Morality and the Price of Milk

It’s a nice feeling when you discover that your particular commitment on an issue is not such a minority position as you had thought. That happened to me this week in relation to the issue of justice in farming.
First of all some of my Facebook friends began sharing links highlighting the crisis in the dairy farming sector. Some were posting ads that declared a willingness to pay more for milk. Then the media began reporting objectively on the direct action being taken as protest against the unfair treatment of the supermarkets. We began to hear of farmers buying up the entire milk stocks at outlets of the chief culprits, Morrison’s and Asda. There were pictures of two dairy heifers being taken down the aisle of one Staffordshire store to the amusement of all looking on. There was a clear communication of the issues. Farmers need 32 p per litre to cover all their costs. The supermarkets pay them 24 p per litre. That is unsustainable and for a typical family dairy farm with 150 cows it amounts to an annual loss of £90,000.
Now this kind of protest has happened before but this time it seemed different. Despite the unwillingness of some of the main farmers’ union to throw its weight behind the protests there seemed genuine and increasing public support. And then came the breakthrough when Morrison’s announced that it was to create a special line of milk which would be sold at a premium of 10 p per litre all of which would go back to the dairy industry. This would be sold alongside their own standard milk. ( I’m not altogether convinced by this move but it did represent a start).
The most interesting moment for me came when David Handley the leader of Farmers for Action spoke of the issue being one of “morality” He was speaking of the cynical action of supermarkets who defend their prices as “loss leaders” to entice shoppers into the store but actually make the farmer suffer the loss rather than their own business. That is very true but I want to go further. Much further.
The way we value food and the people who produce food is at the very core of what it is to be human. The Bible, not least in its first three chapters, describes a threefold set of relationships which define us as humans. At the apex of this triangle is our relationship to God. We are designed to reflect God and find our highest enjoyment in him. Directed by our relationship with God is our relationship with other people and with the non-human world. Because God rules with grace our relationship with the land is to be gracious. We are called to “tend and care for it” rather than exploit it. We are to eat of the fruits of the earth with thankfulness. We are to be mindful of how our use of the land reflects our submission to God and our obligations to other human beings.
Agriculture is different from other activities in that it is so closely connected to issues that are at the heart of who we are. Some of these issues include care for the environment, food, commitment to place, the aesthetics of landscape and traditional values associated with farm work such as self- reliance and hard work.
The public, subconsciously at least, recognise some of these connections, hence the outcry at the injustice of the milk supply chain.
There are many Christian voices in that protest and that is as it should be. Sadly we are often guilty as Christians of compartmentalising our faith so that we fail to apply the Bible to issues of economics and the environment as though God’s dominion did not extend to these areas. That is a travesty of the truth and a false and unbiblical pietism.
If supermarkets are allowed to get away with treating their milk suppliers unjustly there are two very obvious consequences. Firstly family operated farms cannot survive this kind of aggressive financial pressure. There will be fewer farmers and the consequence of driving people out of farming is to have fewer people who are in meaningful contact with the land and therefore in a position to care for it.
Secondly cheap food cheapens food. It affects the way we value it and reduces our thankfulness for God’s goodness. Milk, for example, is not only a highly nutritious food it represents enormous commitment by the farmer. When we set a value on milk that reflects what we think of a lifetime spent in learning the skills of animal husbandry. It reflects our value on a commitment to milking animals two or three times a day and providing the highest standards of animal care and nutrition.
The trend in society is to view food as fuel to be purchased cheaply, consumed quickly and wasted carelessly. That is a ghastly trajectory that reflects a refusal to honour God.
And for that reason it is good that there is an outcry. CS Lewis famously wrote “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one!” When this experience is multiplied it becomes a movement. I hope that is the case here.

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Morality and the Price of Milk