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The problem with modern dairy

Back in the 1960s, Britain's dairy industry was a national treasure. Around the country more than 100,000 families made a decent living from producing a food that was widely seen as healthy. Today, 90% of those farms have gone. Those that remain have mostly reinvented themselves as large-scale, capital-intensive cow factories. Herds of 400 or more are commonplace in today's countryside. Dairy

farmers had to get bigger to survive.

They've also had to drive their wretched beasts to produce ever-greater quantities of the white stuff. In the 1960s the average yield of the British dairy cow was a little over 3,500 litres a year. Today the average is almost double this, with some high-performance herds notching up 10,000 litres or more.

To maintain such crippling levels of production farmers supplement grass and forage with high-energy cereals and high-protein soya meal, feeds that are unhealthy for ruminant animals like the dairy cow. In turn they’ve had to push their land, increasing the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for ever greater production. As a result, most modern Holstein's are worn-out by the end of their third lactation, on the way they're likely to have suffered from chronic udder infection, infertility and lameness and the land that they rely on have become monocultural deserts.

All of which might be tolerable if consumers were offered a better product at the end of it. But while hygiene standards have undoubtedly improved, the nutritional standard of milk has headed steadily south.

As well as the industrialisation of farming, the sector has also seen the consolidation of milk processing. This consolidation has stripped milk of its provenance and taste. Today's "commodity milk" is likely to be gathered from 100s of different farms and be up to a week old before it even gets on the supermarket shelf. This is one of the reasons the dairy industry has adopted the dubious practise of homogenisation in which the fat globules are mechanically smashed into smaller droplets to be held in suspension through the milk. This way the milk "keeps" for several days more. It also means there's no longer any cream-line at the top of the bottle.

Up until recently this commoditisation has been accepted by consumers, however, a wind of change is ripping through food industries. For decades, big meant better, consumers trusted brands they knew, and convenience food was a novelty. No longer.

Consumers are looking to ‘pierce the corporate veil’ in the food industry and to look at what’s behind the brand. Shoppers today have a completely new set of values; they want committed brands with authentic products. Natural, simpler, more local and if possible small. Today’s consumers are in general more health-conscious than their parents were at the same age. They want to know what is in the products they buy and where they come from, demanding curbs on plastic and waste. They are more environmentally aware — 61% feel they can make a difference to the world through their choices and their trust in politicians and institutions is low. For big brands it all means increasing pressure, as this generation of consumers seeks “authenticity”.

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