But the White Stuff is not as innocent as it looks. In fact, its cool clean exterior masks a multitude of sins.
Milk has hit the headlines recently in a battle between farmers and the processors which are imposing cuts to the price paid to farmers for milk. This is leading to farm gate prices which are less than the cost of producing the milk. This is not a new fight. For several years the large powerful dairies, such as Robert Wiseman (now owned by Müller), have put downward pressure on the farm gate price of milk. This in turn has driven “efficiency” measures in the farming sector, i.e. industrialisation of the process. About ten years ago I spoke with a farmer planning to build a huge shed so that his cattle could be kept indoors all year round. This was, he said, due to pressure to cut costs. It was necessary of his farm was to remain sustainable. The surrounding pasture that the cattle had grazed for generations would be used to produce their feed which would be supplemented with commercial cattle fodder. I’m sure he wasn’t alone in this change but to me it seemed crazy – taking the cattle away from the grass so that someone can cut the grass and feed it to the cattle and at the other end, the muck would be cleared from the shed and, presumably spread on the field as fertiliser.
What are the issues with milk?
Milk has a surprisingly large carbon footprint. Apart from the extra energy required to house the cattle indoors, feed them and clean up after them, cattle generate a lot of methane. Methane is a much more potent warming gas than carbon dioxide. Even though it breaks down in the atmosphere much more quickly, it is estimated to have around twenty five times the global warming effect per kilogram than carbon dioxide. Perhaps if this could be captured at a sufficient concentration it could be combusted releasing energy and reducing its warming effect.
To put the carbon footprint of milk into some kind of context, consider a cup of tea. The biggest part of the carbon footprint of a cup of tea is not growing the tea in India or Sri Lanka, harvesting the leaves, drying them, shipping them halfway around the world (think of those food miles), packaging them, distributing them to shops and selling them. No. That is responsible only for a small fraction of the carbon footprint of the cup of tea. Nor is it boiling up just enough tap water to brew our tea. The big hit is when we add a dash of milk, which comprises about 60% of the carbon footprint of the cup of tea. Of course, we could take out tea black or try alternatives such as mint, camomile or hibiscus teas which don’t need mil.
A 250ml glass of milk, just under half a pint, has a similar carbon footprint as leaving the television on standby for a week.
For obvious reasons, male calves are not much use to the dairy farmer. In the bad old days, these calves were reared in crates then exported live to Europe where they would be slaughtered for veal. Thanks to a very successful and emotive campaign several years ago, this practice has been stopped. Now the male calves are shot within a day or two of birth and sent to landfill.
Some people in the industry are promoting rose veal as an alternative to shooting at birth: this gives a stay of execution of six to eight months but at least the animal is used rather than landfilled. Whether you support this idea or not, this aspect of dairy farming demonstrates that dairy products can not really be classed as vegetarian, despite what the label may say.
In the introduction I mentioned cattle being kept indoors with the farmer using his fields to grow feed. This seldom produces enough therefore it is supplemented with commercial cattle fodder. This can include palm kernel meal, a by-product of the palm oil industry. According to a study by DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the UK imports 10% of the global supply of palm kernel meal for use as livestock and pet food.
The value of this waste product is such that its use must add to the pressure to clear tropical forests to make way for plantations. Clearing the forest with fire is uncontrolled and leads to injury and death of Orangutans. The clearances are devastating the habitat of orangutans and there have been cases where plantation owners have shot orangutans as pests. The practice of burning the cleared forest stumps.
Not all dairy farmers use palm kernal meal. For example, it is not used by suppliers of Marks & Spencer’s Plan A branded milk, which, according to their website, removes 1000te of palm oil from their supply chain.
Despite its clean whiter than white image, milk masks a multitude of nasites. These issues are, of course, not limited to milk. Most meat and many imported fruit and vegetables have large carbon footprints. Palm oil is used for pet food and for other livestock, so all meat products are at risk of contributing to the extinction of orangutans.
Substituting milk and dairy products for other foods may be better in fine regard but worse in others, for example, using soya milk still puts pressure on tropical rainforest as the land required for soya plantations increases with demand.
I’m not asking everyone to stop drinking milk or using dairy products. If we avoided everything that was harmful to the environment in one way or another there would be very little left. However, with a little knowledge we can make better choices. We could use a bit less dairy produce, we could be more careful to avoid wasting it, we could buy it from responsible producers that don't use palm kernel cake and we could buy it from responsible retailers that pay a fair price rather than forcing farmers to adopt unsustainable practices.
At the time of writing, the major UK retailers are in discussions with farmers' representatives and the following have either agreed to pay more for their own brand milk or already have pricing agreements in place:
Marks and Spencer
This does not necessarily apply to other brands which they stock, such as Wiseman, and it doesn't extend to other dairy products.
The information on Carbon Footprint came from How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything by Mike Berners-Lee