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We need to talk about milk: part 1


Waleed Aly recently made his “strongest call to arms ever” when he urged people to consume Australian dairy products. What’s the big deal? Milk prices were cut sharply by Australia’s biggest dairy companies, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, forcing farmers to accept drastically lower incomes. 

Jennifer Richards of Beyond the Trolley, a site about alternatives to big chain supermarkets, writes passionately about what you can do to help farmers out and improve your relationship with the fresh produce that sustains you. 

“We all buy milk!”

That was the chirpy justification one of the supermarkets gave a few years ago for slashing the price of milk to $1 per litre. At the time, the dairy industry cried out that this would be unsustainable in the long term but those cries fell on deaf ears. The supermarkets assured producers that their contracts would not be negotiated down (yet) and shoppers just went about looking for the best-priced product.

Fast forward to the present day and the dairy industry is in crisis. You might have heard about it in the media. If you haven’t then check out this short video by The Project which summarises the issues well. Basically, two of the three biggest milk processors who buy from the farmer and sell to the supermarkets (and into the world market) have slashed the price that they pay to farmers, and they made that pay reduction retrospective. Some blame mismanagement by the former CEO of the Murray Goulburn Dairy Co-op, but the other processors are all expected to follow suit when new prices are announced for the new financial year.

Basically, imagine your boss saying to you, “I know we agreed that your pay would be $56,000 a year, but I’m changing that to $48,000 a year. However, because I have been paying you at the rate of $56,000 per year since July, I’m going to cut back what I pay you to make up for the debt you now owe me. I know you need $50,000 to cover your work-related expenses anyway and that you took out a mortgage based on your income of $56,000, but I can’t help that. The price I am getting paid has changed and I need to break even.”

It is outrageous! If our livelihoods were treated in such a way by our bosses we would be livid! We would revolt! And rightfully so. But the processors and dairy co-ops are able to shrug their shoulders and say, “We just aren’t getting paid what we thought we would be, so we can’t pay what we promised we would”. Producers have nowhere else to sell their product and they have to suck it up.


It’s not just that we aren’t paying enough

Be clear, there are two things at play here. It isn’t just that Australian consumers have shown that they don’t value fresh refrigerated milk enough to pay more than $1 per litre. These dairy processors and co-ops also sell into the world milk market (yes, there is such a thing). This commodity market operates just like any other (gold, oil, wheat, iron ore, etc.). The world price of milk solids (it’s not just fresh milk from the carton, milk solids are used for all sorts of things) is determined by the supply and demand on the world market. These things fluctuate, and China, in particular, isn’t demanding as much of it this year as previously thought. Farmers are paid one price (called the “farm gate” price), and that is what has been cut. For more background on the dairy industry in Australia and more detail about how it works, try this article from the Conversation or this one from ABC Rural. You could also visit the peak industry body’s website.

Some farmers have called for a milk levy to help them get through this crisis. I for one am happy to pay a little extra to help get them through this, but that is only a short-term fix and doesn’t do anything to prevent this situation from arising again. Coles has responded by creating a new home brand milk that is a little more expensive with the extra money going into a “fighting fund” for farmers. Now just excuse me for a moment while I vomit out expletives about that being a cynical, opportunistic marketing exercise. Coles were the ones who started the “milk wars” a few years ago. They played a huge part in driving the industry to the brink, so don’t for one second see them as the friend of the farmer in this case! Woolworths and Aldi were quick to match the unsustainable price Coles started offering, so they don’t get off scot-free either.


I love milk but I don’t want to milk my own cow

Farming is hard work, and dairy farming is harder than other forms of the profession. Cows need to be milked at dawn and dusk. Every day. Every day. Regardless of whether it’s a public holiday or whether you haven’t had a day off or family holiday since 2003. My family goes through at least nine litres of milk a week (yes, I know it’s a lot), and I for one am glad that I don’t have to milk the cow myself to get it. I don’t think I am alone in this. So as a milk buyer, here’s what can you do about this:

  • Wherever you buy milk, send the signal that you value the fresh, refrigerated product by buying a branded product that costs a little more.
  • Seek out local producers you can buy directly from with the knowledge that all your money goes into their pockets. Flavour Crusader has some great guides to help with this.
  • Visit farmers’ markets and start to talk to the producers of your food. It shows your support of small local operations and is another signal that you value them and their work.

Don’t miss the rest of this series on milk! Subscribe to Beyond the Trolley 

Editor’s note:
The pressure on farmers also impacts the animals involved in the dairy industry. As Voiceless has pointed out,
“Increasing demand for cheap milk has forced most Australian dairy farmers to maximise the productive output of their cows, pushing them beyond their natural limits. These cows suffer short lives of emotional stress and physical strain to ensure their milk yield remains consistently high. Read here for more info

Jennifer Richards writes to make connections between the people who grow food and the people who eat it in order to make the whole food system healthy and sustainable. You can connect with her on Twitter (@BeyondTrolley), Facebook and Instagram.

Photo credits: top, Kevin cc; middle, Bob cc; bottom, Grant cc

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5 Responses to We need to talk about milk: part 1

  1. Pythagoras June 7, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    How about we consider why as adults we are the only species which drinks milk. But not our own milk, but the milk of another species. It does not make sense. We only have the ability to digest lactose as babies and that’s for our mothers milk.
    Not to mention the shocking cruelty in this industry. We keep those cows pregnant for that milk, electively raping them. And we steal their young. They are mammals and they know how to nurture and we like to think they are brainless, so we are justified in our shocking treatment.

    There are lots of alternatives for calcium.

    If you think drinking milk is ok, think again.

  2. Kylie June 7, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

    I am an avid reader and subscribe to Otter and find myself a alittle disappointed with this article.
    Maybe you should also have mentioned about ideally sourcing your milk from a local who also holds his/ her animals in high regard. I know this could be difficult to assess and find out but i imagine it would fit in with alot of peoples morals and values. Example- sourcing biodynamic options. I understand we are talking about the dairy farmers who supply the supermarkets but feel it is still an important issue.
    The people who farm are suffering greatly and this is absolutely tragically aweful, and it is important to recognise their struggle and show support. But alot of these animals, that are bred to supply people with the dairy that most of us actually do not technically need to consume are not all treated as we humans would wish to be treated ourselves.
    Most people have no idea what the animals go through. I realise this article is not about the animal welfare side of things but possibly you could of added even just a small note in there, being a magazine on ethical issues.
    Please keep this in mind for future articles because the more people are educated the more awareness and knowledge that is gained even through media and articles the better it is for us all and our beautiful earth.

  3. Kylie June 7, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

    Ps i have just seen ‘editors note’ at the bottom that was for some reason not on display before as well as another readers comment.
    In regards to animal welfare thankyou for adding this note not a big mention but its there. Im still hoping for a world where we push harder for animal rights lets all be a part of that!. And well written ‘pythagoras’ good points!

  4. Suzanne June 8, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    The editor’s note at the bottom is pathetic really. The cruelty to animals in this industry,regardless of the current situation, is repulsive. Dairy farmers will need to diversify as other business owners do when their profit margins are dropping with few signs of recovery. The reasons don’t really matter and are an especially fruitless conquest where big business is involved. The dairy industry needs to acknowledge the change in the consumer diet that is moving forward at the moment. The increase in demand for non dairy milk alternatives in recent years has been large and is not likely to diminish any time soon. If they want to stick their heads in the sand about it then so be it. I will say though that government needs to step up for farmers and give adequate financial assistance if they wish to diversify their farming focus to meet the needs of the modern day consumer more adequately.
    I will be unsubscribe get from Otter due to what I believe is a report posted that does not run with their usual ethical message.

  5. Clare June 8, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Shame on you for mentioning animal welfare with regards to cheap milk and ignoring the fact that regardless of the price of your milk, you’re still paying for animal cruelty and exploitation.

    All dairy cows – no matter the farm, are forcefully artificially inseminated; their bodies pushed to the limit over and over ONLY for their newborns to be stolen from them days after birth. These newborns are then slaughtered as ‘waste’ or for veal or, if female, suffer the same fate as their mothers. Your average dairy cow lives to 5 years when her true life expectancy is 20+ years. When she collapses from exhaustion, there’s a good chance she becomes hamburger meat for fast food joints. What a life!!

    It comes down to one thing – we are seeing autonomous, sentient beings as a commodity, using them for profit. If you really supported farmers you would stand up for a government-supported shift in current farming practices away from animal cruelty and exploitation and toward plant-based options. That is the future.

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