This is a watershed moment for UK dairy farming. We must choose a future that is economically, environmentally and ethically responsible – and sustainable.
The drive to industrialise
In the past 40 years, global livestock farming has changed beyond all recognition. The consequences for animal welfare and have been disastrous and it has also contributed to extremely serious environmental, human health and food security problems.
British dairy farming has not gone far towards such intensification. But developers looking to exploit what they see as being economies of scale have looked at the vast, industrial “cow factories” of the USA, and liked what they saw.
But in the USA, there is now a growing backlash against this type of farming. There is increasing evidence that in America’s industrial CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations), the cows, the milk, the farmers, the public and the environment have all suffered immense long-term consequences.
A bad deal for the environment
Livestock production releases 18 per cent of GHG emissions compared to air travel’s 14 per cent. The need for environmental responsibility cannot be overstated.
Emissions of carbon dioxide, from fertilizer and feed production (not to mention deforestation); methane from cows’ digestion and manure; nitrous oxide from spreading the manure – these all add up. The sheer scale of waste manure and slurry generated by large-scale production is not easily dealt with. On the other hand allowing cows to graze on pasture provides a range of positive benefits for the rural environment and eco-systems.
Milk production is thirsty work
Dairy production is already extremely inefficient in use of water – it takes 990 litres of water to produce one litre of milk. In intensive farms cows get only 10 per cent of their fluid intake from feed compared to 25 per cent in extensive systems.
The future of our countryside and our farmers
Low milk prices have long been driving British dairy farmers out of business. Although intensification is being hailed as a beacon economically, factory farming is far from being the only solution. Britain needs to place less focus on short-term gain and milk quantity, and more on longer-term gains and healthier cows.