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It's time to stop this milking of dairy farmers

If it's any comfort to James Paice I didn't know the price of a pint of milk either. But since he's agriculture minister at a time when dairy farming is fighting for survival as the price for their product plummets, you would think he could have run a quick eye over the wife's shopping receipt to acquaint himself with this fairly important detail.

Instead in a recent interview Mr Paice, questioned on the retail price of a pinta, airily waved it aside with a line about how the "wife buys most of it." Needless to say the sexist, clueless performance of the semi-skimmed minister for milk hasn't impressed.

An Opposition spokesman points out that while Jim Paice calls for farmers to get a decent price for their milk; "the trouble is he is so incompetent he hasn't a clue what it should be". In the shops a pint of water currently costs more than a pint of milk. There's obviously something seriously wrong with this.

The pressure on prices - which have now reached, the farmers argue, unsustainable levels - is said to be forcing countless dairy farms out of business. At fault are both the milk processors and the big supermarket chains many of which see milk as a handy loss leader - a bargain-priced product that will lure the punters in.

The industry term for this is, presumably, milking it. Creaming off the profits ... . But is this not also, to mix the farmyard analogies, a classic case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

As prices drop to unrealistic levels and farmers find it is actually costing them more to produce milk than they are paid for it, the inevitable outcome is that dairy producers will go out of business and prices will rise.

Would you then, be prepared to pay more for a pint of the white stuff?

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I'd wager that most consumers would. There's a recession on and many shoppers are getting it very tight indeed. But a small rise on the price of milk is not the most outrageous rise to contemplate.

As a result of media and consumer pressure there has been some movement from the supermarkets and the processors. But farmers leaders warn it is not enough. And there is another largely silent partner in the milk production process whose voice isn't heard but whose well-being should concern us all. The cow.

The horror of the BSE scandal has shown what can happen when the drive for profits comes before animal and, as a direct follow-on, human welfare.

This is not just about compassion. It's also about common sense. As part of the same food chain, how we treat cows impacts very directly upon our own health.

You don't have to be a card-carrying vegetarian to also believe that animals should be treated with care and respect anyway. We should treat them well because that is the right thing to do. If the mad profiteering that is making it so very difficult for decent, caring farmers to stay in business isn't checked, it will rebound cruelly upon the poor beasts we all take for granted.

What price the milk of human kindness?

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