Terence Blacker: A pint of milk isn't cheap when it comes at this price


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The Independent Online

There has been a fashion among social historians for taking a source of simple food and tracing the complicated ways it has impinged on human society. Cod was one subject, salt another.

One day, those wanting to tell the story of the past 50 years through one product will have an obvious choice: milk. During the post-war years of "Drinka Pinta Milka Day", it stood for health and regeneration. The milk bottle on the doorstep was part of local life, the milkman a symbol of comic British naughtiness from Benny Hill's Ernie, who drove the fastest milk float in the west, to the ever-randy hero of that soft-porn epic Confessions of a Milkman.

Today, as dairy farmers demonstrate against yet another cut in the price they are paid for their product, milk represents a less happy reality. In 2012, it reminds us, the market will always be put before the environment, health and animal welfare.

Realising that milk is a uniquely emotive brand, supermarkets have ruthlessly used it as a loss leader. They have squeezed the giant processing dairies, who in turn have passed on the pain to the farmers who were supplying them.

The result of this brutal, market-led approach has been disastrous. Over the past few years, the vast majority of Britain's dairy farmers have left the business or moved into another form of agriculture. From an already low base, 200 farms have gone out of business in the past 12 months.

If the supermarket chains and processors continue to wield their power in the same ruthless manner, the only way to produce milk and any kind of profit will lie in the creation of giant mega-dairies of the type which have caused environmental, health and planning problems in America. The effect on the fields and hedges of the countryside, both in terms of the way they are enjoyed by humans and their impact on biodiversity, will be profound.

The benefit of milk to human health derives largely from the fact that the cows which produce it graze on fresh pastures. Intensive, industrialised farming not only deprives the animals themselves of fresh air and grass, and spreads diseases but, because they are fed on high-protein soya and cereal, their milk contains fewer nutrients and vitamins for consumers – all for the sake of a few pence saved at a supermarket.

Unless something is done to prevent the loss of traditional dairy herds, milk will become the ultimate emblem of contemporary greed and the worship of convenience. The type of countryside which is to be celebrated in the opening ceremony of the London games will disappear, in some places to be replaced by vast, inhumane, industrial dairies. It is all a long way from Ernie, the fastest milkman in the west.

What your illness says about you

A startlingly brilliant new research project is to trace the connection between diseases and the times during which they flourished. At Northumbria University, academics will be studying why consumption took a grip in the early 18th century, to be followed a few years later by gout, and why the Victorians were so susceptible to the vapours.

The aim is to discover more about what the leader of the project, Dr Clark Lawlor, has bravely described as "fashionable diseases".

I suspect that the researchers will have their work cut out when they reach our self-obsessed times. Consumption will still be there but in the 21st century, it will be about consuming – the famous obesity timebomb – rather than being consumed. It will no longer be "the beautiful disease".

Gout will be replaced by a more general dependence on alcohol, while the new vapours will be our addiction to emotion, personal drama and tears. Then there is Fake Guilt Syndrome, the compulsion among public figures to behave badly and then offer snivelling public apologies.

The scope for this important research project is considerable.