Few of us can consider life without milk: it's almost like water. We pour milk over our cornflakes, we put it in our tea and coffee, we eat yoghurt and cheese derived from it. Our children's bones are strengthened by it. Our fondness for milk is fashioned by our Arcadian view of the countryside. All those black-and-white cows lolling contentedly on hills eating grass.
Our view of the white stuff, though, needs updating. Milk has become a battleground and its story gives us a revealing and alarming insight into what's happening to our food.
Down on the dairy farm, all is not well. Farmers began a nationwide strike last week to protest at milk prices. Instead of sending supplies to the processors, they gave away the milk or poured it the drain. The farmers are furious with the supermarkets, who have screwed down dairy prices over the past decade while taking more of the money for themselves.
That supermarkets are exploiting their strength to maximise profits is not surprising. But the speed of their ascendancy and the consequent collapse of the dairy sector is. Milk now costs half as much as Perrier water.
There are other, darker sides of dairy that provoke thought. Animal welfare groups claim that the industry is inherently cruel, keeping cows in cramped sheds, with wrecked feet and grotesquely swollen udders. The intensification of production may not be doing our health any favours, either - one study this year claimed that organic milk is more nutritious, although this is not proven. Some vegetarians are adamant that we should not be drinking milk at all. Humans are the only species to drink the milk of another animal in addition to their own.
The milk story began in Mesopotamia 8,500 years ago when man started domesticating the auroch. Britain has 2 million cows, mostly in western parts where greater rainfall makes the grass richer. Each dairy cow is phenomenally productive - making up to 60 litres of milk every day. (Imagine 100 pints on your doorstep.)
Modern dairy farming is an intensive business that gives the cow little rest and has some harsh practices. Through artificial insemination cows are kept pregnant for 10 months of the year so that they produce milk. Breeding has introduced a super-cow that produces around 10 times as much milk as it needs to feed a calf.
Concrete floors cause lameness; 20 per cent of the national dairy herd is estimated to be lame at any given time. Udders are regularly infected with mastitis. Calves have their growing horns burnt off to prevent them harming themselves or farmers.
Continually being pregnant and lactating takes its toll. One leading vet likened the lot of a dairy cow to that of a human jogging for six or seven hours a day. After as little as three years the cows are worn out. As soon as their milk yield drops, they are killed.
According to the vegetarian welfare group, Viva, dairy farming is a system which "inflicts unacceptable pain and suffering". Vets acknowledge dairy cows have a hard life but say that, with the right care, they can be content.
When children learn about the countryside, their books tend to populate the fields with cows. For the most part, cows are still kept on hillsides and taken twice a day to the milking parlour. A grazing cow is likely to be a Friesian producing 35-40 litres of milk a day. She is the archetypal cow, supporting the business of the countryside - green hills, haystacks and hedgerows - so fixed in the mind of the urban masses.
But dairy farming is rapidly changing. With the intense pressure to produce cheaper milk, farmers have introduced "zero grazing", where cows are kept in their hundreds in sheds with concrete floors. Instead of grass, they eat high-protein feed and move about outside only in "loafing yards ". The cow here is black and white, too, but she is bigger - a holstein. The enlarged udders of this super-cow can produce 60 litres a day.
Some 10 per cent of the cows in the UK are estimated to be in zero grazing but they produce about 30 per cent of the milk. The system has some similarities to the battery farming of chickens. Even farmers using it are struggling to make money, though.
In 1995 there were 35,000 dairy farmers, according to the Milk Development Council. Last year there were 21,000. About three farmers a day are leaving the business because the "farm gate" price is about 18p a litre, three-quarters what it was 10 years ago and 2p less than the cost of production.
Farmers such as Peter Parkes, who has 100 milk cows on his holding in Surrey, are making losses year after year. Meanwhile, supermarkets' cut of the price of a litre of milk has risen from 1.3p to 13p in the last decade. Last year, Parkes's farm made a loss of £7,000, despite the fact that he regularly works 12-hour days. Dairies tendering for the big supermarket contracts offer ever lower prices. They maintain their margins by cutting the amount paid to farmers.
Supermarkets are keen to keep the price of milk low because they know that, like bananas, milk is one of the few products shoppers know the price of. The grocers keep these "known-value items" artificially low to entice customers. While strolling the aisle, we load up on comparatively expensive "added-value items" like ready meals and prepared salads.
Farmers for Action, which took part in the 2000 fuel protests, has decided militancy is necessary. It organised the first farmers' strike last week and plans longer protests in the run-up to Christmas. It is also warning darkly of food shortages.
Its chairman, David Handley, a Monmouthshire dairy farmer, believes the supermarkets must start offering a fairer deal. More widely, he blames the store chains and the Government for following a "cheap food" policy that he says does not in the long run benefit consumers, who are also taxpayers.
He suspects foot-and-mouth disease may have been caused by cheap beef imports and blames British stores for buying cheap, intensively reared foreign poultry from Asia, where avian flu has emerged. And he worries that with the collapse of dairy farms, Britain will start to import milk from Europe, leading to it being four or five days old before it reaches our shelves. Continental cheese and yoghurt makers are already major importers here.
The supermarkets point out that they do not deal directly with farmers. Instead, says the British Retail Consortium, farmers supply processors and manufacturers "some of whom operate on larger net profit margins" than the supermarkets.
The strike has split the farming community. While accepting that the wages of a dairy farmer are "pitifully low", the National Farmers' Union believes the way forward is through greater efficiency at dairies - allowing more money to be passed down the supply chain - together with supermarkets dealing direct with farmers.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sympathises with the farmers but advocates "dialogue" and urges all sides to co-operate in the Government's dairy supply chain forum. The Conservatives favour the use of farmers' co-operatives while the Liberal Democrats want a food trade inspector at the Office of Fair Trading to restore "equity" to the market.
The drive for ever greater efficiency simply won't solve the problems, according to Professor John Webster, emeritus professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University. He believes that the public need to stop viewing milk as a "bottom-line, bog-standard product". He says: "The dairy industry is in crisis because the farmers are going out of business and the cows have undoubtedly been distressed by the drive for productivity." He is careful not to condemn zero grazing and says cows can be content there with rubberised walkways and sand to lie in.
But he believes the solution is for farms to start marketing " free-range milk" made by roaming cows: animal welfare supporters spend 40 per cent more on free-range eggs.
"There are two ways forward," Professor Webster says. "One is the high-genetic holstein who will be kept in a high tech barn and who may be robot milked and go outside for two months a year. The other option is to still produce milk from cows fed food produced on the farm like grass or maize. The solution is in the hands of the customer. If a customer is told - and people like cows - that they value fizzy water twice as much as they value milk then we have a way out of this mess."
Should we buy organic milk?
Organic milk has grown in popularity in recent years, but is it really better for animal welfare, the environment and health?
* Britons buy 98 million litres of organic milk a year a 50 per cent rise in just two years but still only two per cent of sales.
* Organic milk is produced on farms that are forbidden to keep cows in zero grazing. Banned, too, is preventative medicine such as antibiotics to prevent mastitis.
* Studies though have found animal welfare no better on organic farms, though they do have "higher aspirations" that may improve conditions in the long run.
* A study by the Danish Institute of Agricultural Research that reported this year found organic milk had 75 per cent more beta carotene and 50 per cent more Vitamin E, and more Omega 3, than conventional milk. There was no difference in calcium or Vitamin B12 the biggest health benefits of milk.
* Organic dairy farms help keep cows on Britain's rolling green hills.
* Perhaps the best argument for buying organic though is that, until we have "free-range" or higher organic animal welfare standards, it informs the supermarkets that we are prepared to pay a premium for better milk.Reuse content