Philip Hensher: Some planet-saving sacrifices just don't make sense

We shouldn't be talked into making our own lives worse, and those of vast companies better
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A leaked proposal from the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has made a very surprising proposal for what seems to me a wearyingly familiar reason. It has suggested that we change our behaviour as consumers in a small but very marked way. At present, 93 per cent of milk bought in Britain is fresh milk; the remainder is UHT and powdered.

In a discussion paper, not yet representing government policy, Defra officials have proposed trying to change consumer behaviour so that, by 2020, 90 per cent of milk bought in this country should be UHT. This might seem a radical change, but in fact it would be in line with some foreign countries. In France, Belgium and Spain, UHT consumption is over 95 per cent of the total, and within Europe, only the Scandinavian countries and, slightly surprisingly, Greece have a lower take-up of UHT than Britain does.

Defra's reason for stimulating the sales of UHT milk is, these days, the familiar one of ecological pressures. UHT milk does not need to be refrigerated until it is opened. A shift would relieve the burden, it suggests, by cutting down on those enormously wasteful supermarket refrigerators with the open fronts. This speculative suggestion would also, no doubt, as farmers' groups immediately pointed out, aid in attaining another ecological target suggested by government officials, that of reducing methane emissions from dairy cattle by 60 per cent within 20 years.

It all sounds absolutely wonderful, apart from one thing. UHT milk tastes quite awful. Nobody with any enjoyment of food could possibly prefer it to make a milk pudding, to pour it on their cornflakes, or even pour it into coffee. Supermarkets, in any case, have almost no awareness of ecological responsibilities in this area, refrigerating products, such as the unappealing Sunny D, which don't need it.

Encouraging them to drop sales of a healthy, good-tasting product for something that has been heated to above boiling point before being flooded with nitrogen seems a step too far.

The suggested idea seems unlikely to become government policy, and Defra was denying yesterday that it was anything but one of a number of options under consideration. Still, I think it interesting that this idea springs not from some extremist ecological pressure group, but from the heart of the administration. It does make one wonder how far, exactly, people are willing to compromise their lives for the sake of the environment; or how far they are going to be required to change.

The ecological movement suggests, for example, that anyone brushing their teeth should not do so under a running tap, to save water. You should not rinse your dishes in anything but a bowl of saved water, and should pour that water on to your plants afterwards. When you pee, according to some pundits, you should leave it on the first occasion, only flushing after more than one use.

With all these suggestions, the water companies heartily agree, framing it as a matter of "saving the planet" rather than saving them money. Their willingness to attend to their own wastefulness, however, is rather less enthusiastic, pouring millions of gallons into the earth while the flies circle in their customers' bathrooms. Of course, no customers actually try to brush their teeth in a mug of water. I don't quite go along with the gentleman who, found using a hosepipe in the middle of a hot August, told the official that he'd paid for the water, and proposed to use it. But the ecologically minded must take into account that there are some things which are reasonable, and some things which will, if acted on, worsen people's lives to an unconscionable degree.

And UHT milk is surely one of those. None of us can surely believe that the effective incentive in encouraging people to drink disgusting-tasting milk is one of ecological concern. It's simply that it's easier to store – just as supermarkets have encouraged the sale of varieties of fruit which taste of nothing but stay hard for weeks of transportation.

I have just had a neat demonstration of this small fact; at the buffet of a Great Western train, I asked for milk in my coffee, and was directed towards a pile of indestructible pots of something that was not fresh milk. "What about that?" I asked, pointing at a pint of proper milk, probably for the use of the staff's own cups of tea. "That's exactly the same," the woman said, clearly lying through her teeth. She was instructed not to give customers fresh milk, obviously, because the costs of storing fresh milk are higher than long-life milk.

Of course, they would be very happy to give you, the customer, a lot of rubbish about saving the planet. On the website of one manufacturer of long-life milk, however, there is no nonsense of that sort. It is sold to caterers as "without the hassle and risk of the chill chain", and the planet can look after itself.

People are not stupid; they can perfectly well see the benefits of saving the planet, and are always going to weigh that up against the benefits of ordinary use and pleasure, things that shouldn't become luxuries. Life in countries that have given up on unprocessed dairy products is just a little bit worse. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be talked into making our lives worse, the lives of vast companies easier, behind a smokescreen of global warming, or whatever. Life is getting worse fast enough without being driven along by sanctimonious greed, and it's lucky that these thoughts have come to light at a point where they can be laughed out of court.