How anything in this BBC article about organic milk should come as a surprise is beyond me:
Buy a pack of organic milk and generally you feel you have done the world and the environment a service – albeit a small, litre-sized one.
After all, you think, a happy cow in a grassy field is probably a good thing, environmentally speaking.
Which is probably why Arla decided to say its organic milk was “good for the land” and “a more sustainable future”.
Arla Foods is no small-scale outfit. It is a massive European milk co-operative ranked as the fourth-largest milk producer in the world.
The organic farming movement would have people believe that their products are grown in allotments or hand-reared in small farms of the type that appear in Famous Five stories. What is amusing is the dim middle classes, particularly professional women with a surplus household income, actually believe it.
Of course Arla Foods is an enormous corporation. If the consumption of organic produce is limited to a few hippies living in wigwams then sure, you don’t need any industrial-scale operation to meet demand. But once the numbers increase the suppliers are going to have to scale up, particularly if the customers are all living in cities (and they almost all do: most consumers of organically farmed products wouldn’t know a combine from a cattle grid). How many people consume organic products in London, say? Over a million, probably. This demand isn’t going to be met by farmer Giles on his local farm using practices from the 1950s.
It’s the same reason I get annoyed when people sing the praises of their jolly local butcher who is a little bit more expensive but is oh so much better than those nasty supermarkets. What they don’t realise is their local butcher is selling to wealthy, niche customers while the supermarkets provide for the masses. If the supermarkets weren’t there and the butcher was the only option, they’d be selling overpriced offal with tubes sticking out.
The argument for organic milk is not as straightforward as you might imagine.
Organic dairy producers do feed their animals with crops grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. They don’t use antibiotics. They use less energy in producing and carting around concentrates. All those are plus points.
But organic farms produce less milk per head of cattle. So they use more land and more cows per litre. And there is the awkward matter of methane, a greenhouse gas, which cows produce in abundance.
Firstly, why is not using antibiotics automatically assumed to be a good thing? Animals get sick just the same as we do, and treating them with antibiotics is as sensible as it is for humans. Would we think denying antibiotics to a child suffering from tonsillitis is virtuous? Probably not, but apparently letting a cow suffer from an infected sore is. Now I get that the agricultural industry has been irresponsible in its use of antibiotics, using them as preventive measures to stop intestinal infections caused by feeding them shite, and that practice should be eliminated. But a blanket ban on antibiotics is stupid.
Secondly, that organic farms are less efficient than conventional ones is something Tim Worstall was pointing out a decade ago. Almost by definition, organic farms need more land (meaning more hedges destroyed, more wetlands drained) and use more resources and energy (more weeding, larger areas to plough) to produce the equivalent yield of a conventional crop. As with everything, it’s a trade off:
“Organic farms perform better in terms of soil and water quality, and species biodiversity, but can perform worse in terms of methane emissions.”
And on a host of other criteria, I expect.
We’re going to see the same thing with electric cars if they ever actually take off (which I doubt, but I might be wrong). A few thousand virtue-signalling celebrities and public-sector employees in places like Norway might not produce much by way of externalities, but if that gets scaled up to the millions or tens of millions across multiple cities, what do things look like then? Where does the electricity come from? Where do the chemicals and metals in the batteries come from? How do we dispose of them?
From what I can tell, most environmental campaigns are designed to relieve the dim but wealthy middle classes of a portion of their income in exchange for making them feel good about themselves. I can only marvel at their effectiveness.