Milk: why the white stuff leaves a bad taste in the mouth

Bottle of milk

Modern dairy farming has become increasingly removed from the traditional image of small dairy farms dotting the countryside

Unlike tea and sugar, the fresh milk we drink with our cuppa is likely to come from farms in the UK. But as Tom Levitt reports, there are still serious environmental and animal welfare problems associated with the UK dairy sector

Animal welfare campaigners claimed it as a victory but in truth the recent defeat of plans to build a gigantic 8,100-cow dairy farm near the village of Nocton in Lincolnshire had nothing to do with the animals.

The main obstacles from the start had been the Environment Agency and Anglian Water who could not see how the farm could safely dispose of the tens of thousands of tonnes of slurry expected to be produced by the cows every year. As such, with a major acquifer nearby, they feared it posed an 'unacceptable risk to groundwater supplies'.

Although many feared the Nocton farm, if accepted, would lead to an influx of US-style mega dairy farms, the reality is the UK has been moving towards larger scale and zero-grazing units of the type seen in US states like California for some years. As a recent Ecologist investigation showed, the dairy farms there are so vast they spread over thousands of acres in enormous open air sheds, surrounded by mountains of feed and million-gallon pools of slurry.

In the UK, modern dairy farming has, in the past two generations, become increasingly removed from the traditional image of small dairy farms dotting the countryside. In fact around 60 per cent of the milk consumed in the UK now comes from farms with 150 or more cows and it's changing fast. As dairy farmer and activist David Handley told the Ecologist, 8,000 cow units today could well be 16,000 cow units in 10 years time. 'Everybody is now trying to cut costs and unless you can control costs and go big by scaling up with cows you won't last.'


Unsurprisingly, this pressure to expand has created a number of environmental and welfare problems, which even the industry itself admits are becoming critical. In the high-yielding breeds used to produce milk today, a cow produces more than ten times the milk she would need to feed her calf. The push to create higher and higher yielding breeds is leading to an increase in disease and illness amongst cows that simply cannot cope. The lifespan of a dairy cow is now often less than three lactations.

Industry analysts DairyCo say the pressure to keep yields high means farmers face a 'daily dilemma' about whether to maintain and treat, or cull a cow with health problems. Culling rates in UK herds are now between 18-35 per cent a year, according to DairyCo, with the proportion of cows culled increasing with herd size and milk yield. Likewise, cow mortality also increases with herd size.

'Long term genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows,' concluded a report from the European Food Safety Authority on the welfare of dairy cows. 'The milk yield of dairy cows has risen steadily over the last thirty years in Europe with approximately 50 per cent of this increase estimated to be attributable to genetic selection for milk production efficiency...the genetic component underlying milk yield has also been found to be positively correlated with the incidence of lameness, mastitis, reproductive disorders and metabolic disorders.'

As well as the welfare ethics this also has an environmental impact, as Tara Garnett from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) points out. 'If a cow goes to slaughter and you have to rear a new heifer in its place then that cow is going to be eating lots of protein and producing lots of methane for two years before it produces any milk, which is in a sense a waste of methane.'

Waste and pollution

Perhaps, given this insight, it is less surprising to know that the dairy sector now accounts for 4 per cent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The vast majority of those emissions, 93 per cent, take place on the farm from the cows themselves and from demand for animal feed, fertiliser and pesticides.

The high-yielding dairy cows require huge amounts of animal feed. Under its original plans, the Nocton farm was going to require 14 HGV deliveries a day for animal feed and milk collection. Increasingly, this animal feed, particularly the protein element of it required by high-yielding cows, is being imported as soya. More than a million tonnes of soya is being imported and fed to livestock in the UK every year and 98 per cent of this is coming from South America. Campaign groups say the expansion of soya production there is linked to deforestation in the Amazon and grassland regions of Brazil. The vast soya plantations in neighbouring Paraguay have been found responsible for a host of local social and ecological problems including the forced eviction of rural communities and excessive use of pesticides.

As the Environment Agency's objections to the Nocton proposal reveal, there are also a number of ecological problems surrounding modern dairy farming in the UK. In the main the problem is about the slurry waste and the problems dairy farms have in disposing of it, without it being washed off by rainfall into water sources. In 2002, Defra estimated that agriculture was responsible for about 50 per cent of phosphorus inputs to surface waters. Excess levels of phosphorus in water contributes to the process known as eutrophication, whereby certain species, for example algae, thrive and rapidly begin to dominant the river at the expense of other species, including fish. Anglian Water admitted it spent £80 million between 2005-10 in treating nitrate-polluted water, with 60 per cent of this pollution attributed to agriculture.

In some cases the pollution has led to criminal prosecutions. The Environment Agency has estimated that the dairy sector accounts for half of all its recorded agricultural pollution incidents. Even one of the farmers behind the Nocton proposal had a previous conviction for polluting a stream with milk waste and killing fish.

Health issues

In the US, concerns have been raised from residents living near large-scale dairy farms of an influx of flies and higher levels of particulate pollution. Dairy counties in the US such as Tulare and Bakersfield have equal or sometimes higher rates of ozone and fine particulate matter than the smog-infested city of Los Angeles. In its objections to the Nocton dairy, the Environment Agency said there were, 'significant uncertainties regarding the impacts and control of odour from the operation of the dairy, and associated land spreading, and its effects on residential amenity'.

The health problems of high-yielding dairy cows and use of antibiotics is now also being linked to antimicrobrial resistence both in the UK and around the world. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) say the widespread use of antibiotics in animals is thought to have led to resistant strains of some bacteria being transmitted to humans through food. It has also said that a new type of antibiotic resistance in E. coli had spread to more than one in three dairy farms in England and Wales. 'The intensification of agriculture...and dairy cattle pushed harder and harder to produce more milk, has led farmers to rely on hugely important antibiotics to treat the diseases this is causing. We are now getting the evidence that this has real implications for human health too,' says Compassion in World Farming CEO Philip Lymbery.

Dairy is not necessarily the healthy choice for humans either. Although the dairy industry has been very successful in lobbying on the nutritional benefits of milk and dairy products, there is a significant amount of research about its negative health effect, including links to diabetes and prostrate cancer. Many nutritionists now argue that fish and green vegetables are a much better source of calcium than milk. Fearing the consequences of losing its 'healthy' tag, some of the world's biggest dairy companies joined forces in 2006 to form the Global Dairy Platform. Its objective continues to be to fight any attempts to question the health benefits of dairy and increase demand for milk and dairy around the world.




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