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SOS Dairy: British farmers against throwaway prices

United Kingdom
Fair Trade

British farmers want a fairer price for their milk. Photo: Muffet, reproduced under a CC license.

Fairtrade is typically seen as something done by the West for the ‘developing world’, but a recent crisis in British dairy farming has raised the question of whether a similar concept should apply closer to home.

Since July, a campaign has been gathering pace, led by a coalition of farming organizations including the NFU and the grassroots Farmers for Action (FFA), for a fairer price for milk.

The main message, aimed at milk processors and retailers, is: pay farmers more for each litre of milk they produce. From 1 August 2012, the main companies supplying British retailers were preparing to reduce the price received by farmers to below the cost of production, which is about 30 pence ($ 0.47) per litre.

On 11 July 2012 over 2,000 farmers protested in London. Other actions have included women bathing in milk in town centres and blockades of processing plants in Leeds, Shropshire and Leicestershire.

Public reaction has been largely positive and the #SOS Dairy hashtag has been a common sight on Twitter. A poll last month by YouGov and The Grocer magazine found that an impressive 83 per cent of the public were aware of the farmers’ protests, with 67 per cent thinking they should be paid more, even if it means milk becomes more expensive to buy.

But British framers have been here before. In 2010 there was a similar crisis after the collapse of the Dairy Farmers of Britain co-operative in 2009, and the loss of more than 1,000 jobs. A campaign was started by the newspaper Farmers Guardian calling for Fairtrade for British Dairy Farmers with a 50,000 strong supporting petition.

Lucy Dunne from the World Development Movement (WDM) pointed out in a recent blog: ‘What is interesting in this debate is that supermarkets agreeing to at least meet the cost of production is hailed as a “victory” for farmers.’ She calls for the current dairy campaign to feed into a bigger and more sustainable, global movement.

The Fairtrade Foundation questions whether their mark or something similar is the answer for British farmers. On their website they recognize the obstacles British farmers are facing, but say farmers in developing countries are likely to have less infrastructural support, social security or other ‘safety nets’ available.

Amy Horton, food justice campaigner at WDM says there is a growing movement that supports Fairtrade, as well as food sovereignty. She uses the example of the Cumbria Fairtrade Network which has been promoting ways to align the principles of Fairtrade with supporting local food producers and local markets.

‘Fairtrade has played an important role in strengthening the movement for trade justice,’ says Horton. But she argues that it doesn’t change the structural and political problems in an unjust food system, and will not bring ‘the more radical overhaul of the food system demanded by the movement for food sovereignty.’

Horton explains this movement has emerged over the last 20 years from small-scale food producers in the global South, who currently feed most of the world’s people. Going beyond food security, it is also concerned with who controls the food system and sustainability. ‘This is as relevant to farmers in the UK as it is to smallholders in the global south,’ says Horton.

Central to the movement is valuing the work and knowledge of food producers instead of viewing their food as just another product.

‘Food sovereignty is also about putting producers and consumers, rather than powerful, unaccountable corporations, in charge of decisions over our food system,’ explains Horton. ‘This approach would help avoid us getting into the situation where dairy farmers face milk prices that are less than the cost of production.

‘Resolving that crisis demands a shift away from the government’s focus on producing food as cheaply as possible, without regard for producers or sustainability.’

As a result of the most recent British dairy campaign Iceland Foods agreed to investigate the development of an improved milk procurement model and processor Freshways has committed to working with industry consultants to develop a milk pricing mechanism.

Supermarket chains are also negotiating: Morrisons have moved their price up 5 pence per litre and Asda have taken theirs to 29.5 pence per litre – still only just about the cost of production.

NFU President Peter Kendall said: ‘The work of the coalition has only really just begun. We are determined to bring about real and lasting change…it is critical that milk pricing models deliver sustainable milk prices for farmers.’

Phase two of the campaign is to recoup money lost between April and June 2012 through price cuts. They are due to reveal the next steps of their campaign today after a meeting of the coalition to be held at the NFU headquarters in Warwickshire.

FFA chairman David Handley said: ‘Milk buyers can’t go on shrugging their shoulders and refusing to take responsibility for the future of the dairy industry. We demand that buyers step up to the mark and do their bit to ensure a fair deal for farmers.’

Tell the European Union what you think: Join the march for Good Food on Wednesday 19 September 2012.

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