Milk, cheaper than bottled water - Surely that's udderly ridiculous?
Two cows lived in Bristol's Harbourside in an exhibition that explored current food and farming systems - and their wider environmental impacts
21st -25th April 2016. At-Bristol, Anchor Square, Bristol, BS1 5DB
Political Ecologist Nessie Reid lived with two pure-bred Guernsey cows for five days in a temporary ‘Milking Parlour’ constructed in Anchor Square, Bristol. Free and open to all, the installation included a panel talk from 5.30-6.30 each day bringing together voices from across the spectrum of the debate - from dairy farmers, to vegans, to food producers, to academics and more. This was a chance for people to give their own views, and listen to others, all whilst considering their own food choices - particularly in relation to catastrophic climate change, which becomes more urgent a threat to our society with every passing day. Industrialized farming is one of the the largest contributors to climate change, producing a quarter of global emissions and consuming 70% of the worlds fresh water. The question is: how do we feed ourselves, and our burgeoning population, without it costing the earth?
This immersive and personal exhibition was the culmination of Nessie's intensive 18-month Cape Farewell commissioned journey exploring a range of organic farms across South West England.
Designed to inspire lively debate and discussion, 'The Milking Parlour' sought to explore the current state of farming; its impact on the environment and its relationship to climate change, global food inequalities, biodiversity and health. It asked us to question what we consume – and how it impacts on all of our futures. It created a dialogue between the farming industry and general public so that we are able to work together to create a more socially, politically and environmentally fairer, sustainable food system. As the artist explains:
"Our planet is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals, with industrial agriculture being one of the largest contributors. If we are to halt our climate crisis, we need first to understand the many complex systems which contribute towards it. What agricultural systems exacerbate climate disruption, and which ones build resilience and support health? The Milking Parlour came into being as a direct response of wanting to understand, first hand (literally!), where my food came from. I hope it can be a platform to gain a deeper understanding of some of these complex themes around food, and food choices.”
Throughout the duration of the show Nessie lived with the cows: she milked them, fed them, mucked them out and slept with them, demonstrating the arduous and challenging processes involved in the production of a very 'normal', everyday product. The two cows (who have travelled to numerous farm shows) and the space, were fully certified and risk assessed. The cows were very well looked after, with vets and farmers on site, and 24-hour security.
Why not watch this short film which documents the journey Nessie took when producing this exhibition:
Every day from 5.30 – 6.30 PM there was an informal discussion space for all to join – less of a panel and more of a conversation. Nessie put out clean blackboards every morning with chalk for people to write whatever questions they might have to the cows, to the artist, farmers, vegans, environmentalists….to whoever! During the sessions, questions on the board were addressed.
Every viewpoint was welcome and these were some of the responses that were written on the boards:
- 'How can we make a difference? Where is the best place to buy milk to ensure the farmers get a good/fair deal?'
- 'Has 'cafe' culture noticeably increased the amount of milk we drink?'
- 'Do farms in the UK produce enough milk to feed the population? What is the best way to ensure farmers get a fair price for milk?'
- 'Milk is for baby cows. As breast milk is for baby humans. Go Vegan!'
- 'Everything in moderation - one good piece of meat oince in a while, rather than a cheap one every day.'
- 'What makes you stay in farming when it's so hard?'
- 'Would you prefer if people paid more but drank less milk?'
- 'I support a fair price for milk. I drink organic milk because I think cows are better treated that way. I have my milk delivered in glass bottles. I pay nearly £1 a pint - and am happy to do so. thank you for raising these issues.'
- 'What happens if the cows are not milked?'
- 'Are you for or against Brexit? Is there much competition from the EU?'
- 'Imagine having your new born baby cruelly taken from you - only ro be forceably impregnated again and to suffer the same cruel fate again and again.'
- 'I believe that healthy living should be the cheap option - not the expensive'
- 'Thanks for helping us think about where our food and drink comes from.'
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Nessie’s research (November 2014 – April 2016) is also recorded via the Dairy Blog and Gallery. And for a detailed introduction to the project, you can watch The Milking Parlour film. To find out more, visit: www.themilkingparlour.org
More about Nessie Reid
Nessie Reid is a political ecologist focusing on food sovereignty, food waste and organic agriculture in the South West of England, proposing the need for radical systemic change within our current food and farming system: one which is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and unhealthy, for both planet and people. Based in Bristol, Nessie is Co-Director of This is Rubbish, a community-interest company, aiming to communicate the preventable scale of food wasted in the UK, through policy research, community and arts led public events. She is co-coordinating ‘Counting What Matters’: a campaign to engage one major grocery company and four MPs in committing to piloting and advocating a one year food waste audit. She is part of the internal core team for Beacon Farms: a Community Benefit Society training a new generation of sustainable food producers on Bristol’s fertile Blue Finger land.
Her interest in the link between agriculture, ecocide and climate change emerged during field research for the ICCA Consortium in India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Over these three years she witnessed the catastrophic ecological damage caused by large scale intensive agriculture – namely oil palm – and the displacement of local and indigenous communities as a result. As Managing Editor for Biodiversity – a Journal of Life on Earth: a quarterly, scientific publication from Biodiversity Conservancy International, this role keeps her updated with wider, global ecological perspectives. Having received a research scholarship from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Nessie researched the role indigenous art in preserving diasporic Tibetan culture and religion in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India and Nepal. With thus far a predominantly theoretical artistic practice, Nessie is now turning her energies to a more applied artistic practice, currently designing and creating an exhibition and research project on the future of milk in the UK as Cape Farewell’s 2015 Rural Artist in Residence.
Nessie will be working with farmers from the Cerne valley and its surrounds in Dorset: an AONB, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, bringing their stories and experiences to the table, as well as linking the exhibition to Beacon Farms, This is Rubbish and the wider Bristol European Green Capital 2015 sustainable food and waste strand.
Dairy Farming in the UK
In the UK alone, approximately 18–20 million tonnes of food is wasted annually costing an estimated £22 billion a year and yet many farmers in the UK can barely scratch a living. More and more the next generation are turning away from farming as the prospects are so bleak. In December 2014 sixty small dairy farmers were shut down simply because farmers could not make ends meet. Having attended the Oxford Real Farming conference and hearing the stories of dairy farmers in the UK who have been crippled by the on-going economic pressures placed upon them, Nessie decided this residency would focus specifically on milk. How is it that in the UK, milk is cheaper to buy than bottled water? How can something once hailed as a superfood, providing 34 % of our RDA of protein be cheaper than a bottle of water?