by Aris Roussinos
Monday, 4
October 2021

Chris Loder is right: bring back the milkman!

Supply chain disruption could benefit the UK in the long run
by Aris Roussinos

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:

I know it might not feel like it in the immediate term. But it is in our mid and long-term interest that these logistics chains do break…It will mean that the farmer down the street will be able to sell their milk in the village shop like they did decades ago. It is because these commercial predators – that is the supermarkets – have wiped that out and I’d like to see that come back.
- Chris Loder

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.

Join the discussion

  • Interesting example to me, since I grew up on a small dairy farm in Australia, long since divided into even smaller hobby farms for urban refugees, and have ended up in a UK city, drinking hardly any milk.

    If only we could’ve held on through another two decades of hard work and poverty, we’d be doing alright now.

    The market for our milk through those years would have been export casein and other milk products, rather than liquid and yogurt on supermarket shelves.

    I was amazed at the (relative to us) comfortable middle class lives subsidised modern farmers lead.

    “Sustainable” isn’t the first word that springs to mind, but I continue to watch with interest from my own comfortable middle class townhouse.

  • I get milk delivered from Milk and More. Its not the same as in the old days when the Milkman would go door to door in his electric milk float, as I think he has a flatbed truck, but it is still in returnable glass pint bottles. It isn’t cheap at 81p a pint, and none of my neighbours use the service, but even though I’m definitely working class, I feel that any bloke who’s willing to get up in the middle of the night to make a living deserves to have some trade. I also get a loaf of bread, half a dozen eggs and a bottle of fruit juice weekly from him. He always delivers before 7.30am and it’s been the same man for at least 10 years. The service has recently gone online, which I resisted as long as I could, but I believe it is now possible to order up to 9pm for delivery the following morning. I’ve recently had a leaflet through my door from a new company called Modern Milkman which looks like a similar service, they’re offering glass pints of milk at 70p, but I will be staying loyal to my Milkman.

  • “ You mean we are supposed to eat only sprouts, cabbage, potatoes, swede and turnip from September to May?“

    Yes and no. I really like all those foods and find them comforting on winter evenings. Just not by themselves!

    I have a friend who lives in northern Italy and have visited many times. Both independent retailers and supermarkets stock mostly food from the surrounding region. He did say that choice of veg is limited to what you describe in winter, but the cooking culture has recipes to make these foods enjoyable. You cannot buy fresh tomatoes and peppers all year round, but you do have canned or dried goods to work with and plenty of meat and cheese (not much seafood as its inland).

    But there’s two key points: Italy has twice the land mass of Britain and isn’t as reliant on food imports (hardly, in fact); and their local food retailers open as people finish work, whereas ours close. If I could be saved the inconvenience of having to drive across town to a big concrete shed in the evening and do my shopping on the way home instead, I’d be all over it!

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