Last week I took part in a debate about the value of milk compared to bottled water and, in my research, I learned some interesting things about the UK bottled water market and the way in which it is promoted and marketed.

There are some interesting comparisons between the volume and value of both the liquid milk market and the bottled water market in recent years, as highlighted below:

MilkBottled Water
Market volume 2013 (million litres)5,2502,360
Market value 2013 (£m)3,2601,820
Growth on previous year (£m)-15.6+210
Average retail price / litre (2013)62p77p

The value of the bottled water market is predicted to reach £2 billion by 2016 and yet, I am often told by people in the dairy industry that we have to accept that milk is just a commodity and our role is simply to deliver the raw material at the lowest possible cost. But, if water is enjoying the rapid growth in value highlighted above, why can’t milk achieve the same?

More and more people are drinking bottled water. In a 2012 survey by Mintel it was found that average consumption was 34.7 litres per person (liquid milk is 78 litres). But isn’t all water the same?  Well, there are clear messages from those that bottle it that it’s not.

Highland spring waterIt can be the simplest of things that can make us feel good. That’s why our spring water drawn from protected organic land is bottled at source just as nature intended.
Evian waterOn its 15 year journey through an ancient glacial filter deep in the heart of the French Alps Evian Natural Mineral Water slowly but surely acquires a unique mineral balance.
Volvic waterVolvic travels through hundreds of metres of Volcanic material. It filters through 6 layers of porous rock. Each layer is the result of a volcano erupting. We call it Volcanicity.

So it appears that bottled water producers are differentiating their water and adding value by telling the story of how it is produced. It’s clear it doesn’t just fall from the sky! This is where I believe that the future for British dairy farming and milk lies – in defining the values in the source of our milk and dairy products. Some accuse me of causing divisions in the dairy industry by simply highlighting the fact that not all milk is the same. However, if we are to win tangible value for milk at the farm gate and escape the global commodity trap that is failing our farmers so badly today, we must define and differentiate it in the marketplace. Right now, we are being unwittingly forced to compete one another out of business in a race to the bottom. How about we turn that into a race to add value to the dairy industry?

I established Free Range Dairy not because I felt that my milk was better than others, but because amidst the shift towards an industrialised food supply chain, the real value of food from our farms was being lost. The pressure on farmers to develop more intensive farming methods, the disappearance of local outlets for milk, the demise of doorstep delivery and the ensuing mass exodus of producers from the industry has widen the gulf of disconnect between the consumer and the source of the food that sustains them. This has resulted in a crippling demise in the value of milk that will change our diets, the fabric of our rural communities and our countryside landscape forever.

For me, the worst thing about all this is the fact that none of it is necessary in securing a sustainable supply of healthy milk from British farms. Traditional, seasonally grazed dairy farms are often portrayed as old fashioned, outdated and inefficient as new buildings begin to appear on the landscape, housing sometimes thousands of cows all year round to produce cheap milk. But, the truth is, it is not the farming system of old that is inefficient – it is the modern day supply chain that is really at fault. Grass remains the cheapest food available to British dairy farmers. It’s a plant that grows in abundance in Great Britain and, whilst we can’t eat it, our amazing bovines can and they turn it into a wonderful nutritious food for us. The problem is that the diet of our nation is no longer driven by what is good for us. Instead, we are fed what the middlemen can make a margin on along the journey from farm to fridge. It is they that drive the consolidation of fewer, bigger, more intensive farms to facilitate logistics and promote a cheap offer, in an attempt to win market share.

Free Range Dairy is all about trying to establish value in the way we farm – the source of the milk our customers drink. There are essentially three ‘pillars’ upon which this is founded:

  1. Freedom for cows to graze
  2. Healthy and affordable milk for consumers
  3. A fair reward for farmers

Amongst all the current gloom, the good news is British dairy farmers can deliver what is right for farmers, cows and consumers. But, if we allow those who want to peddle cheap food to trade on false perceptions about our product, we will never win the recognition that dairy farmers badly deserve. Images of cows in fields are widely used to promote a ‘feel good’ factor about milk and dairy products and yet, in reality, milk is being sourced by large retailers from a variety of farms (both in terms of size and system).

What is desperately needed now is for credit to be given where credit is due – to the farmers who actually deliver what the consumer wants. There is much debate within the industry about whether the welfare of cows is safeguarded in confined herds and I know those cows are well cared for. However, I personally believe that grazing is a fundamental component of natural behaviour for dairy cows and the freedom to roam in fields when the weather is right is a value that I know many people share (both farmers and consumers).

What I am calling for is clear labelling of milk and dairy products that gives consumers a simple assurance about the way dairy cows are managed on farms and allows those that want to be able to buy milk from herds that are grazed make an informed choice. The Pasture Promise ™ label sets out to do this by letting consumers know that the milk comes from cows which have the freedom to graze for a minimum of six months of the year. We are not asking people to pay a premium for free range milk but simply a fair price to reflect the value of the freedom we give our cows and support those farmers committed to keeping cows in fields. Farms will be independently audited to ensure compliance with the standards we are now setting.

Such is our preoccupation with producing greater volumes of cheap food that we are losing sight of the fact that the real problem is a lack of responsibility and terrible waste – the Institute of Mechanical Engineers reported in 2013 that 30 to 50% of all the food produced in the world never reaches anyone’s plate. There is now an urgent need to shift the focus away from volume and towards value in milk in dairy products if we are to deliver what is right for farmer, cow and consumer and end the ongoing crisis that blights this vital industry.

 

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