The falling price of milk has been scattered among the headlines in recent years and this week has been no exception. As farmer protests in UK supermarkets cause a stir across the country, it seems the issue has boiled over once again.
The latest round of protests follows the announcement that further cuts to the price of milk are to be made. The leading UK milk processor, Arla, has stated that from August, the price will be lowered to 23p per liter (about 32 euro cents). With the current cost of production for most farmers in the UK lying at 30p per liter, this drop means that many farmers will now lose money on every liter they produce.
An Unsustainable Squeeze
As fresh milk has a short shelf life, farmers have little choice over when to sell their products. This makes them far more vulnerable to volatile pricing than those practicing other forms of agriculture. These latest cuts therefore present a huge risk to dairy farms and could contribute significantly to the already declining number: In the past decade, the amount of dairy farmers in the UK has halved.
The processors making these cuts have blamed a number of factors for this most recent reduction in prices, including the global surplus of milk, which has resulted in a downward price trend, and lower demand from key markets such as Russia and China. (In 2014, Russia banned the import of certain foods, including dairy, originating from the European Union as a response to Western sanctions over Ukraine’s crisis.)
It is supermarkets however that have been at the center of the most recent UK protests, with many farmers blaming price wars for the ongoing cuts. Farmers have been taking part in so-called “trolley dashes,” stripping milk from the shelves and giving it away for free.
Much of the action has been aimed at consumers, with farmers hoping to make them aware of the impact that lower prices are having. However supermarkets have also responded to the concerns, with large chain Morrison’s (a key target for protestors) announcing they will now sell a new milk brand which will see 10p per litre extra paid to farmers.
This issue is by no means confined to the UK however. In November 2012, more than 2,500 farmers from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain took over the streets of Brussels. Blocking traffic and spraying the European Parliament with milk using fire hoses, the farmers gathered to protest against milk quotas and prices they claimed were well below production costs.
Just last month, more than 1,000 French farmers blocked the border between France and Germany as part of an ongoing wave of protests against falling prices.
For many farmers, cuts to prices mean their job no longer makes economic sense; however, their desire to continue is clear for all to see. Dairy farms, both in the UK and across Europe, are part of the rural economy, part of agricultural heritage and part of the landscape. If the industry is destroyed, the shape of our countryside will be changed forever. Here at Slow Food we will follow developments and keep you informed, but for now, be sure to check where your next pint of milk comes from…