Feelings are running high over the dairy crisis but it is worth dividing some of the bad from the good in what is deeply complex and emotional issue. People with their buying power have shown an overwhelming sympathy for hard working farmers who have been duded by large processors who have slashed their farm gate prices. The show of solidarity by thousands of shoppers to pay more for milk by buying branded products, even if it is a futile gesture against the might of Chinese buying power or the ruthless vagaries of world markets, shows at least individuals are capable of placing the welfare of individual families above profit.
But already there are those willing to exploit the situation. Among them are the animal welfare lobby who are playing the animal cruelty card. While the issue is significant enough to potentially require regulation and improvement, the timing is at least poor. What’s more, to advocate for the complete closure of an industry as a solution borders on the absurd. If their bigger aim is to abolish animal husbandry or wholly remove a 7500 year staple out of world’s diet then the less said about it the better.
But by equal measure those advocating for the plight of farmers are not exempt from criticism. Ugly exaggerations of suicides among dairy farmers, when these incidents or figures are wholly unconfirmed, shows the vital need for calm advocacy and judicious reporting when the mental pressures on farmers are so high already. To do more is at least alarmist and at worst exploitative.
On a community level there is also a fundamental clash between what people perceive to be an intrinsic ethical principle and the more mercenary objectives of the market. On the one hand consumers have been moved by a belief that hard work deserves a just reward. On the other is a market system determined to place profit as the driving priority. Ironically one of the key culprits in the saga, Murray Goulburn, is a cooperative that has let its members down by a failure of what Professor Tim Mazzarol calls competing interests; “Members have been turned from owners and members of a democratic community of purpose, into suppliers and investors whose share value is linked to the price of a litre of milk.” Trust is shattered because the tenuous balance of social or human values has been sacrificed. Canadian owned company Warrnambool Cheese and Butter by contrast has decided to absorb the losses. But for how long? The human cost will be long and bitter.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.