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Consuming Issues: Do we want cheap milk or family farms?

Peter Wiles talks a good game. When explaining why Britain needs a mega-dairy with a herd 30 times larger than average, he says traditional dairy farmers are going out of business and imports rising; British milk is under threat.

The plant he wants to build in Nocton, Lincolnshire, will help "food security", he says. It will also be "environmental", with feed grown locally and manure spread on nearby fields, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers that cause climate change. An anaerobic digester will turn slurry into green electricity for 8,300 homes. It will have high animal welfare standards. It will create 60 jobs.

But villagers are less enthusiastic, fearing pollution and a stink from the manure and an influx of articulated lorries along narrow country roads. They also have some sympathy with animal welfare groups who say the 3,770 cows, producing 58 pints a day each (imagine them on your doorstep), will have harder, shorter lives.

What is not in doubt is that British dairy farming has been in crisis for years. As the chart above shows, at least 500 farmers quit every year. Numbers have halved from 35,741 in 1995 to 16,404 last year. The average dairy farmer is 59 years old. The industry is at a turning point. If it carries on as it is, fewer small farms will be left in the West Country, where passing holidaymakers enjoy the sight of cows lolling on green fields made lush by rain.

Instead, a series of mega-dairies will spring up in the eastern flatlands, where land is cheaper, where the crops that constitute artificial feed are grown, where the major centres of population are ... where Mr Wiles and his business partner, fellow dairy farmer David Barnes, plan to build Nocton Dairies.

Who is to blame for all this? Step forward the supermarkets and, ultimately, the public. Few of us know the price of groceries, but we notice a few, such as packs of butter and two-litre jugs of milk. Supermarkets depress the price of these "known value items", giving us bargains. Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, they have squeezed the dairy processors, who in turn have driven down prices at the farm gates. The result: farmers struggle. They seek maximum yields. So while the number of farmers has halved in a decade, production has declined by only 5 per cent, from 13.5 billion pints in 2000 to 12.8 billion pints last year.

We get watery industrial milk. But it is cheap. While a litre of orange juice costs £2.20, a litre of milk costs just 74p. A pint of beer costs £3.50; a pint of milk is 45p, Compassion in World Farming noted this week.

So is the solution mega-dairies? It is worth pointing out here that even those dairy cows in the West Country have a tough life. They could live to 20 naturally but, on a dairy farm, they are usually dead within five. The animal welfare professor John Webster, of Bristol University, likens their lot to a man running a marathon every day.

The Government, referring to the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, says large dairy units are not necessarily worse for cows than small farms. Given the concern shown by the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, I'm not so sure.

A report from the European Food Safety Agency last year linked high-yielding Holsteins to higher levels of mastitis. In the US, which has mega-dairies, the proportion of cows reaching four fell from 80 per cent to 60 per cent between 1957 and 2002.

Few people can buy milk direct from the farm, but those that do help the farmer. Organic milks comes from smaller, more traditional farms.

Cheap industrial milk or kinder, tastier, dearer milk? We will decide the future of the British dairy farm.


Heroes and villains: Old Etonian foodie with real bite

Hero: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

The Old Etonian could just stick to his business promoting the making of marmalde for the urban masses who hanker for a smallholding and making their own marmalade. Instead, there's a bite to his campaigns. Having exposed intensive chicken farming, he is taking on overfishing in January.

Villain: Environment Agency

The taxpayer-funded agency issued a report lauding an improvement in water quality at beaches in England and Wales. Well done. Shame it couldn't find space in the 17-page paper to list the 51 beaches that did not meet EU standards. A regional table showed those in North-West England are filthiest: 16 out of 29 were rated "poor."