Five billion litres of milk are sold each year in Britain alone, where enough dairy products are bought each year to fill 4,500 Olympic-size swimming pools. According to the World Dairy Situation Report 2011, published by the International Dairy Federation, world milk consumption per capita averaged 104.7kg in 2010.
Given this enormous demand, have we ever given much thought as to how this popular product is so readily available to us? Does the production of this dietary staple in these large quantities have a negative impact of the planet, the people producing it and last but not least, the cows producing this all important drink?
For most of us growing up it has been hammered into us, that drinking milk is essential to build strong and healthy teeth and bones, given that it is a source of calcium. However, given the current rate of consumption, milk production needs to increase 200 million tons if we are to meet the demands of the forecasted global population growth in the ensuing years.
What’s more, industrial milk production, for the most part, is rather far removed from any idyllic ideas one might have of how the milk in their fridge came to be. If we are to continue consuming milk, we ought to take a good look at how milk is processed and what the implications of milk production at this scale are. In the coming weeks we will look at some of the pressing issues within the sector.
The cow’s milk sector of the dairy industry is probably one of the most distorted markets in the global food industry due to its tariff barriers, producers’ subsidies and retail power present in many developed countries. These subsidies and barriers distort the market for export and import of milk products and are not favourable to developing countries.
Subsidies make the playing field unfair – since they subsidise the income of dairy farmers in developed countries, this means that they can afford to sell their milk at a lower cost. This pushes down the global cost of milk (because it floods the market with cheap milk) and then producers in developing countries suffer because they don’t get the same support from their governments and have to bear all the costs themselves.
Apart from the apparent negative economic implications of the subsidies and tariff barriers, there are other issues like social and environmental ones affecting the dairy sector too.
For example, poverty caused by desperately low prices for producers is one of the main causes of child labour in small scale family dairy farms in some developing countries such asIndia, Ghana and Ethiopia. Furthermore, discrimination against women and migrant workers has been seen in India and in the United States of America. Such discrimination usually takes the form of wage discrimination, excessive working hours, and access to even the most basic facilities such as separate toilets and changing rooms.
Violations of land rights and deforestation have received much public attention and have been the focus of many campaigns run by NGOs in particular. In search of profit, companies in the milk sector, as in many sectors, are disregarding good, sustainable practices. “Small scale (dairy) farming that protects unique wildlife, heritage and food is being converted to palm oil wastelands that only profit agribusinesses” according to David Kureeba of the Uganda National Association of Professional Environmentalists.
There are solutions and initiatives which are being explored and implemented in the global dairy industry to combat some of the challenges it is facing. For example, Small Pasture Operations (SPOs), a pasture management system in which all grazing land is divided into smaller lots, whereby a grazing rotation system is established to allow land to rest and pasture to recover, are being established to take advantage of the contemporary science of farming, as well as efficiencies of scale, while avoiding damage from the industrial farming approach. Start-up costs are relatively modest and markets for animal products produced by ethically and healthfully raised animals are underserved and growing rapidly.
Outsourcing is being explored as a feasible solution to ensure that children, who graze cattle in rural areas of developing countries, stay in school. An article in the Times of India last year looked briefly at how hired farm help could benefit not only children, by allowing them to attend school, but also a community at large by an increase in the production of agro products.
And a further initiative, which has been set up in the U.S.A.by the InnovationCenterfor U.S. Dairy, is the release of two web based tools (Dairy Plant Smart and Dairy Fleet Smart) to help milk processors and transporters determine what their current carbon emissions are and how they can cut these. These examples, amongst others, could offer a new future for the global dairy industry.
The milk sector of the global dairy industry is unsustainable in its present state. While there are good practices that could be used to combat the harmful practices within the sector, they are not as widely used as they could be – especially considering the rapidly growing demand.
We hope that sooner, rather than later, sustainably produced milk becomes the standard, and not the exception. Then we won’t be consuming something that is supposed to be healthy for us, but leaves a trail of destruction, before it gets into our sandwich or in our glass.
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