Yesterday I had an unfortunate argument with someone via Twitter about how much responsibility we as consumers need to take for the proposed (and recently postponed) badger cull. I’ll explain my thinking below but I’d like to explain why I said it was ‘unfortunate’. It was unfortunate primarily because (no matter how it sometimes seems) I don’t like to p*** people off, especially when we’re on the same side. I prefer to debate an issue rather than argue about it, and I’m always trying to better understand. If I seem dogmatic (which is where the p***ing people off comes in) it’s often because I’m testing out my thinking and trying to improve it, and one way to do that is to repeat a point I’m sure of until someone can convince me I’m wrong.
And I am more than happy to admit when I’m wrong. In fact I’m grateful for fresh thinking, always. However, debating on Twitter and using only 140 characters at a time, I probably just come over as stubborn and refusing to listen to a point of view that is different to mine. That isn’t the case. I have no idea whether the person involved will read this, but if they do I hope they can understand that all I wanted to do was put up an argument and if I was wrong have it explained to me why. I have no doubt at all that they were as passionate about animal welfare and injustices as myself, as intelligent and thoughtful as I am (in this case anyway, there are some real muppets on Twitter), and thought their POV was as correct as I thought mine was. That the discussion ended up in the online equivalent of having a phone slammed down on me was – again – unfortunate…
So, what was our disagreement about?
The thoroughly-misguided-and-scientifically-invalid -wanted-by-very-few-people-except-Defra-and-some-farmers badger cull. There are details about the cull all over the internet (and Talking Naturally) so if you’re unaware of the issue do have a look, but basically dairy farmers accuse badgers of giving cattle Bovine TB (btb), which leads to the immediate slaughter of the cattle and loss of revenue to the farmer. The government wants to see what happens if they remove 70% of badgers from two pilot areas (despite badgers being protected animals). They think there will be a reduction in btb of up to 16%. Most scientists who’ve studied badger pilot culls disagree.
An alternative has been suggested: vaccination of the wild badger population. All of it. This will cost millions of pounds and will need to be ongoing for years. It is, though, surely incomparably better than killing a wild animal that has for centuries bumbled along largely minding its own business and would like to go on bumbling along for centuries more. As someone who passionately cares about animals I’m of course on the side of the badger – as I know is the person I argued with. Which, again, was why I described events as ‘unfortunate’.
So far so good. Nothing to argue about. Until, that is, I mused aloud about something that’s been niggling me for months. How much responsibility do consumers of dairy products need to take for the badger cull taking place? It’s been a very uncomfortable question to consider, because it asks some fundamental questions about just what sort of ‘animal lover’ I really am.
Here’s the thing (as I see it anyway).
- Dairy farmers produce milk which consumers either drink or consume as something else: cream, cheese, yoghurt, ice-cream, butter, and a whole myriad of other foods containing milk proteins and lactose. Dairy products are everywhere when you start to look.
- Dairy farmers want paying for the milk their cows produce.
- Few farmers now sell direct to the consumer as so few people go to farms to buy dairy products, and besides which most farmers aren’t manufacturers anymore and don’t make the ice-cream or cakes the consumer wants.
- The vast majority of dairy sales are now made via supermarkets and major processors. The supermarkets/major retailers buy a LOT of milk. Prices paid by processors for parts of the milk, eg cream, varies. This can impact the prices that retailers will eventually sell those dairy products on for.
- The UK’s major supermarkets sell unimaginably large amounts of milk (in many forms) because that’s now where most people shop. ‘Fresh’ milk goes off (has a shelf-life) so it has to be moved off the shelves quickly. Supermarkets want as many customers as possible to shop with them so they keep the prices of many staples – including milk and dairy products like cheese – artificially low, while expecting we’ll all also buy higher-ticket items too.
- Generally consumers buy into this. We all like a bargain, and right now money is tight. And how could we afford to buy dairy anyway if we actually had to pay the supermarket, and the processor, and the farmer a decent profit? We probably couldn’t. And as so much modern food contains dairy products that would probably be a major headache for politicians.
- This all means that the dairy farmer gets less money for milk and barely anyone says anything about it. In fact prices at the farm gate are being driven downwards. In July dairy farmers complained that they were making a loss on every litre produced, as cattle feed and associated costs (antibiotics, vet bills etc) continued to climb at the same time as the prices they were being paid were falling.
- That means that every single penny is very important to a dairy farmer.
- Which is why they are looking for any means possible to hang onto their cows and get as much milk out of them as they possibly can.
- Which is why there is a call for badgers to be culled.
That might seem a leap, but logically if we buy milk at the prices we do now dairy farmers will ask for badgers – and anything else that threatens their profits – to be dealt with. To me that is an inescapable fact. Like it or not we (if ‘we’ consume dairy products) are driving the calls for a cull whilst understandably campaigning very hard to get that same cull stopped.
That is undoubtedly a difficult argument to be presented with. We’re a nation of animal lovers, we don’t want badgers to die. But despite the farmers trying to tell us that we have a badger problem, what we actually have is a ‘dairy problem’. A huge human population eating ever-increasing amounts of dairy products as cheaply and conveniently as we possibly can. If we didn’t, if we didn’t consume the breast milk of another animal, there would be no calls to kill badgers because there would be no industry looking to scapegoat wild animals for falling profits.
I’m sure a great any people will disagree with this. I’m sure because people on Twitter told me so. But they didn’t come up with an counter-argument to convince me where in my argument I was wrong. I’m not discussing anything else here, not the rights and wrongs of our diet (though I guess that’s implied) just that if there was no dairy industry no-one would be looking to kill badgers. If you’d like to have a go to convince me otherwise, please use the comments field – though bear in mind I will just delete anything that contains swearing or that states I’m an idiot because I’m not.
(Of course there is another element of this debate that us ‘animal-lovers’ like to overlook: the suffering of the animals that actually produce all this milk. Cows.
Cows are really rather nice animals. Gentle, affectionate, and intelligent enough to get by if not set the world on fire. They are good mothers, and they produce a rich milk to feed their young. Despite the image that we’re sold, they don’t in fact like to be kept permanently lactating though imposed pregnancy, having their calves taken off them soon after birth, or being sent to slaughter when their udders give up under the strain. There is abundant proof for this on the internet (or even at your local dairy farm), and as animal-lovers who empathise with badgers and possibly own a dog or a cat we probably know this really even if we choose not to think about it.
Here’s something to try. Try stepping to one side and thinking about all of this from the perspective of, say, a visiting alien who has no vested or cultural interest, and is merely observing without taking sides. Then think about what you’d be writing in your log-book on the journey home: ‘One animal killing another so that it can sell more milk of a third to the same animals protesting the killing of the second’.