The dairy industry has become increasingly intensive as it seeks to secure a foothold on the world stage. In this piece for the March 2020 edition of Dairy Farmer, Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, argues this is entirely the wrong direction.

I believe UK dairy farmers have become commodity slaves, trapped in unsustainable farming systems. We have been forced into this damaging consumer preference for dishonestly priced, but apparently ever cheaper, dairy products.

The truth is these trends have accelerated for most of my career. Dairy farming intensification has led not only to overproduction, but increasingly to ‘cow stories’ we wouldn’t want our consumers to know about. One shocking statistic is that more than 50% of the milk produced in the UK now comes from permanently housed herds.

I went into milk production in 1973 with 30 Ayrshires and decided to farm sustainably, but I quickly learned our practices were less profitable than those of our more ‘conventional’ neighbours. So we decided to write a prescription for sustainable dairy farming, which ended up becoming the world’s first draft of the organic dairy standards, and which gave us a better price for our milk.

More recently, we have been able to carve out a niche market for our relatively expensive Cheddar, plus I got a day job working for the Sustainable Food Trust, which has enabled me to continue to apply my principles without feeling the cold winds of the global dairy market.


Although through good fortune we managed to escape the intensification treadmill, I do not blame for a moment the majority of dairy farmers who have had no choice but to follow the best business case. However, we are now witnessing the devastating consequences of this 50-year sequence of events, including what might be described as the ethnic cleansing by price of virtually the entire smaller scale dairy farming community, particularly in West Wales.

To add insult to injury, millions of consumers are now switching to vegetarian and vegan diets. They are repelled by the perception that the modern dairy farm cow has become the casualty of an industry with a scale, and attendant economic pressure, preventing it from being loved and cared for in a way which is consistent with our obligation to respect the lives of the animals we farm.

Can all these trends be reversed? Yes, I believe they can, but only if the dairy farming community throws its support behind a multi-pronged initiative, working on three levels. Firstly, we need top down action from Government in the form of redirected Pillar One payments, which offer rewards for dairy farmers who are less intensive, have smaller herds and whose cows go out to grass for six months of the year. In other words, those who deliver environmental and social benefits. Such payments should not be available to permanently housed herds.

Secondly, we need to apply the polluter pays principal, taxing inputs and practices which have damaging consequences to the environment and public health, including nitrogen fertiliser and antibiotic use. Thirdly, we need a harmonised labelling scheme, which empowers consumers by providing accurate information about the degree of sustainability and provenance of all dairy products.

I accept some dairy farmers and companies reading this might have legitimate concerns about the potential for dairy imports to undercut our UK higher standards and cost of production if we introduced some of the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ I have described above.

We are advocating the introduction of an international system of sustainability audits, facilitating trade in sustainably traded foodstuffs and applying tariffs and taxes to lower standard imports. Some might think this is a far-fetched proposal, but in response I would remind them we are in the last chance saloon so far as climate change is concerned, and farmers are in the front line in terms of addressing most of the actions which could lower emissions, enhance biodiversity and improve public health.

We have no choice but to take these steps. If we leave things as they are, we will all be the long-term losers.

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