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A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey

by Walter Haefeker ... July 2010

Some may ask, why beekeepers should care about the milk crisis. But farm policy inevitably is also beekeeping policy. A crisis can be an opportunity in disguise.

Every change in the agricultural landscape in the foraging range of our colonies affects the health of our honey bees and our bee products. These changes are not always the result of the free decisions by free farmers, but of deliberately pushed structural change. With the slogan 'Get big or get out' the intensification of the dairy production was promoted. Geared towards standardised quality criteria farmers now get world market prices for world market milk.

EU subsidies are used to stimulate an arms race between producers to achieve low prices for the food industry and ultimately the consumer. Low food prices enable lower wages foe workers and thus increase competitiveness in the global economy at the expense of the producers.

Broken quota system
An effective management of the production volume in order to achieve sustainable price levels for the producers is systematically subverted ! At the EU level, the production quota is set well above market demand. Germany permits the transfer of unused quota to dairy farmers that want to produce more than their quota, rendering any attempt to reign in production futile. Finally, the anti trust authorities are preventing farmers from setting a fair price. As a result, many dairy farmers are going out of business. Others are switching to bio gas. The official government statistics show, that in Germany alone the number of dairy farms dropped by 49% from 1998 to 2006. Only 10% of the dairy farms, that existed in 1955 are left today.

No blooming pastures ! Unlike the pretty pictures on the packaging of dairy products, most of the milk does not come from cows crazing on pastures. Even in Bavaria, the most scenic province of Germany with mostly family farms, the portion of the average feed ration of a dairy cow, that comes from the cow actually grazing on a pasture, is only 0.6%. Much of the feed is imported genetically modified soy from South America, the production of which is driving our beekeeping colleagues in Argentina out of their traditional honey producing areas. The locally grown portion of feed ration is either grass or maize silage. many beekeepers in the dairy producing areas are complaining about a 'green desert' without flowering plants. If flowering plants appear, significant numbers of foraging bees get killed in the modern disk mowers used to make grass silage. A growing percentage of the land is used for maize used either as silage or to produce bio gas. The maize seed is frequently treated with neonicotinoids, making the landscape not only barren, but toxic for bees. Therefore, beekeepers cannot stand idly by and just watch what happens to the dairy farmers. As it turns out, this production causes problems for both beekeepers and farmers. Instead we have to look at the crisis as an opportunity in disguise.

Calling off the arms race
As the professional beekeepers in Germany, we approached the dairy farmers with a solution to their overproduction problem: Production management by calling off the arms race. By voluntarily moving away from the most intensive production methods, farmers can reduce their quantity while lowering their cost while at the same time increasing the quality of their milk.

Extensive methods also have higher acceptance in the general public and potentially a number of benefits for the beekeeper in the area. We said to the dairy farmers, "If you change your production system to get out of the current overproduction trap and you take the concerns of the beekeepers into account in the process, we will allow you to promote your milk not only as fair, but as 'bee friendly'. We will permit you to use our logo of our association and we will ask our honey customers to buy your milk".

As it turns out, our proposal was greeted with open arms. The dairy farmers had already thought about which quality aspects really make a difference to the consumer. The quality standards for world market milk are set by the food industry and cover bacteria count, cell count, fat content, protein content, freezing point and inhibitors. The consumer wants the milk to be healthy and taste good, but also prefers a regional product which may be organic and GMO free.

When assessing quality, consumers also care about fair producer prices, welfare of the animals, short transportation distances. Consumers are aware of the disappearance of the honey bee and value bee friendly farming methods. Fair milk changing the priority from quantity to quality calls for the use of locally grown feed and the application of environmentally friendly farming methods. With the right feed, the milk has measurably higher content of healthy substances like omega-3 fatty acids. The welfare of the animals benefits as well.

A milk, that is fair all round has a good chance of commercial success, because it is differentiated from the commodity product and is much closer to what the consumer desires. This idea was implemented in Germany by the independent dairy farmers association, the professional beekeepers association, the main environmental and consumer groups. Together we developed a list of certification criteria, that includes GMO-free production without imported feed.

The agreed upon farming methods promote flowering plants. The participating farmers agreed not to use pesticides that we beekeepers consider hazardous to bees. Tow major supermarket chains in Germany jumped at the chance to offer this great product to the consumers.

Since January the milk has been available in over 1500 supermarkets and is very well received by the consumers.

No politicians or government agencies, no changes in law were required to make this happen - just dairy farmers and beekeepers that decided to work together on a much needed change in direction for agriculture.

We continue to work hard to make this project a success and a model for others to follow.

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