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Milk, India’s Cotton, and a World Economy Disastrously Off-Course

Colin Tudge argues that to solve the problems of Britain’s dairy farmers – indeed of all farmers – we must dig deep and go on digging; and cannot rely on the world’s present leaders.

On Monday August 10 2015 farmers’ leaders met with supermarket bosses and Defra representatives to resolve the crisis in Britain’s dairy farming that had led to weeks of noisy if peaceful protest – a crisis that sees milk sold in supermarkets for less than the price of bottled water, fluctuating farm-gate prices that often are less than the cost of production, and a continuing exodus, not quite a deluge but a decades-long haemorrhage, of farmers out of farming. After frank and full exchanges the farmers’ leaders said this can’t go on; the supermarket bosses said it wasn’t their fault; and the government representatives said everything is on course. Frankly and fearlessly, the delegates agreed to hold another meeting.

So that’s all right then. Everything is in hand.

Well actually, no. The dispassionate observer cannot but conclude that if the present negotiators talked along the same kind of lines from now until doomsday, plus 10 minutes each way for extra time, nothing worthwhile would emerge. Cows will become more and more productive, the technology will become more and more gung-ho, dairy farms will grow bigger and bigger and more capital intensive, milk will continue to be undersold, dairy farmers will continue to go bust, and power will be concentrated more and more into the hands of an irreducible number of transnational corporates. Governments like the present one will continue to insist that they are firmly in control, though they will also point out that whatever happens to be going wrong at the time is out of their hands. But they will assure us that whatever the short-term pain, it all represents progress: part of Britain’s and Mankind’s continuing march to, er, somewhere or other.

For it is very hard to imagine that anyone in a position of real influence will ever get round to discussing, or even acknowledging, the deep malaise that lies behind the present plight of dairy farming – and indeed is blighting all agriculture, and the whole human race, and our fellow creatures. It is the more or less absolute loss of all values, apart from the perceived value of money; the subjugation of all human aspiration to the obsessive compulsion to maximize and concentrate wealth into the hands of those who play the money game the hardest. The earnest and sometimes fierce discussions over the price of milk will lead to tight-lipped ultimata but, like the deliberations of, say, the CAP, they will not in any worthwhile sense be what John McEnroe used to call serious.

If we were serious, we would approach the problems of Britain’s dairy farmers at many different levels. Of course, as a matter of urgency, we must indeed address the farm-gate price of milk. The dairy farmers’ ills could largely be alleviated in the short term by adding a few pence per litre. But low prices are only a symptom of more general dysfunction. Truly to put things right we need to dig far deeper.

We need to ask whether dairy farming itself in Britain (or any kind of farming, anywhere in the world) is now being run on the right lines. Are British dairy farms as they stand truly fit for purpose? Are they the right size? Is the husbandry appropriate – not just in the short term, but far into the future? Is it kind to livestock? Is it kind to farmers? Does it provide milk of the highest quality? How does it interact with the rest of the biosphere? Is it damaging – and if so, how could the damage be reduced? Might it even bring net benefit to our fellow species? (to which the answer surely is yes, or at least it could be).

Then we must ask: if we are not farming in the best possible way, why not? How can we support the kind of farming we really need, and is desirable? In particular, does the present economic and political structure favour the kind of farming we need, or is it forcing farmers, and all the rest of us, down paths that are unpleasant and are leading us to a dead end? What kind of economy would meet our needs, and how can we introduce it? 

Then if we really wanted to get to the bottom of things we should dig down to the metaphysical sub-basement and ask what we, as individuals and as the human race, are really trying to achieve on this Earth, and why, and whether our aspirations are morally acceptable and realistic in the long term. That’s a discussion that should never end, and should involve everybody, with a good sprinkling of clerics. Right now, though, among the people who most directly determine how the rest of us live, it is not happening at all.

If the past is anything to go by, the appointed negotiators – the farmers’ leaders and supermarket delegates and whoever Defra sends – will not get beyond stage one. They may perhaps negotiate a farm-gate price for milk that will keep some farmers happy, or at least slow the rate of bankruptcy, but they seem unlikely to ask whether dairy farming as a whole needs re-thinking; and they surely will not venture into the deep waters of the world economy. Deep, radical thinking is needed but few among the leaders of agriculture and big business and government do think deeply and none is truly radical for if they were they would not have risen to positions of influence. However disastrous the status quo may be, they see it as their duty to work within it. Change that could truly be called serious is deemed to be “unrealistic”.

At the immediate level, the issues are obvious enough. The farm gate price of milk goes up and down with the global market price and at present leaves virtually no margin for profit and often is less than the cost of production. The solution proposed by those with the most power including the government is to reduce the cost of production, and then reduce it again, basically by high tech and scaling up – which may work for a time in the short term so long as the price of oil is suitably adjusted so that it is just about affordable, and there are suitable tax breaks and creative accountancy, and no-one counts the social cost or the damage to the biosphere, or thinks beyond the next five years.

But it is ludicrous to gear the entire strategy of any industry, let alone an industry as important as dairy – or indeed as agriculture as a whole – to short-term prices. For as everyone knows (you don’t have to be a farmer or an economist to get the point) farm gate prices are subject to all kinds of pressures that really are to a large extent beyond control. One present threat to milk producers, apparently, is the reduced demand from China which is depressing world prices; but next week it could be some other bolt from the blue, from some other part of the world. Much hangs on unfolding events in the Ukraine. The supermarkets who determine the retail price (up to a point) see themselves in to-the-death competition with their suppliers, in this case the farmers, and each competes with all the others for customers and investors, and for all these reasons they must keep their prices as low as possible. You can’t blame the supermarkets for low prices (of course not), any more than you can blame the government for anything at all. But something has to give.
The big questions, though, begin at the next level of discussion. British dairy farming as a whole has been in virtual free-fall for some decades. Government stats tell us that the UK still had nearly 32,000 registered dairy units in 1998 and now is down to around 11,000. According to a report in 2011 from WSPA (now called World Animal Protection or WAP) we are losing one dairy farm every day. If a small factory closed in Scotland, say, or Solihull or Slough, with the loss of a few hundred jobs, it would be on national news, but the decline of dairy farmers or indeed of the agricultural community as a whole has gone almost unremarked. The loss of farms and farmers can, after all, be presented as progress of a kind – compensated to some extent by an increase in the average size of dairy herds, from a UK average of 95 in 2003 to 123 in 2013 (the average in England is somewhat larger than in the UK as a whole).

Total cow numbers fell too by 45% between 1980 and 2013: from 3.2 million to 1.8 million in 2013 – yet the total milk output in the UK has fallen only modestly over the past 17 years or so. We produced 14.2 billion litres in 1998, and, with far fewer cows, 13.5 billion litres in 2013. For the yield per cow has been steadily increased from 5775 litres (1272 gallons) per lactation in 1998 to 7735 litres (1710 gallons) in 2013.

In short, since the 1990s, milk output from the UK has remained much the same while farmers and cows have been lost and herd size and yield have gone up – and overall control has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Recent plans for an 8000-head dairy unit at Nocton in Lincolnshire have mercifully been warded off but many in high places still think that the future must lie with mega-units –  for as long as oil is still affordable and the world as a whole behaves itself and we don’t count the social and environmental cost or think too deeply about the long term, and keep our fingers crossed, it pays to scale up.

But we should be asking, too, whether this technical transformation and the shift of power and income is a good thing. Is it good to reduce the number of units and of farmers, and increase the size of herds, and the productivity of beasts?

According to the neoliberal theory of economics that governments of all parties have subscribed to over the past 35 years the shift from a lot of small farms to a few big ones is exactly what’s needed. The same amount of milk from fewer animals means more output per animal, and the same output from fewer farmers means more output per worker – and in both cases this is seen to represent an increase in “efficiency”. Efficiency is taken self-evidently to be good. Ipso facto, it is progress. Every year at the Oxford Farming Conference government and NFU leaders queue up to tell the world that British agriculture is “vibrant” and “exciting” and the loss of dairy cows and farmers without significant loss of overall output is taken to be a proof of this. After all, nobody wants to be inefficient, and those who are not efficient cannot hope to compete with those who are; and the modern world is, above all, competitive; so the less efficient go to the wall, and quite rightly. QED.  Done and dusted.

But such “progress” comes at a price, as the WSPA (WAP) report went some way to pointing out. Grass and its accompanying herbs, which wet, cool, hilly Britain grows very well and is cheap, must be supplemented more and more by expensive concentrate that is largely imported.  The higher the milk-yield the greater the stress to the animals, which is unkind and sometimes downright cruel; and greater stress means higher vet bills and reduces the cows’ productive life, from eight or more lactations which once was common, down to a national average of less than three. Farmers are stressed too as their herds grow bigger and their capital investment and day-to-day outgoings increase. With costs out of all proportion to the size of a sensible farming unit, and with prices that go up and down with the wind, the debts continue to mount. As more and more farmers fall by the wayside, the life of those who remain becomes less and less convivial. As small local farms with cows in the fields, and real farmers and farm workers, are replaced by farm factories in big sheds, rural economies lose their focus, and most of their reason for being, and people as a whole lose contact with their own food supply, all of which has endless social and nutritional drawbacks.

Yet although the motive for the structural shift is economic it isn’t obvious that there is any net economic gain either – or not at least to people at large.  As the herds have grown bigger so too has the capital investment and the amount that needs to be borrowed. Many farmers have quit through bankruptcy but many more have seen the writing on the wall and de-camped before they do. As power has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, a few (including some farmers, but mostly financiers of one kind or another) have grown rich, and some have become very rich indeed. It still isn’t obvious, though, why it is better to have a few very rich people and a lot who must find new ways to earn a living, rather than to ensure that everyone has a worthwhile job and can pay their way.

So what has really gone wrong? How have we managed to bring agriculture, and indeed the whole world, to such a pass? The answers are long and complex, infinitely so, but the reason things have got so bad so quickly surely lies with neoliberalism. The objection to neoliberalism is not that it is capitalist. Some economists define capitalism in narrow, technical terms but in practice it’s a broad church which takes many forms, and some of them are perfectly acceptable. Harold Macmillan was a good capitalist – a commercial publisher – and also an archetypal Tory Prime Minister.  Yet his government built many thousands of council houses and jealously guarded the NHS and my generation benefited from free education up to and including post-graduate. In his policies, as opposed to his rhetoric, Macmillan showed a stronger sense of society than Ed Miliband – meaning that he was further to the left. Yet the country has drifted so far to the right since Macmillan’s day that Miliband was known even within his own party as Ed the Red (showing singular ignorance both of British history and of what it means to be Communist). By the same token, in practice if not in conviction, Democrat Barack Obama is to the right of Republican Richard Nixon, and far to the right of the Republican Dwight D Eisenhower (who for example warned the world against “the industrial-military complex”, which is very close to the corporate rule that now prevails).

For capitalism in many of its traditional forms was constrained by a broadly accepted, common morality, rooted in compassion. Traditional businesses of a kind that can reasonably be called capitalist were often underpinned by a strong social conscience. Many great companies were founded by Quakers (even though some of them, alas, subsequently became less great, at least from a moral point of view). But the moral underpinning was by no means exclusively Christian. Traditional Jewish and Muslim societies since ancient times condemned usury, charging excessive interest on loans, or any interest at all come to that. Clearly they were not modern capitalists, but lending with interest remains a key component of capitalism, although the word “usury” seems to have dropped out of currency. The proto-capitalist merchants of Mandarin China were of low social standing, even though they were rich. The scholars stood far higher.

As a matter of doctrine, neoliberalism has shaken off such moral qualms. The motive for this, to be fair, is not evil. It is born simply of a huge mistake. The mistake is to suppose that the economy is morally neutral (and some scientists have fallen into the same error). Its only task, the neoliberals argue, is to generate wealth. Wealth is good, the doctrine has it – the more we can generate, the happier and more secure we will be. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher famously argued in a sermon to the elders of the Scottish churches (much to their bemusement) the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that you need to be rich to do good, because if the Samaritan had been poor he could not have afforded the ointment to heal the wounded Jew, or employed a servant to apply it. Of course the neoliberals concede that rich people may do bad things too – but, they argue, this has nothing to do with the economy per se. The generation of wealth cannot be bad in itself. There is no good or bad about it. The morality is applied post hoc. It has purely to do with what people do with their wealth.

But of course the economy is not morally neutral, and cannot be (any more than science can be, in practice). All actions that affect third parties, whether other human beings or other species (or we might say, the fabric of the Earth) have moral connotations; and nothing affects people and the world at large more than the economy. It matters very much, morally, how the wealth is generated – whether in ways that benefit a lot of people, for example by supplying a great many jobs and looking after the biosphere, or in ways that do short-term damage, for example by reducing the work force, without regard for the natural world. It matters enormously who finishes up with the wealth: whether the economic structure is designed to spread the wealth widely (as the cooperative structure for example of John Lewis may be said to do) or whether it is inclined to concentrate the booty in the hands of a few (as modern banking does). It matters too how the various participants in the economy treat each other. Are they content with friendly rivalry, helping each other out in difficult times, or do they fight to the death, intent on seeing off rivals?

As many have pointed out (including some biologists) the neoliberal economy is in a general way “Darwinian”; or, as they tend to say, “neodarwininan”. Yet this is an insult to Darwin, who was a far more subtle thinker than most of the neoliberal apologists. The brand of Darwinian that is wheeled out for economic purposes is best called “Brute Darwinism”: a crude version of the original that began in the late 19th century with Herbert Spencer, who reduced the whole thesis to “survival of the fittest”, and was further simplified along similar lines throughout the 20th century. [Later, in The Great Re-Think, I applied the expression “metadarwinism”, meaning “beyond Darwinism”, to the crude idea that natural selection depends solely on competition – that competition is the driver of the world. Like most of my neologisms “metadarwinism” has not caught on but I continue to plug it. You never know]. 

Anyway, neoliberalism demands that everything in the world, including the fabric of the world itself and all cultural pursuits, should be given a cash price. Everything that exists and everything that everybody does is then put up for sale in an all-embracing, “global” market. There are no rules imposed from outside, or at least as few as possible. The neoliberals demand that the market should be “deregulated”. The external moral restraints of yesteryear are shaken off. The market itself decides what is good or what is bad. Admittedly, there are a few taboos. Child pornography in most circles is a no-no but otherwise, anything that anyone will pay for is OK. On my one appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos I heard human cloning defended on the grounds that there is a market for it. Whatever people will pay most for is best. The moral case is bolstered by reference to Adam Smith’s observation in the 18th century that if everyone in a market or indeed in a society simply operated in their own best interests, then an “invisible hand” would ensure that everything worked out for the best, because people who did things badly or were dishonest would be weeded out. In some ways this is a pre-echo of Darwin. But as President Obama observed, in the real world, for all kinds of reasons, the invisible hand does not work.

But the market does work to its own cardinal rule: that of brute Darwinism [aka metadarwinism]. Everyone is required to compete as hard as they can with everyone else. Those who make most money most quickly, and attract the biggest market share, and the most investors, thrive. Those who do less well must go to the wall, and good riddance to them. Darwin never argued that evolution by natural selection would necessarily lead to long-term improvement, or represented “progress”. He simply argued that it improved short-term adaptation. But there is, in much neoliberal thinking, a sense that the all-out competition between ruthless competitors will somehow produce a better world. Other neoliberals, however, prefer not to think of the future at all. They simply see the “free” market as a kind of natural phenomenon, and brute Darwinism as a kind of natural law, like gravity, to which we are all subject, and however things turn out, that’s just the way the world is. They exhibit a weird kind of fatalism.

In truth, the neoliberals do recognize, up to a point, that whatever they do ought to be legal. Most of them are not, after all, gangsters, or they don’t set out to be; unlike, say, Mario Puzo’s Godfather, Vito Corleone, who freely acknowledged that a gangster was what he was, albeit a gangster with honour, who looked after his own people. But if there is no moral restraint, imposed by society or as many would say by God, the boundaries between the respectable and the gangster are blurred. Vandana Shiva has long campaigned against GMOs in general and by bt cotton in particular; and in India, has she has pointed out, Monsanto has used its commercial power and its armies of lawyers to subvert the laws of various states. Dedicated neolibs argue that suppression or circumscription of other people’s laws is simply part of the competitive commercial process, and is therefore legitimate.

Alas, Britain’s governments since the time of Margaret Thatcher, including the strangely conceived “New Labour” of Blair and Brown, have been overt neoliberals, boasting of their commitment to the global free market, determined at all costs to “compete” with everyone else for dominance and wealth. They have all argued as Mrs Thatcher did that this was for the general good, though the evidence on many fronts is otherwise. All British governments since at least 1980 have been inveterately urban. None has had a feel for agriculture, or for the biosphere, or has made any serious attempt to come to grips with either. Agriculture has been treated as “a business like any other”, to be thrown to the wolves of the global market; senior civil servants under Blair even argued that British farming should be encouraged to go the way of its coalmining, since other people had more sunshine and could do what was needed more cheaply. The biosphere is called “the environment” and treated as real estate, or as “natural resource”. David Cameron’s promise that his Conservative government would be the greenest of all time never rang true and is now exposed as the most blatant of untruths. No-one in high places seems to think that the loss of fellow species or the decay of wild places is of any consequence, except insofar as it may affect tourism or the price of houses. Yet destruction of the natural world should rank alongside the most serious of crimes. Indeed, like the worst of crimes, it has the weight of sin. But although the hard-heads may pray for guidance in the White House, and look solemn at public festivals of the kind overseen by bishops, for them such notions have no meaning.

All this is the kind of discussion we ought to be having if we truly care about the price of milk and the state of Britain’s dairy farming. Many people worldwide are talking along such lines. But not those in high places. Expressions involving fiddles and the burning of great cities come to mind. We keep coming back to the same point: if we really want the world to be different then we, Ordinary Joes, have to take matters into our own hands. Our leaders, whether in government or the NFU, or bankers or corporate bosses, or the various intellectuals they employ as apologists, have lost the plot.

To return to the present context: small dairies that do make use of native pasture, and provide good jobs, and serve their local communities are surely the way forward. Nick Snelgar’s Maple Field, which he so engagingly describes on various websites, represents one of several fine models. Of course he receives little or no help from the powers-that-be, for they have their eyes fixed on high-tech mega-dairies run on high tech, producing mega-tonnes of powdered milk to be sold to India. This undermines India’s own, indigenous dairy industry but since it’s all done in the name of the free market which of course is morally neutral, that’s OK. As the Godfather would say as his henchmen shoot you through the head and set fire to your house, it’s just business. Nothing personal.

Them-in-charge are not going to change their minds. The only serious solution is to create a system of dairying and indeed of farming that is rooted in principles of sound ecology and common morality, despite our expensive and obstructive rulers.