CAMBRIDGE/LONDON - The number of dairy farmers in the UK is at an all-time low and MPs are now calling for action, for more protection for the industry. A volatile domestic and global market are causing the farmers to go and look for another job, or to continue but with potential devastating effects for the environment.

According to a BBC news article the report from the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee points out several problems. However, at the heart of the issues seems to lie the problematic relationship in the supply chain, especially between the farmers and supermarkets. The Groceries Code Adjudicator, which is there to investigate complaints and ensure that suppliers are treated “lawfully and fairly”, is only covering the interests of ‘direct suppliers’ of the ten largest supermarkets. This excludes the large number of dairy farmers.

In the Relational Proximity Framework® “parity” is one of the five dimensions of a relationship. In the current situation, this ‘balance of power’ seems to be very much on the side of the supermarkets. BBC environment correspondent Claire Marshall notes that where a farmer needs about 30p for each liter of milk to look after his cattle and earn a living, a lot of the times he only receives 20p. In some supermarkets four pints of milk can be bought for just 89p.

It is this lack of parity, caused by a situation where competition among the supermarkets is intense and the global (export) market is volatile, that forces farmers to go out of business. According to the National Farmers’ Union the number of dairy farmers has fallen with 50% since 2001.

There’s also a ‘relational’ aspect when it comes to farming and environmental sustainability. The danger is that where farmers try to go against the odds, continue to try and make a living, that they resort to measures that damage the environment. One can think of taking out hedgerows which will help them to increase yields in the short run, but which will have devastating effect on the environment with biodiversity lost and soils and watercourses undermined.

Solutions are needed on multiple fronts. If the groceries watchdog extends to cover dairy suppliers, then a certain amount of parity will be restored. Supermarkets will have to pay more for milk and so will consumers. Yet with improvement of the ‘balance of power’ in the supply chain, there will be many more positive effects on the environment, economy and ultimately on the farmer themselves.

But starting closer to home, the consumer can ask him/herself the question: How much am I willing to pay for four pints of milk?