Milk of human kindness, water of life

The production of milk starts when a farmer invests in land, a herd of cows, expensive milking palours, and huge time and energy. He must maintain those cows in good health, using vets, anti-worming treatments, grain-feed during the winter, and other costly measures.

The cows, after spending most of the day eating grass and chewing the cud, feel that animal expectation, that elemental need to be milked. They begin walking voluntarily towards the milking palours, gently brushing past the gate, the dew still glistening on the early morning grass. The cows know well their individual stalls, their routine established over thousands of such visits. The farmer eases the automatic milking teats into place and the machines pump the white milk into giant containers. The cows return to the fields, often drinking natural water from streams and pumps on the way.

After the milking, the container (which is fully refrigerated and where the milk is continuously “agitated” to keep it from forming cream) is loaded onto a truck and transported to the local co-operative, where the milk is homogenised. (“Homogenised milk is produced by mechanically forcing milk through a small passage at high velocity. This breaks down the fat globules in milk into much smaller ones and creates a stabile fat emulsion.”). It has to be pasteurised, and possibly even further processed to add vitamins or produce slimline milk.

The milk has then to be packaged, sorted into trays, transported to retailers, stacked on shelves, all the while being constantly refrigerated, before being sold. Eventually, after a long journey from field to palour to shop, it reaches your kitchen table.

Let’s compare that to the journey taken by bottled water. Basically, find a pure(-ish) source of water, pump it out, and bottle it. It requires no ground-breaking technology, expensive animals, costly raw materials, good farmland, pasteurisers, homogenisers, refrigerators, a large workforce, winter grains, or vets. And it keeps for a long time, meaning it can be transported at leisure and without refrigeration.

And the price for these two liquids with such different life-cycles?

Tesco in Ireland now sell a one-litre bottle of Ballygowan (Ireland’s largest brand of bottled water) for €1.25 (that’s around US$1.80!). (The price is for Ballygowan Sports Still Water 1 Litre as quoted on their website on 13th November 2007.) A litre of milk is quoted on the same site and time at €0.59 for both the Premier and Avonmore brands of “Fresh Milk” (other varieties cost more, depending on the degree of processing involved, but these are the basic brands).

Hence, a one-litre of water costs 211% of a bottle of milk. Over twice as much.

What crazy set of economic practices, marketing, consumer behaviour, retailer policies, agricultural inequities, EU subsidies, or government action, has conspired to create a situation where a complex product like milk can sell in supermarkets for less than half the price of a simple bottle of water?

I came across this amazing quote from a farmer in England, from an article in the Guardian newspaper in April this year

The irony for Colin Rank, one of the family that owns Kemble Farms, is that his cows drink water from a Cotswold spring that he could bottle and sell for 80p a litre. “We’re giving it to cows and devaluing it by turning it into milk.

So, what on earth possesses them to continue? He says:

Like all dairy farmers we could pack up tomorrow and do something better with our capital, but we do it because we have an emotional investment in the land and the animals. And we know there’s a market for our product, if only the market worked.

Somehow, in a deep and mysterious way, we have managed to treat milk with contempt, and water (which is everywhere in Ireland) with reverance. Even more ironically, tap water in Ireland is perfectly drinkable. Bottled water competes directly with a 100% free substance, pumped straight out of the tap. 

Economics alone cannot explain this. Am I going mad, or is there a valid reason for this?



  1. November 14, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    Why bottled water? (I do think it’s gross bottled water’s so expensive, but there are reasons.)

    1. Convenience. Most people don’t carry around their own bottles, so being able to purchase bottled water is a great convenience. People will pay for convenience.

    2. Uncomfortability. Some people have the perception that tap water is less clean, so prefer bottled water. People will pay for the perceived health benefit.

    3. Small packages. At least in the States, a bottle of water is sold in half-liters or liters (well, the Imperial unit equivalents), while milk is most often sold by the 4-liter container. So the water seems inexpensive, and people don’t think about it.

    There are other reasons, I’m sure.

    Slightly OT: From what I’ve heard (maybe you could verify), if one goes to a European restaurant and requests “water”, bottled water is assumed by default. In the States, free tap water is assumed.

    I knew there was some reason I still lived here.

  2. shazgood said,

    November 15, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Tap water has to be asked for in restaurants in Ireland. Several times. And again. And then you have to gently remind them, before asking once more….it seems that if you do not pay for it, they don’t want to bring it.

    Yes, I can see bottles being handier, intrinsically. But, hey, milk also comes in handy half and one-third litre packs too. Tap water is fine in Ireland – you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

    My point is that capitalism doesn’t seem to have produced a balance between supply and demand for water. It operates in some weird realm where price is elastic and consumers don’t ask, “why am I paying twice as much for water, which I can get free in my tap, as milk, which is a very nutritious and delicious drink which was expensive to produce?”. I dunno!

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