Holy Cow! Why are smaller farmers in the dairy industry of the ‘western’ world not crying over spilt milk?

Vegans might not lose any sleep over this debate, but dairy consumers ought to spare a thought for the plight of the farmers. From meat to milk, our mass production and mass consumption has led to terrible waste and destruction, but there seems to be no unanimity for change. Europe’s dairy industry is dying a slow and painful death with subsidies that cripple smaller farmers who can barely make ends meet with the abysmally low prices per litre. Their desperation goes unnoticed. Sick and tired of earning peanuts, European farmers have resorted to throwing away their produce in protest. They used tractors to dump milk in fields and even sprayed thousands of litres of fresh milk at the European Parliament in Brussels.

The Americans do not seem to be crying over spilt milk either. In their case, it is not the reduced pricing, but the reality that their consumption of milk is on the decline. In 2016, farmers poured 43 million gallons of their surplus into their fields. Tonnes of litres of milk end up getting wasted even before they reach the store and this has nothing to do with the strikes or delays but is a matter of spoilage or waste at the farm itself. In 2018, research conducted by Edinburgh University showed that one in six pints ends up lost or wasted. Like milk, butter also ends up piled in warehouses due to mindless mass production. From 1970 to 2017, excess butter caused a commotion and ended up making the ‘butter mountain’. The excess butter was bought by the European Union; quite naturally, the taxpayers had to foot the bill for it.

Oddly, the silver lining to the dark dairy industry is the Indian story of Amul. Formed in 1946, Amul emerged as a cooperative brand managed by the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. (GCMMF), where 3.6 million milk producers jointly and proudly own their enterprise. Their stranger than fiction story was told in a film called ‘Manthan’, meaning ‘the churning’. Five hundred thousand farmers funded the film, but it was largely ignored by vast sections of the entertainment industry.The story of millions of dairy farmers – including women – who came together in rural India in the state of Gujarat to build their own autonomy is a model that cannot be implemented is the rest of India because of corrupt local politicians.Those familiar with Amul may have noticed the marketing hoardings around India that have attracted even Indian satirists. While their model is thriving, others have failed to draw inspiration from their story. Smaller farmers in the industrialised world lack autonomy to make decisions and share their profits. They are forced to sell their produce to middlemen who are tied up with retailers. While frustrated farmers are letting the milk flow through the fields, the affluent populations of the cities seem oblivious to their contribution to society and are further contributing to the waste. Today, the excess results in a 20% waste of dairy products.

If only it were milk and butter, but it is not. Each year 1.3 billion tonnes of food, about a third of all that is produced is wasted, including almost half (45%) of all fruit and vegetables, 35% of fish and seafood, 30% of cereals, and 20% of meat. The culture of excess has led to utter waste that will trigger a cycle of paucity.

In the wake of the pandemic, the global food chain and the global food waste are have both come under the magnifying glass. Even those cynical of the damage it has caused to the planet and other species are now rethinking their beliefs and values. Indeed, the green movement groups have always questioned the waste and the exploitation, but perhaps the time has come for others to join in and debate the holy cow.

Please refer to the sources below.

1]  Farmers clash with police in Brussels during milk and meat prices protest, 7 September 2015, Graham Ruddick, The Guardian.

[2]  Dairy Farmers Pour Out 43 Million Gallons of Milk Due to Surplus, Melissa Chan, 13 October 2016, The Times.

[3]  Produced but never eaten: a visual guide to food waste, 12 August 2015, Kate Lyons, Glenn Swann and Cath Levett, The Guardian.

[4]  ‘They are taking out a generation of tuna’: overfishing causes crisis in Philippines, 23 August 2018, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian.

[5]  Massive tuna nets $3.1 million at Japan auction, 6 January 2019, Alla Elassar, CNN.

[6]  Iceland’s fishing industry ‘better off outside’ EU, 21 June 2016, Claire Marshall, BBC.

[7]  Fishing problems: Destructive fishing practices, WWF.

[8]  Homo Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari, p. 79.

[9]  Ibid., p. 80.

[10]  The Uninhabitable Earth , David Wallace-Wells, p. 4.