Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The milk of human blindness

WW2 Poster - Kodakotype by Pants

I'm just in from the allotment. Yes, I have an allotment now. I've joined the Larrikin's End Green Fingers Club and, for the grand sum of $50 per year, I get two (soon to be three) large garden plots and all the water and organic nutrients I need. By Larrikin's End standards, it's fantastically well run. A woman is in charge.

Having spent most of the last thirty-five years living in a flat, I'm fairly new to gardening and the tuition is most welcome, as is the generosity of my fellow gardeners. Happily, I've been able to reciprocate as my salad crops have yielded well beyond my expectations and consumption needs. It thrills me to collect a big bag of lettuce, mizuna, rocket, coriander and spring onion three times a week. The only independent green grocery in Larrikin's End closed down a couple of years ago so we have a choice of one of the giants that rips off farmers and charges close to the price of gold for salad leaves or a small local franchise with fare so limp you feel sorry for it - but not quite enough to hand over cash. There's a farmers' market once a month, but I always forget when it's on. The allotment is the perfect solution.

Ma Pants grew up on a dairy farm. I've recently transcribed the commentary she made for a family slide show we put together a couple of years ago. She disclosed that during the Second World War, her family supplied neighbours with milk and butter. 'We did quite well,' she recalls. I come from a family of black marketeers, or - in the parlance of neoliberalism - enterprising self-starters. Of course they also kept chooks and grew vegetables, so food rationing really wasn't much of an issue. While we're on the subject of milk - to a typically Aussie problem. The baffling conundrum of what to do when the cost of production exceeds the sale price has proved more tricky to solve than Fermat's Last Theorem - which did eventually get sorted. 

We wicked consumers apparently refuse to cough up the full value of a litre of milk. This situation dates back a couple of years when two corporate giants started a price war. Price wars are what capitalism invents when it has nothing better to do - which is often. And it would all be fine if we were talking about chocolate buttons or pineapple jelly but this is milk - an important food that comes from lovely sentient mammals. At least around these parts the dairy cows are fit, healthy and happy. I, for one, would like them to stay that way.

Milk was once considered so vital to the development of healthy Australian children, that we were force-fed it at school, an event that still gives me regular nightmares. These days, an endorsement on my school record that read 'lactose intolerant' would have solved that problem and, in any case, the days of free school milk are long past. I wasn't ever lactose intolerant. I just did not like to drink warm, unflavoured milk straight from a bottle. Ma Pants tried to solve the problem in a number of ways. We tried flavoured straws and little sachets of Milo. More often than not, I was refused permission to take these out with me for elevenses and was made to drink the tepid milk while a sadistic teacher supervised. Eventually, Ma Pants reached an agreement with the school principal that she would provide a note every term requesting that I be excused from the 'milk parade' on the grounds that milk tended to make me 'bilious'. What a fantastic word that is. I've never forgotten it as it was my passport to a settled stomach.

Back to the puzzle at hand - a standoff between capitalism and common sense. At least that's the way it seems to me. Commentators express outrage that milk costs less than bottled water and soft drinks. I want milk to cost less so that children drink it instead of Coke. And if people are idiot enough to drink bottled water when we have perfectly potable tap water, let them waste their money. So, what to do if we want children with strong bones and healthy teeth and contented cows frolicking in green fields - preferably not simultaneously, that could be dangerous. One or two of our crazy socialist types have suggested setting a floor price for milk. Imagine! Going back to those mad days of pesky rules and regulations designed to prevent rampant capitalism from doing what it appears to do best - rampaging? Hell, yeah. Let's do that.

What's that you say? We can't because of world markets and shareholders' profits and all that terribly sophisticated economic stuff that makes so little sense to ordinary folk. Murray Goulburn, the company that lowered the milk price retrospectively, still calls itself a 'co-operative'. It's nothing of the sort, obviously. The name is historic, from the days when we used to have co-operatives that, er, co-operated rather than embarked on murder/suicide sprees by attempting to put their suppliers out of business. That's the thing with capitalism - it works fine until it doesn't and then it turns into Hannibal Lecter.

The 'co-op' appears to interpret its duty to protect rather like the Ndrangheta does. Except the mafia has the sense to realise that killing all the geese at one stroke will result in the drying up of golden eggs. Having recently posted a profit of $40 million, Murray Goulburn might embark on a rethink you suggest? Well that would just be too sensible, not mention sort of socialist. The market must be left to do its thing - even if that thing involves driving off a cliff.

Here's an equation for you:

Price of milk = cost of excellent animal husbandry + cost of decent living for folk who are public-spirited enough to weather climate challenges and global free markets to provide us with quality nourishment - cost of supermarkets and milk middlemen gambling with our future food security for personal gain ÷ amount of money the poorest families can afford.

And if that doesn't produce a viable dairying industry, then perhaps we can pop back in time and ask the Mesopotamians how they managed to square the circle. 

That global market prices even factor in the discussion about how much we pay for milk is astonishing to me. We're a high-wealth nation with high wages and production costs and fairly decent social security. We willingly pay much more than everyone else on the planet for books, software and episodes of Game of Thrones (except the bad people who pirate, obviously). Exactly why a 50c differential (if that) on the cost of milk has turned into such a potential catastrophe is beyond me.

Am I the only one who's stunned at the concept of reducing a contract price retrospectively? Because that appears to be what has happened. Murray Goulburn has sent its farmers large bills for milk already supplied. That's a bit like Miele sending me a letter saying, 'you know that new dishwasher and washing machine you bought a while back? Well, we think we charged you too little for those. Here's a bill for $1,000 and, fyi, if you don't pay up, we'll take your house. You have a nice day now.'

The social media-led campaign urging consumers to buy so-called 'branded milk', i.e. the same stuff in fancy packaging, is short-term and misses the point spectacularly. It will last a few weeks at best and risks shaming the poor, who will quite sensibly continue to buy the cheapest milk available. Ditto for taking up collections for farmers. Token gestures of solidarity are not going to solve the systemic problems. When will we realise that random acts of protest and charity are not a substitute for a fair and responsible attitude to commerce? We can't be putting our hands in our pockets every time some maniacs take a notion to run amok with our essential food supplies, now can we?

Let's have a national subsidy or levy, whatever you want to call it, so that we can have cheap milk and contented cows and viable farms. And it might be timely to reacquaint the corporate sector with the maxim that they own the risks associated with business as well as the profits. And we could remind ourselves that growing healthy teeth and bones in the young saves plenty in health costs further down the line. We also might want to consider the cost to society of threatening and stressing the farming families who provide this essential product. I may have shunned warm school milk in the dim and distant past but I make up for it now in cheese and yoghurt.

Thank goodness for the allotment. At least there won't be a potato famine at Seat of Pants.