Plummeting milk price prompts ‘stealth’ rise of 2000-cow ‘mega-dairies’ in UK

The Independent – Monday 23rd November

The arrival of American-style ‘mega-dairies’ is a depressing, though not unexpected, turn in the demise of the milk industry in Britain. The Independent has been investigating the expansion of these industrialised milk production units which, thanks to tacit government support, have been on the increase in the UK. With up to 2,000 cows kept indoors for all or most of the year, mega-dairies are associated with pollution problems as well as raising significant animal welfare issues. They also threaten small- and mid-scale milk production, which has characterised much of British farming, forcing these businesses to get big or go bust.

Yet mega-dairies are not popular with the public. When the idea for these huge units was introduced some five years ago with a planning application for a unit in Lincolnshire of nearly 4,000 cows, there was widespread public outcry. In the US, CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) have generated a host of problems including the pollution of ground water and waterways as well as the spread of anti-microbial resistance.

But there is also a critical problem that is often overlooked – that of taking cattle off the land, where they do vital work replenishing soils. Far and wide over the US, the fertility that they bring to soils has been replaced by synthetic fertiliser, which has a serious environmental impact. Keeping cows indoors may be good for the dairy business in terms of profit, but it’s not good for the environment or public health.

Climate change: is nature’s bank going to bust?

Sky News – Monday 23rd November

HRH Prince of Wales is a staunch environmentalist who speaks frankly in a recent interview with Sky News, ahead of giving a keynote speech at the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) talks in Paris. Commenting that, “We’re facing the real possibility of nature’s bank going bust…” Prince Charles takes an uncompromising stance on climate change – this is something that he clearly feels strongly about and is not afraid to speak his mind on.

SFT’s Chief Executive, Patrick Holden, notes that “The Prince makes the point that food insecurity, resulting from climate change and droughts, was a significant factor in precipitating the conflict in Syria.” The comment from Prince Charles has been much covered in the media. It acknowledges climate change as a root cause as “ever greater conflict over scarce resources” drives civil strife and migration. We will, no doubt, see more of this as climate change gathers force.

Prince Charles has been a vocal campaigner on climate change for decades and as an influential public figure, his words carry much impact and have the power to reach out to many who may not take its dangers quite seriously enough.

The SFT has recently published two articles, written by Richard Dunne, exploring the Harmony Principles that the Prince of Wales sees as underpinning everything in nature. Dunne, as Headteacher, has adopted the principles into teaching practice at Ashley CofE Primary in Walton-upon-Thames, Surrey.

Watch Sky News’ exclusive interview with the HRH Prince of Wales, broadcast on Monday, 23rd November.

Water agency’s land purchase rattles California farmers

Washington Post – Saturday 21st November

California’s water crisis, brought on by the extended drought, takes a Machiavellian turn, as Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a cooperative tasked with supplying water to Southern California’s cities and municipal districts and the largest supplier of treated water anywhere in the US, begins buying up large tranches of agricultural land.

California has three of the largest cities in the US – Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose. There are long standing tensions between California’s cities and its agricultural regions that reach back to the early 20th century when Los Angeles effectively stole water from the fertile Owen’s Valley to serve the needs of the growing city. It’s no surprise that Californian farmers have been feeling very nervous as MWD invests in buying 13,000 acres of agricultural land in Palo Verde County. There are clearly strategic interests at work in the purchase, which will bring their holdings in the region to a third of the county and make the cooperative the largest voting bloc on the water board.

These purchases not only give the MWD significant political clout, they are a direct attempt to influence the amount of water available downstream that the company can sell. Until now, the company has paid farmers large sums of money to leave their land idle with the aim of making more water available to people living in urban areas downstream. In 2005, the company diverted enough water to supply 250,000 households and paid farmers $3,170 per acre if they committed to fallowing their land (leaving it unfarmed). The company now owns 30% of the Palo Verde valley. The practice of paying farmers to not farm continues, but the company has realised it can make even more money if it buys the land itself.

EU drops food waste and marine litter reduction targets, leak reveals

The Guardian – Friday 20th November

As if our oceans weren’t beleaguered enough, meaningful legislation on food waste and marine litter has been watered down to terms that will ultimately have little impact, as corporate lobbyists wheedle and complain about how difficult it will be to do what’s needed. Instead of action to reduce these two serious problems, corporate lobbyists want to see no directives to meet targets by 2025 and no repercussions to EU member states if they don’t adhere to proposed measures.

Litter in our seas is at a critical level. There is so much plastic in the ocean that is ingested by fish and other sea animals that it is likely entering the human food chain in our ravenous consumption of seafood. If that’s not a call to action to address marine litter, what is? Food waste is similarly a huge issue that demands addressing from the top of the supply chain right through to the bottom – as campaigners like Feedback have foregrounded for years now.

But the bigger question here is why our politicians are unable to stand up to corporate interests and so often appear to privilege it over the interests and rights of citizens and protection of the environment? This should be a no-brainer: reducing waste, recycling and cleaning up our oceans are critical steps towards a sustainable future for the planet. Embracing the ‘circular economy’ and ending the ‘throwaway society’ are two musts for 21st century living; let’s not make them a choice.

Does the chicken industry pluck farmers?

Grist – Monday 16th November

The US chicken industry’s widespread use of a ‘tournament payment system’ pits farmers against each other, by forcing them to compete in producing the biggest chickens. Using a vertically integrated business model, farmers are contracted by companies like Tyson and Perdue to produce chickens of a particular size and are paid based on how well they do this. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that the system is cut-throat and that many farmers lose out.

Christopher Leonard, the author of Meat Racket, offers detailed insight into the failure of the system to deliver fairness, leading to bankruptcy and poverty for many chicken farmers. But there are many supporters of the system among economists who claim a significant degree of exaggeration in Leonard’s assertions. Despite this, it is clear that the ‘tournament payment system’ is designed for one thing: the production of cheap chicken and maximised profits. No surprise that the economists Grist spoke to thought it was a good little innovation of the system, geared to producing “an efficient, consistent product”. But is that the bottom line we should be working towards? In a true cost account, what is this system leaving out?

That’s the question that Grist leaves us with at the end of their analysis. One economist they interviewed comments that the outcome of the system is that “Some people end up with terrible jobs to make things cheap for us.” In response Grist asks, “How often is chicken farming a terrible, low-paying job? What percentage of chicken farmers make a good living?” These are the things we need to know, to really assess the true cost of the tournament payment system.

Photograph: Bo Eide 

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