The Land of Milk and Honey

By Duncan Tinkler on 07/05/2021

Last week we opened the lid of the honey pot and were shocked to find that not all was as it seemed.  As we continue our journey towards Foodtopia we dive into the milk lake and you will be surprised by what we found.

Does the Dairy industry deserve the bad press that it gets?  

Should we be concerned about the welfare of the animals involved?  

Do the farmers get a raw deal?  

What is the impact on the environment?  

Is it sustainable?

Should we abandon dairy altogether in favour of plant based alternatives, or is there a way we can enjoy milk, cream, cheese and all else besides guilt free?

Let me take you on a journey through time and space to our mesolithic hunter gatherer ancestors.  Our tribe spends its entire existence following the herd, not of cows as we know them today, but their bovine cousins, something like buffalo or bison (remember, you can’t wash your hands in a buffalo).

Cow Milk Mesolithic

We hunt them for meat, skins to make clothes, and bones for tools.  Every part of the animal is used and nothing is wasted.  Once the finite resources are gone the hunt begins again.  

Getting close enough to a female in calf to even attempt to milk it would be dangerously difficult on the verge of impossible.  Even if we could milk the animal, how would it be stored?

Sure we have clay pots and animal skin bottles, but without a fridge that milk is gone off by the end of the day.  Dairy just isn’t on the menu.

Now let's skip forward a few thousand years.  It’s now the neolithic era, about seventh millennium BC  in northwestern Anatolia.  Some bright spark has the idea to fence the herd in and suddenly we’ve got domesticated livestock.  

We protect them from predation, we make sure they have plenty of food and water and we even try to heal them when they are sick.  They stop seeing us as a threat and learn to trust us.  

Ok, so we are still killing them for their meat, hide and bone, but luckily no one told them that and they are none the wiser.   One thing that becomes apparent to these very early farmers is how quickly the calves grow on a diet of nothing but their mothers milk.  

It occurs to them that by harvesting the milk they would have a never ending supply of a highly nutritious foodstuff that could sustain them through both drought and famine.  Thus the dairy industry is born.

As time passes the cow becomes increasingly important to our farming ancestors, so much so that religions build up around them and the ancients are sacrificing them left right and center.

The milk is processed in many ways so that the variety of cheeses, butters, yogurt and everything else is seemingly endless.  Dairy becomes a very important source of nutrients, being high in calcium and a good source of proteins and essential fats as well as potassium and vitamins D, A and B.  

Not only is it good for us, from ancient times, right up to the industrial revolution the cows are generally having a great time.  As one person can only be expected to milk around a dozen cows in a day large scale milk production is out of the question.  

Almost all dairies were part of a mixed farm, most of the milk going to the farm, with surplus being turned into butter and cheese to be sold at market.  Think of Jack and the Beanstalk, selling his only cow for five magic beans.  Only on the outskirts of large towns would you find larger, dedicated dairy farms, with milk cooled by naturally cold spring water and transported to market early in the morning. 

Milk Pastoral Painting

As a cow will only be milked if it’s happy and healthy it has always been in the best interest for the farmer to do everything they can to ensure that this is the case.

This hasn’t changed, even with the advent of industrial farming methods.  It wasn’t until the the early 20th century that the first milking machines started to appear meaning that the milking process could be sped up, herds could be larger and an increase in demand could be met.  

By the end of the century fully automated milking parlours became commonplace, replicating the motion of hand milking, suction only being used to draw the milk away from the cow and into a huge vat ready for processing.  

This has meant that herds today can be as large as 20,000, this alongside intensive breeding programmes creating milk super producers, the dairy industry has never been more efficient.

This sounds amazing doesn’t it.  It seems like we can have our cake and eat it.  We can produce milk on an industrial scale and not be too concerned about animal welfare.  Well not quite.

Industrial sized herds from countries with less developed animal welfare standards pack cows into barns with concrete floors, with no room to lay down, resulting in trauma and lameness.  

Even in countries with higher welfare standards the calf is taken away from its mother at three days old (and if male, often shot), which is distressing for the mother.  Contagious diseases are rife, mastitis being particularly prevalent, causing a dependence on antibiotics and other drugs.  Thankfully, in the UK, even the lowest standard of welfare does much to protect the herd from many of these problems.

However animal welfare isn’t the only problem facing the dairy industry today.  Cows produce a lot of the greenhouse gases Carbon Dioxide, methane and Nitrous Oxide, especially when fed a high protien, ow fiber diet. 

 Not only do they burp and fart a lot, the manure that they produce will continue to emit the gasses as they decompose and then again as they are spread on the fields as fertiliser.

Another major problem with todays dairy industry is an economical one.  Large supermarkets continue to drive down the price of milk.  This devalues the product and forces the farmer maximise his margins by lowering standards. 

So, is there a way we can continue to enjoy milk whilst being confident in the animal welfare standards, the environmental impact and at the same time putting our money into the pockets of the right people?

One way might be to forgo dairy altogether and opt for a plant based alternative such as almond, soy or oat milk.  I don’t believe that swapping one industrialised farming method for another is the answer.  

Chopping down a rainforest and replacing it with a monoculture that must be sustained by chemical pesticides and fertilisers doesn’t do much to negate the environmental impact.  

Also plant based milk alternatives are often artificially fortified with the nutrients that naturally occur in dairy, meaning that they rely on yet another factory made chemical process.  Not only this (and this is my opinion) nut milk in tea is just rank.  They might be ok in coffee, but never in tea.

milk cow highlands

So what can we do?  We could get back into our timemachine and go back to those halcyon days of pastoral farming.  A time when farmers had a deep respect for their livestock, when calves were kept with their mothers for months not years and allowed to roam free in the fields.  Milk might have been more expensive, but it was more nutritious and delicious, the animals were happier and the money went straight into the pockets of the farmer.

Unfortunately we don’t have a time machine, but luckily we don’t need one.  Those halcyon days are today.  There is currently a massive resurgence in small, family run farms that practice ‘Cow and Calf’ and ‘Mob Grazing’ techniques that ensure happy cattle and can actually reduce greenhouse gas emission, sequester carbon and will usually deliver a better quality product right to your door.

milk glass botle

We get our milk delivered to our door by the wonderfully local Plurenden Manor farm.  It’s such a joy to watch Xanthe’s little face as she believes Father Christmas drops off our milk. Knowing it comes in a glass bottle that can be used over and over again also takes us back to childhood.

 I’ve been experimenting making ice cream with their fabulous cream for our supper clubs this summer; I can’t wait to serve you ‘Melting Memories of Summer Strawberry and Purple Basil Icecream.  Don’t miss out on your tickets, gather your friends and book today.

Article written by Duncan Tinkler

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