“Can you get some bread and milk?”

Household staples. And whilst bread has been a part of the human diet for thousands of years, milk is a much more recent development. So how did milk come to dominate our supermarkets and shopping lists? And what are the implications of this on our lives now and in future?

The history of the white stuff

Cows’ milk was not always commonly consumed, as it was prone to spoiling and was a carrier of disease. Even with the advent of pasteurisation in the mid-19th century, it was not consumed regularly, and was considered more of a dietary supplement for the malnourished, pregnant women and new-born babies.

However, in the 1920s, the post-war dairy market was floundering in comparison with the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian markets and something had to be done.

Harold Corry Mann and John Boyd Orr conducted research on the health benefits of dairy products, by trialling an increase in these foodstuffs to young boys in a Dr Banardo’s home. They saw some improvements in their weight, which was considered a success. The struggling dairy market and the problem of malnourishment in children lent themselves to a shared solution – the idea for a nationwide school milk scheme began.

The 1934 Milk Act was rolled out with three main goals: subsidising butter and cheese production, developing a supply of disease free milk, and publicising and providing milk to schools. The cows’ milk content of school meals went from 29% in 1920, to 81% in 1938, as milk slowly replaced solid foods on the menu.

In 1945, milk production increased massively, lowering both prices and demand. Milk was then provided for free, in schools, for all children. This created a whole generation accustomed to drinking milk daily, which would prop up the dairy industry for years to come.

milk adverts

No use crying over sham milk?

The early 20th century evidence used to promote milk was shaky at best. But what exactly does modern science say about the value of milk in our diet?

Milk is most famously known to make bones strong by providing calcium. However, the evidence for this is questionable. A review of 59 controlled trials of dietary and supplementary calcium showed only a very small increase in bone mineral density, which was unlikely to translate into a reduction in fracture risk.

Calcium intake is hypothesised to lead to a reduction in weight gain, by the mechanism illustrated below:

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N.B.: a longitudinal study starts with a large group of people, about whom data are collected at different intervals, aim to find links between risk factors and outcomes. They are considered to be very robust ways of conducting research.

However, a longitudinal study was carried out which showed the opposite effect of calcium in reality. The study showed that increased dietary calcium and milk was associated with weight gain.

Milk carries an increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancer and heart disease due to saturated fat. Drinking cows’ milk in infancy can also lead to dangerous iron deficiencies.

So, despite all this evidence against milk, no public health intervention has been made to reduce its consumption. This is undoubtedly due to the huge milk based economies and livelihoods in the UK.

A crumbling UK economy: The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and loss-leaders

The CAP is the EU’s agricultural policy, which has been changing continually since its birth in 1962. It has been criticised for adding disjointed goals one after the other, and not involving stakeholders to produce an adaptive and evolving policy.

For example, its initial aim was to increase food productivity and ensure farmers got fair prices for their produce. However, its current focus on sustainability is in direct contrast to this concept. The CAP also tends to subsidise traditional but unhealthy produce. A study attributed 12,800 deaths per year from stroke and heart disease to the CAP.

In 2015, EU milk quotas were abolished. They had been implemented to stem overproduction of milk (‘butter mountains and milk lakes’). After abolition, production increased, prices fell, and producers could not all remain competitive. The removal of quotas also came at a time where the Russian and Chinese markets stopped imports from the EU. Due to this, many UK farmers found it unsustainable to remain in the dairy industry, leading to job losses and damaged livelihoods.

In the UK, this situation has been exacerbated by supermarkets taking a ‘loss-leader approach’. The milk is being sold at a loss to production cost, as an attempt to get customers through the doors, without them having to cut other prices. This loss is usually passed down to the farmers themselves.

Cost of production for farmer = 32p/L

Price farmers receive = 28p/L

Price supermarkets sell at = 46p/L

N.B.: due to fluctuating and differing prices this is a rough guide to the kind of prices seen in the supply chain.

So, what is the future of UK milk production?

The UK dairy economy is facing some serious problems – but what are the solutions?

  1. Giving consumers the choice to pay more and support UK farmers – Morrisons introduced a ‘Milk for Farmers’ range, which gives an extra 10p per litre back to farmers, at a higher cost to the consumer.
  2. Selling direct to buyers to regain control over market prices – Our Cow Molly is a Sheffield based farm and dairy, which is open to the public. Investment from the University of Sheffield has enabled the company to sell direct to buyers, cutting out the supermarket middle man. It also reduces food miles as all milk is produced and sold locally.
  3. Reimagining milk to increase its perceived value – Hook and Son are a raw milk provider. They place a huge importance on organic produce, animal welfare, sustainability, quality and health benefits. As such, they charge a higher premium – 57p per litre for a pint delivered daily.

To regenerate a thriving dairy industry, there needs to be huge changes made to the system. This may come from the public, farmers, corporations or government. Whoever it may be, they need to act quickly.