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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Milk

Much of upland Britain is maintained in its attractive state thanks to the use of the land as sheep and cattle grazing, and for the related haymaking or silage recovery. Both beef and dairy herds of cattle are maintained. The current prices of beef and lamb make the meat sector remunerative: and the increasing preference for fresh meat in the emergent economies - most obviously in China - bodes well for future meat prices. The sad concomitant of this fact is that the poor in the UK and other formerly industrial countries, faced by declining real purchasing power, are able to eat less prime meat: and for millions of families it is disappearing from the list of available options. The affordable alternatives of sausage and ready meals contribute to the wave of obesity that is engulfing at least half of the beneficiary population and making them less suitable for employment.

At the same time in recent years there has emerged a significant global surplus of milk. While the majority of consumers are still able to exercise a preference for fresh milk, and can check on its provenance, even the supermarket milk supply is subject to global competition. For conversion to butter and cheese the source of milk is irrelevant provided the quality of the milk is guaranteed. Hence while there is a significant segment of customers who want - and will afford - locally produced fresh milk for household use [and especially for children], the demand for bulk milk is not differentiated in that way. Thus the purchase of the bulk of milk from farms is dominated by large wholesalers, who in turn are forced to compete for business from supermarket chains and manufacturers. Simple market forces dictate that the prices offered to farmers decline; and they are now well below the level at which hill-farming for milk is viable. Even many lowland cattle farmers have gone out of the milk business, though many of them were able to operate much larger dairy herds than their uplands fellow-producers.

The potential outcome from this is that the whole way of life of upland farming will change from mixed dairy and meat farming to just meat production [which in its turn will also be subject to the variability of world demand]. Without daily collections of fresh milk from significant regions of the UK  the transport system and the use of local resources such as petrol stations would decline, and the increasingly under-used transport infrastructure would become more expensive for the reduced local population to maintain. There are already manifold signs that this is happening.

With the government under pressure to reduce spending, 'subsidies' for rural populations come under threat: hence rural post offices and doctor's surgeries, sub-libraries and smaller schools are becoming extinct; subsidies to virtually-unused [and unaffordable] bus services are cut and the shrinking incomes of their clientele make more pubs non-viable every month. As these processes accumulate the ability of farmers to maintain the visual character of the countryside diminishes.

There should be a national policy on this disappearance of the national heritage; but it will not happen under the current rule of the political class. Economics will trample over humanity and this example of dereliction and decay will become conspicuous only when it is unaffordable to do anything significantly to correct the damage.

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