Should milk contracts be competitive?

Are more competitive milk contracts one answer to accelerating positive change in the UK’s dairy system? 

Milk contracts should be open to competitive bidding to enable dairy farmers to fairly compete and drive positive change in the industry, suggested some of the dairy farmers taking part in a workshop hosted by the Food Ethics Council at the UK Dairy Show this week.

  • More transparency on milk contracts and closer relationships between milk buyers and producers could help accelerate shift to fairer, more ethical dairy sector
  • The Food Ethics Council is working with dairy farmers to help them accelerate positive change for people, planet and animals across the UK dairy sector
  • The three-year Dairy Project involves a series of workshops and dialogues on ethics and fairness with UK dairy farmers

People should be able to aspire to and fairly compete for milk contracts, as it could be one way to help accelerate the shift to dairy systems that are better for people, planet and animals. That was one of a number of take-aways from the second workshop of a new three-year project being facilitated by the Food Ethics Council.

An initial workshop with dairy farmers from across the UK took place at the Groundswell Show in June. And a second workshop took place at the UK Dairy Day event in Telford on September 15th. The participants taking part run a variety of dairy systems, including organic and zero-grazing setups across England, Wales and Scotland.

Creating a level playing field across the dairy sector in the UK, including allowing more farmers to be able to compete for milk contracts, would ultimately allow farmers to thrive and invest further to improve their business, animal welfare and environment, said some of the participants in the workshop.

Sussex dairy farmer and Nuffield scholar Keith Gue, who took part in both workshops, said: “The people who have better welfare outcomes probably have better staff outcomes and better environmental outcomes. Whatever the metrics are that processors want to put to those contracts, we should be able to compete for them on a level playing field.”

Participants also called for a closer and more meaningful and collaborative relationship with milk buyers to help drive positive change, and an end to the “them and us” scenario between processors and producers.

Glamorganshire dairy farmer Abi Reader, who is chair of the NFU Cymru milk board and sits on the NFU national dairy board, said: “Geography often chooses your milk-buyer, also your milk-buyer often chooses you by geography and that’s not a good enough relationship to build anything positive. What more can we both give, but really what more can the milk-buyer give because they’re the bigger player? They’re just basing their relationship on who’s closest.”

Regardless of your milk contract, participants emphasised the importance of fostering and developing a dairy farm’s place in its local community. Something that had become arguably more valuable and recognised during Covid lockdowns over the past 18 months.

“I want to be as important to that village as the village pub and the village community hall, and to be a place that people enjoy walking past and say hello. I want to be more than just their glass or their plate, I want to be a part of their life, and if we can do that then hopefully we can get a better return. So, take some control back, I suppose. But to me, it matters that I matter to them,” said Abi Reader, who took part in the UK Dairy Day workshop.

Speaking after the workshop, Food Ethics Council executive director Dan Crossley, said: “Many dairy farmers feel trapped – by unrealistic price pressures, by the way the market is structured and by pressures of living up to the expectations of their ancestors, if on family farms. Competitive contracts could help stimulate progress in the sector, but only if farmers are more fairly rewarded for looking after their cows, people and land. A transition to more ethical dairy systems in the UK is possible. But we need to listen more to dairy farmers to hear their ideas on how to make positive change happen.”

Notes for Editors:

For further information about the project, interviews and attending the next workshop please contact:

Food Ethics Council is an independent UK think tank whose purpose is to bring ethics to the centre of the food system. Our mission is to accelerate the shift towards fair food systems that respect people, animals and the planet. Twitter: @FoodEthicsNews

See here for an overview of the Food Ethics Council’s Dairy Project.