CHRISTIANS are being called on to support dairy farmers hit by collapsing milk prices as the crisis in the industry deepens.
British farmers have seen the price paid for milk by retailers fall 25 per cent in the past 12 months, leading many to fear that their farms will face bankruptcy. Two cows were led through an ASDA supermarket in Stafford on Sunday by angry farmers, who say that they are paid less per litre of milk than it costs them to produce it.
Talks between Morrison’s, another one of the supermarkets targeted by protesting farmers, and farming unions have led the chain to introduce a new milk brand sold at a premium that is handed on to dairy farmers.
But the campaign group Farmers for Action have declared the dairy crisis a "morality issue", and said that the move did not go far enough. The president of the National Farming Union, Meurig Raymond, said: "Obviously the industry is in crisis. . . I’ve been farming for 45 years, and this is the worst I’ve known."
In response to the issue, the national rural officer for the Church of England, Canon Jill Hopkinson, said on Tuesday that Christians should make sure they bought only British milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter — and ensure that the shops they bought it from paid their farmers a fair price.
"British dairy products are easily identifiable by the red tractor logo," she said. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, and the Co-operative have agreed to pay higher prices for their own-brand liquid milk, she explained. "Other stores, such as ASDA and the discounters, source milk in different ways, and pay less for it."
She suggested that concerted Christian action could prompt the supermarkets to give a better deal to the dairy industry. "[They] are very responsive to what their customers are saying. If enough people started asking how much has the supplier received for this product, then that is only to the good."
Similar views were expressed by the rural adviser to the diocese of Bath & Wells, Rob Walrond, who is a farmer. He said that Christians should make a point of politely asking supermarkets what their policy was on buying milk.
"The Fairtrade movement was incredibly successful primarily because Christians questioned big stores about their sourcing. It’s a question of justice and fairness."
The Guardian reported earlier this week that industry experts believed the average price of milk at the farm to be 23.6p a litre, almost 7p less than the 30p a litre it is believed to cost the farmers to produce it. Dairy farms are closing at a rate of about nine a week in England and Wales.
The Arthur Rank Centre, which supports rural mission in the UK, has released a prayer for the dairy industry, and is encouraging churches to support farmers. The prayer ends: "May we consumers never take our food for granted, and may we value and support those who work tirelessly to feed us."
Mr Walrond, a volunteer on a Christian farming-support network, said that Christians had a part to play not just in what milk they buy, but in looking after farmers pastorally as well. "People living in rural communities could simply go along to a dairy farmer and show their concern," he said.
"Pray [for them] in churches. I would also like to see churches inviting local farmers to their services to discuss the situation."
He said he was also concerned for the well-being of dairy farmers if the crisis dragged on. "I’m worried about mental-health and suicide issues. . . We are worried we will see a big upturn in depression."
Canon Hopkinson said that this was an issue that British Christians could not afford to ignore. "If we can’t produce food in our own country, we will have to import it, and that is taking food out of other people’s mouths."