I have a confession to make. I am a milk drinker. I am a cheese eater. I will also have cream (if it is available) with my strawberries. I am not going to stop drinking milk or eating cheese or having cream on my strawberries anytime soon. However, I am also, according to recent statistics, part of a reducing demographic. This morning a tabloid article flashed up on my social media pages, reporting figures from the market research firm Mintel which suggest that younger people are, on average, consuming less milk than older people. In terms of figures they point out that ‘93% of over 55s in Britain drink milk compared with 81% of 16 to 34 year-olds.’ Non-dairy ‘alternatives’ such as soya and almond ‘milk’ (although it isn’t really milk so in my opinion should not be referred to as such!) are very much on trend and favoured by several celebrities who are helping to push such products.
The ‘dairy crisis’, in terms of the prices achieved by farmers, is now hardly news in the UK. It is a well known issue. According to AHDB Dairy, the average producer milk price has fallen from 31.61 pence per litre in 2013 to 21.42 so far in 2016. In the past year alone it has fallen from 24.42 pence per litre. All areas of the farming industry come in waves, the pig industry for example is notorious for this, but it is clear that is not a good time to be in milk at the moment.
This said, I would predict that as more people leave the industry prices will slowly recover. I was only young at the time, but I remember when my dad sold our family’s herd in Essex fifteen years ago. This came about as a result of several factors but key in the whole saga was the deregulation of the milk market following the 1993 Agriculture Act and the effective end of the Milk Marketing Board in 1994 (the board was not formally dissolved until 2002). Many farmers left the industry during that time. There was of course also the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 which hardly helped matters. However, those who survived managed to pull through. Whether it is an entrepreneurial spirit or a dogged determination, either way some key players always manage to ride out the hard times. I am optimistic that the good times will come again and dairy farms will be able to widely invest once again. It isn’t helped by the scaremongering of the tabloids with headlines such as ‘Sales of milk could plummet – and it’s all teenagers’ fault as they shun the white stuff!’.
There are a couple of key things that I take issue with when it comes to articles such as this. Firstly, I do not like the approach of blame, especially towards young people who face enough pressures as it is when it comes to what they ‘should be’ or ‘should not be’ eating or drinking. It is a baby boomer attack on the younger generation which is completely unnecessary and works to antagonise the divide that was highlighted by the Brexit vote. Secondly, it does not account for the short and medium term reasons why the dairy industry is currently struggling. What about supermarket influence on prices? What about global trends and competition? What about the lasting effects of abolishing the Milk Marketing Board? Placing blame on what is realistically a small demographic is not going to help anybody. Sensible businesses will spot the trends and fit to them, even if this means diversifying into other areas or ading value so that their business can survive. Blame does not get us anywhere. In a market economy (and with the prospect of a post pillar 1 subsidies economy soon being upon us) farmers will have to shift towards where their customers are going, not forcing them to fit to a status quo that is potentially unsustainable. At the same time, Britain needs to decide the extent to which it wants to support its farmers. Brexit brings an opportunity to shape the way our land is managed by farmers and landowners. If we want to see cows in the fields then we will have to pay for it, whether that is through taxes or being willing to pay more for our pint.