Where is the milk?

There is no milk. Three days after the first heavy snowfall, the Beast from the East is now largely tamed, but on Saturday afternoon there was no milk for sale in any of the supermarkets in Leith, one of the most densely populated areas in the UK.

On a timely visit earlier this week to Tesco’s distribution centre near Livingston, I saw how one million square metres of warehouse supplies all 321 stores in Scotland and Northern Ireland, just in time. The fresh and chilled sections, where piles of Spanish oranges and British steaks are distributed by a more bustling staff than in the other ‘chambers’, would be empty by that evening, to be refilled overnight.

The next day, the country ground to a halt. Bathgate Tesco, a 10 minute drive from the largest tri-climate distribution centre in Europe, didn’t get a delivery. Scotland drank its tea black.

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Empty shelves on Thursday in Sainsbury’s Local on Leith Walk.

The last decade or so has seen remarkable consolidation of the milk market. The number of dairy farmers almost halved in the 10 years to 2014, while the average herd size increased by 50%. Nearly all our milk is then processed – pasteurised, homogenised – off farm, in an even more concentrated number of hands; in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland’s largest milk producing region by far, just two plants in Lockerbie and Stranraer pool practically all of the the milk, up to 1 million litres each per day. The supermarket share of sales, if discounters are included, is over 80%, and increasing.

If the lack of milk on shelves this week began as a logistical glitch in the face of freak weather, by now it is due to a surge in demand. Store deliveries were really only affected for 36 hours at most but now people are stocking up, ‘panic buying’.

With supermarket bakery shelves also bare (so much for ‘in-store’ bakeries), stories abound of people baking their own bread as if this were the first time it had occurred to them as a possibility. Then the supermarkets sold out of yeast. In desperation, Lisa Cornwell, 45, made a lemon drizzle cake, according to the BBC.

Though largely exaggerated for comic effect on social media, this peculiar anxiety is an indication of how deeply insecure we are about our food system and our ability to feed ourselves in a crisis. The absurdity of our expectations becomes clear only when they are not met. Supermarket logistics are magnificent but their ability to fulfil our needs is fragile. One failed delivery and a community goes into meltdown.

To be sure, the machine broke down at all levels – most of Edinburgh’s farmers’ markets were cancelled this weekend, and many independent grocers were shut and low-stocked for at least as long as Tesco. But should such a shock continue for a longer period, who would be more resilient?

Tesco have been berated on Twitter for failing to inform people of the status of their deliveries (those fabulous expectations again). Customer service minions scramble false apologies and everyone feels dissatisfied. Meanwhile, this Facebook post, as likely as not by the farmer himself.

The personalised exchanges that follow in the comments are a world away from the distanced mudslinging @Tesco. Whether or not Mossgiel made their deliveries to Edinburgh this week is not irrelevant. But by selling their milk, unhomogenised, on the farm where it is produced, and delivering locally they cut the risk of non-supply to those customers significantly. At the Tesco warehouse, we had been regaled with the legend of when the supermarket flew (in their Hercules jet) to the rescue of the residents of Orkney and Shetland, cut off from usual supply. A Shetland farmer finished the story for me: “Tesco still ran out of milk. A contract was in place to buy local milk, the order could be no more than doubled without lengthy consultation with HQ – so people were forced to buy the local milk elsewhere.”

Most obvious is to observe that, in conditions like this week’s snow, local food systems are more resilient. The farmers across the country forced to pour two days worth of milk down the drain would clearly have benefited from that more accessible market. More broadly, though, it is the length of the chain that determines this strength, and a short food supply chain (SFSC) is not necessarily one of proximity. It is the direct relationship between producer and consumer that counts.

Mossgiel is an extraordinary, though far from unique, example of alerting us to our false expectations and creating different, more sustainable ones – that by having more direct links to our food supply we are better placed to understand what it is offering us, the conditions it is operating under and how we can more actively support its continuing to function.

However much the supermarket model professes to work with the customer, it is incapable of operating this kind of co-production. Emerging from behind the empty milk shelves this weekend, was Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe. “The impact of closing the borders for a few days to the free movement of food would result in a food crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen,” he warned, amidst finally growing concern for the state of our food supply on leaving the EU. While abandoning freedom of movement of goods would leave not only the supermarkets bare of Dutch tomatoes, it is surely there where their absence would be most hungrily felt. If we were to foster greater understanding of provenance and supply, cheap courgettes in January could start to be seen as the anomaly they are; SFSC are the only way to that. The benefits are many: diversification of supply chains, stronger local economies, personalised exchange, greater consumer agency, recovery of knowledge of seasonality, and so on.

It is far from bourgeois idealism. As much as the Beast of Brexit increasingly seems to be marauding on unfettered, it is ultimately under our control – were the UK to find itself short of food, belated deals would surely be struck. But this week is a none too subtle warning of circumstances beyond governance. Exponential shifts in climate patterns are making it impossible to predict the conditions our food supply chains will be operating under in years to come. Supermarkets have been working for years to predict what climate change will do to their supply chains and are doubtless getting extremely good at avoiding any major impacts on the consumer – who continues, largely, ignorant of these efforts. These predictions will become more and more difficult, and the effects more and more drastic. As we reached in desperation for the tins of condensed milk on Friday, we were somewhere conscious of this fallibility.

There is still no milk. I drank my coffee this morning with a blob of slightly rancid cream; it was a little oily but palatable enough, and I felt I was being resourceful, creative. Resilient would be a stretch.

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