Sunday, 25 October 2009

Score One For The Milk Marketing Board.

"WTF is "Dairy Drink"?"

- Question at "BoingBoing"

I'm not a big fan of marketing boards, or perhaps it would be better to say that I have reservations about them. I have a lot of sympathy for their original rationale; a union for farmers. But it seems to me they have gone from being a union for farmers, to being an exclusive club for certain farmers, to being damn near farming mafia*. They've been (and still are) a blight and a fungus on the development of organic foods in Ontario, that seems quite clear.

But every so often I'm reminded that it's an ill wind that blows no good. At least we don't have to deal with the abominable abortion that is "Dairy Drink" in Ontario, and I'm pretty sure that's due to the nature of the Milk Marketing Board, and not because our various governments are so much dedicated to the quality and healthfulness of our food, given the evidence in other areas of food production. "Dairy Drink", in case you didn't click through, consists of skim milk, sugar and water, and it sells for half the price of regular milk. Yay! Just what the North American diet needs; more sugar. In particular the diet of poor people who are already inundated with crappy sugary, starchy, fatty CRAP.

I was reminded by this product that when I lived in the U.S., none of the pizzerias I went to had real cheese on their pizzas; it was all oily, plasticky soy-crap. It was a shock, because I was used to pizzas in Ontario which weren't necessarily great, but which at least had actual cheese on them. Of course you could get excellent pizzas in the U.S. - far better than any Canadian pizzas I've had - but not in the small towns and poor neighbourhoods that I was living in and not on my budget.

The most accurate way to describe food in the U.S. is to say that it is not homogenized, if you will excuse the pun. It has separated into two layers: a rich creamy layer of some of the best food in the world, made by small farmers and artisanal manufacturers dedicated to their craft and with prices to match, and the lowest common denominator of highly processed food-like substances made by humongous, manufacturers - who also own frequently own the "farms" - engaged in selling the least possible product for what appears to be a low price, but which is in fact gross and obscene price gouging when the actual costs of the goods are considered. I think this process has probably been exacerbated by the disappearance of the American middle class; as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, food follows the same pattern.

What I want for a food system is one where I can choose between good, better and best, not between superb and crap. If you don't have a lot of money to spend on food you should still be able to get food that is reasonably priced, inspected for safety, of decent quality and truthfully and completely labelled. The marketing boards have - in their own self-interest - prevented the bottom from falling out so far as quality is concerned to the degree that has happened in the U.S. But they've also created a situation in which there is little room for the small, the unique, or the lovingly crafted. They've managed to put the lid on the best, muscling out those would-be dedicated small farmers and artisanal manufacturers to a truely depressing degree.

Not completely, thank goodness. If the production of cows milk is so regulated that none but the wealthy or the heirs of dairy farmers can take up dairy farming - and it is; Ontario practically has a dairy farming caste system - small farmers and cheese makers in Onario have taken to raising, milking and cheesemaking with alternative diary animals: goats, sheep and even water buffalo. Enthusiastic consumer response shows that there is room for the better and the best in this province, and I'd like to see a lot more encouragement for it from the government and the marketing boards.

But today, a great big THANK YOU to the Milk Marketing Board for saving us from "Dairy Drink".

*And I'm lumping them all together, which is not really fair. They do vary quite a bit.


Minda said...

Thanks for mentioning some of the issues with the Milk Marketing Board. Not only do they prevent "the development of organic foods" as you've written, but they also make it impossible for small farms to participate in the marketplace by pressuring government to develop laws that keep them out.

I doubt that the board has taken steps to prevent the sale of Dairy Drink in Ontario; it might just be that the manufacturers of DD don't care to expand their business into our small Canadian marketplace. Even if the board did have a hand in this, I wouldn't go so far as to thank them for their efforts. It would only be in their own self-serving interests, but I'm sure they would use the guise of public health to make them look like heroes. I could go on and on.

Like you, I would also like to see our food system rid of highly processed, cheap low-quality edibles. Before we do this, we need to ensure that the low-income population also has equal access to high quality organic food (and not just "of decent quality"). Also, incentives should be available to farmers/producers of sustainable food, to ensure they themselves aren't struggling to make a living, and/or sell their product at a prices that only the wealthy can afford.

Ferdzy said...

First Minda, let me say thank YOU for posting a comment. I throw these things out there in the hopes that I will get some responses that will help me clarify my own opinions. I admit to thinking that this was a somewhat provocative post, but I didn't think anyone would consider that I was being *soft* on the Milk Marketing Board, LOL.

I'm working at trying to figure out where I stand on the whole marketing board system, and it's been a slow and difficult process. I'm going to continue to chip away at it, but people who read this blog will probably end up reading some fairly half-digested thoughts on the subject before I come to any definitive conclusions, if I ever do.

The inability for new, small-scale or innovative farmers to get into dairy farming (or poultry, or whatever) is, I agree, one of the biggest problems with the current set-up.

If it wasn't clear that my suppositions about the Milk Marketing Board being responsible for the absense of products like diluted milk and fake cheese were entirely in their own self interest, sorry! Of course it is. I'm still going to thank them, because in this particular case our interests coincide.

However, one of my other problems with the Milk Marketing Board is - try finding out what their input into these regulations actually is. It's next to impossible. Their lobbying is very opaque to the general public. The whole way they operate is very opaque to the general public. Every time I sit down to do research on it I end up tearing my hair out after about 45 minutes of going around in circles. I think I'm going to have to read the Milk Act, which I'm pretty sure is going to be just as thrilling a piece of literature as the title suggests.

I did find the history of farm marketing boards (the link through "original rationale" in my post) the most clear and concise overview of the situation that I've seen. If you haven't read it, I suggest you have a look at it.

As for your last paragraph, the question I have is how, exactly is this to be done? One of the things the history of marketing boards made clear is that voluntary farmers co-ops didn't work. They've lasted longer in the U.S., but we're seeing right now in the U.S. the same problem that did in co-ops in Canada: farmers aren't getting a price for their milk that comes anywhere close to covering their costs, never mind them making a profit. Small American dairy farmers are in dire, dire straights right now.

We need, as a society, to put some sort of "floor" below which the quality of food cannot legally drop. I just don't see the "floor" being organics, for a whole host of reasons. What I would really like to see us do is take off the "ceiling" which prevents the products you are describing from being available at any realistic price whatever, because farmers can't even make the attempt legally. I'll be writing about this again.

Minda said...

Wait... no thank YOU, Ferdzy. It is so refreshing to discuss food issues and politics with someone who is knowledgeable on the subject. Sometimes the subject matter comes up in casual conversation ("buying bottled water is okay if you recycle the empty bottle, right?"), and I feel like bashing my head into a wall when I realize how little people know or even care about the substance that enters and becomes part of their body every day. But then again, maybe I'm just not a natural-born educator, haha.

Now, back to the matter at hand. I can't say I know much about marketing boards, but from what I hear from small Ontario farmers that have been excluded from the system, and from what I know from working in large food companies, it only makes sense that a powerful group like the Milk Marketing Board would use a lot of muscle to get their way (and do it behind closed doors). They are the ones, after all, that we should thank for pushing 2-3 servings of dairy on us via Canada's Food Guide, when some would say that the nutritional benefits of dairy are debatable. At some point I will definitely read the link you've posted, thanks for that.

My concern is that if we put only a floor on the quality of our food, and then remove the ceiling, it'll open up the market to locally made artisanal, handcrafted foods. That's great, but the poor still can't afford to buy it and the food producers will be competing for market share from only a small group of consumer elites with the disposable income to afford it.

I attended a panel discussion last week in Toronto about local food and the politics surrounding it. I thought Debbie Field, the Exec Director of FoodShare, had an excellent idea. She suggested that incentives be made available to those farms who also act as land stewards. That way, sustainable farming methods are encouraged (ecological benefits), small farmers have a more sustainable source of income (and thus can make a living from farming...what an idea!), and the cost of high-quality whole local food is driven down and made more affordable to those living below the poverty line.

Simeon (Sam) George Drakich said...

Michael Schmidt won his case without legal counsel, he did have support from "The Landowners".
Randy Hillier is the true voice of rural Canada.

Ferdzy said...

Well, I don't mean to imply that opening up the top end of the market should be the end of the process... but I do think it would be a good start. As always, there are a whole host of factors to be taken into account

Sam, I thought Michael Schmidt lost his case. Am I missing something? (Probably!)

Simeon (Sam) George Drakich said...

Michael won his case for raw milk, the countless contempt of court charges he must now face.

I drink raw milk, cider,honey,etc...

Knatolee said...

Excellent post! And I hadn't heard of "dairy drink." Sounds utterly revolting.