As everyone should have noticed by now, we’ve entered a period of global supply chain disruption which, when coupled with major long term trends like de-globalisation and climate change, means the smooth transnational economy we’ve become accustomed to is increasingly vulnerable. But centrist commentators seem curiously immune to noticing these trends, leading to much online mockery of the Conservative MP Chris Loder’s statement at the party conference:
Loder’s right, and his critics are wrong. Like just-in-time supply chains generally, the centralisation of the food supply through the supermarket system may be convenient to consumers when things are functioning “normally,” but they’re fragile in times of crisis, bad for farmers and bad for the environment. When ethical farming advocates like the excellent James Rebanks talk about shifting back to small-scale, sustainable, local food supply, what they’re advocating would look exactly like what Loder is calling for.
When the government abolished the Milk Marketing Board in 1994 — due to Irish pressure through the EU commission — the prices farmers obtained for their milk slumped as they were squeezed by supermarkets. Three quarters of Britain’s dairy farms were forced to close as they could no longer run a profit, and the stress and increased debt led to an epidemic of mental health crises and suicides among dairy farmers. When small farms close, their land is bought up by huge industrialised farming corporations, leading to far worse living conditions for the livestock, increased pollution, dependence on non sustainably-farmed feed imported through fragile supply chains, and a dramatic loss of biodiversity.
But as the farming magazine The Land noted back in 2017, Brexit opens up the possibility of government intervention in the food supply, particularly with milk, which is particularly vulnerable to volatile price fluctuations — unnoticed by consumers, but an existential worry to farmers, who bear the cost.
Indeed, the unsustainability of the current supermarket system has led to a boom in new “microdairies,” where small, sustainable farmers sell direct to the consumer, retaining the value from their labour that would otherwise be hoarded by the exploitative practices of the supermarkets. As the Sustainable Food Trust notes, microdairies “provide more income for farmers and local communities and less to the handful of supermarkets and milk processors that dominate the UK dairy sector,” and at the same time “give the public a fairly-priced, locally-produced carton of fresh milk.”
As has often been noted, under the old Milk Marketing Board system the government ensured farmers achieved a fair price for their milk, which was sold to dairies who distributed it to consumers with fleets of electric-powered vans in recyclable glass containers: the old system worked, and it should return.
I’ve argued here before that the food system needs a radical shake up: Britain needs many more small farms, which will have innumerable benefits for farmers, the environment, the regional economy and public health. Any Tory push to tip the scales back in farmers’ favour should be encouraged: it’s Loder’s notionally liberal critics who are on the wrong side of history, demanding the continuance of an outdated, unsustainable and exploitative system.