelines that are regularly issued by the government. The advisory panel is calling for environmental impact to figure in the recommendations, particularly as it relates to climate change. If it informs the guidelines, it is likely the government will recommend less red and processed meat and more plant-based foods.

This is in keeping with a wider international call by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for a reduction in global meat consumption. A number of recent studies have highlighted the impact of agricultural emissions on climate change, to which livestock contribute. However, there are nuances in the ‘eat less meat’ message that are often overlooked. It is critical that we pay attention to how the meat is produced, and don’t just assume that chicken – the vast majority of which is intensively farmed – is necessarily better than beef. There is evidence that the balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids is significantly reversed in factory farmed birds, which indicates that all intensively produced white meat – including pork as well as fowl – might have higher negative health impacts than a nice, well-marbled, grass-fed steak.

But leaving this particular debate aside, considering environmental impact as a significant component of any healthy eating plan is a critical step towards a more sustainable future. What constitutes a healthy choice in food should go beyond its simple nutritional value and sit within a wider framework that considers the production processes and their impacts – in terms of both health and the environment. The two are inextricably linked and we cannot expect to foster health in a degraded environmental system.

Britain’s food industry is an unhealthy, unsustainable mess

Vice – Friday 19th December

The New Economics Foundation tells it like it is. A report by Stephen Devlin is uncompromising in its assessment: he wants to debunk the myth of “empowered consumers shaping the markets for the better”. When it comes to food, he points out, choice is something of an illusion. There are many goods on the market but most are produced by one of about ten massive multinational corporations involved in processed food production. Stepping outside of this requires initiative most of us don’t have time for.

The report goes on to note that this bountiful choice isn’t actually doing anything to address hunger, which is reaching an arguable crisis point in Britain. The number of emergency food parcels given away by food banks has climbed in the past three years from 128,000 to nearly a million, the report states, which is a pretty remarkable increase and certainly testifies to growing poverty in the nation.

But Devlin does not stop there. His report outlines the endemic dangers in our “sophisticated” food industry: it is “unsustainable” in terms of environmental impact and “unequal” in terms of its social justice; it is energy intensive and dependent on fossil fuels; the industry’s workers are among the poorest paid; and the food system is volatile and often fails its producers. Devlin’s litany of woes runs dangerously close to hyperbole, except that statistics are in his favour. The report heralds a new set of indicators that will define the success of the food industry in terms we have largely forgotten. Does it have a positive environmental impact? Is it “dominated by short and simple supply chains”? Does it offer good jobs? Is food affordable for everyone? What a refreshing perspective on what makes a food system work!

Egg prices to rise as farmers required to house hens in cages with more space

Huffington Post – Thursday 1st January

California has just passed a new law on cage sizes, increasing the amount of room that caged chickens have to move around in. Widely supported by the Humane Society and other animal rights organisations, the law is causing a lot of grumbling among farmers. Both Californian egg farmers and farmers from outside the state selling eggs within California must comply. As a result, it is having an impact throughout the country. It is costing farmers to comply and consumers face the inevitable threat of rising egg prices, though some think this will level out once the shift has been made. In the meantime, there is a concern that increased prices for eggs will largely hit low-income groups.

Calls for better animal welfare have been increasing in the United States and the big corporations are realising that consumers now care more about it. Starbucks and Burger King have both recently shifted to using eggs from cage-free hens, but the industry in general is kicking back by providing inane statements about its impact. The National Association of Egg Farmers is claiming that chickens will be more likely to break a leg or a wing in larger cages because they will be able to run around. Except not quite: the cages only offer enough room for chickens to stretch and flap their wings. There is still a long way to go in animal welfare standards when it comes to poultry.

Featured image by Steph French

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