Tony cannot help but be struck by the irony. Just after the Bridge Farm cows are sold, the farm gate price for milk rises. The average price paid by the ‘registered milk purchasers’ is now just shy of 31p per litre. However, for all that Brian may be rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of the profits Borchester Land is set to make from the vast quantities of milk that the new dairy is set to produce, many farmers are still not happy and argue that they need at least 35p per litre both to cover the cost of production and enable them to continue to invest in their operations.
For most people in Britain, the price of milk is not what is paid to farmers but what they have to pay for the ‘daily pinta’. Though in many cases, it’s the weekly 6 pinta from the supermarket. Those residents of Ambridge (probably the silent majority) who buy their milk that way will not have seen a price rise (apparently 4 pints still retail at about £1.25). Those to whom Jazzer is delivering know that value is not the issue. Earlier in the year, Mike reluctantly agreed to Ed’s plea for an increase in the doorstep price. We’re not told what it is, but 80p a pint would seem to be a likely figure. So there is another irony in all this: Ed and Emma’s economic peer group are unlikely to pay (or to believe that they could afford to pay) 80p for a pint of milk.
The ethical issues raised by the price of milk are complex. It is, we might argue, unjust that anyone should be required to produce food for others at a material loss to themselves. If the milk purchasers pay less than the cost of production at the farm gate, that has to be wrong. On the other hand, milk is a basic foodstuff and an ingredient in a number of ways in many products. The price of many more goods than milk, butter, cream, yoghourt, and cheese, would be affected should there be a major readjustment. There is a danger if poorer people had to pay much more for milk products, the diets of their children would suffer. It is, we might argue, unjust that anyone should struggle to buy the most necessary of goods.
Perhaps the root of the disquiet is that we focus on the price as it is inevitable that a discussion of a market issue will. The ethical issue, the justice question, then becomes about ensuring that neither producer nor consumer is exploited and the answer is to be found in a narrow corridor of agreement that suits both. Moreover, there is an implication that mass production is necessary to keep the price low and that which Ed and Mike or Pat and Tony would describe as ‘quality’ is on offer only to the better off. A broader conversation would ask questions about how the supply of basic foodstuffs can and should operate, so that alongside price questions about quality, taste, and farming methods become part of the discussion.
One of the powerful Old Testament images is of the promised land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The implication it that these are the blessings of life for all God’s people to enjoy. The gift of the land accompanied the gift of the Law, the purpose of which was in part to ensure that none of God’s people was exploited and that none went without the necessities of life. The result of keeping the Law was to be celebration in the land that God had given. It is easy to wax lyrical about the delight of golden butter on fresh bread, of cream over fruit, of children enjoying a glass of cold milk. But (unless your ethical decision is to be a vegan) there is a sense that those things are pleasing to God. Whether the price of milk at the farm gate tops 31p or 32p per litre, that’s the real issue.