Sun, Jul 03, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Milk farmers sour as end of quota drives global price crash

European farmers are calling for a return to mandatory production controls to stem oversupply after demand growth in developing countries evaporated

By Clarisse Lucas  /  AFP, RENNES, France

Placards hang from a statue of a cow as a fire burns at a demonstration by dairy farmers in front of a milk factory in Vienne, France, on March 31 last year.

Photo: AFP

A surge in milk production since the EU lifted milk quotas has skimmed profits for dairy farmers, leaving them sour as authorities struggle to get to grips with the crisis.

Last year, the EU finally got rid of three-decade-old milk production quotas that it had imposed to eliminate the milk lakes and butter mountains that had plagued the bloc’s farmers in the 1980s.

While farmers in several EU countries had been looking forward to tapping into rising demand for dairy products in developing countries, particularly in China, that growth slowed and there was soon a glut on the world market.

“Europe’s responsibility is overwhelming in the surge” in milk available on the global market, said Christophe Perrot, an economist at the Livestock Institute in Paris.

“Since 2013, the EU has supplied an extra 10 million tonnes on a market of 66 million tonnes,” he said at a recent farmers conference in the western French city of Rennes.

This has led to a slump in prices — by one-fifth to one-third — that has hammered farmers across the globe.

In France, all farmers are now selling milk at a price lower than their costs. Meanwhile in New Zealand, the world’s top exporter, 80 percent of farmers are selling at a loss according to the central bank.

In March, the European Commission allowed member states to temporarily cut production on a voluntary basis as an emergency exception to rules guaranteeing economic competition. However, milk production has continued to climb.

The issue is likely to dominate a meeting of EU agricultural ministers tomorrow and on Tuesday, but EU leaders are only expected to heap pressure on the commission to step up its efforts.

According to a draft seen by reporters, EU leaders are to call on “the commission to urgently implement all necessary support measures including, where appropriate, financial support to assist farmers.”

However, farmers meeting at a recent Peasants Confederation conference want a full return to quotas, believing voluntary measures will be insufficient.

“We need mandatory production controls,” as is possible under EU rules, said Laurent Pinatel, a spokesman for the Farmers Confederation.

Getting rid of the overproduction will not be easy.

Milk production shot up 4.3 percent overall in the EU in the season from last year to this year, the first without quotas, Perrot said.

And cooperation might also be difficult to achieve. In major producer countries like Germany, France and Britain, milk processors might tend to adjust their purchases to market conditions, particularly their more profitable domestic markets.

However, countries like the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark “export more than two-thirds of their output and don’t want to leave any market opportunity for their international competitors,” Perrot said.

The result is “exacerbated competition between European countries to find non-EU markets” for their products, said Aurelie Trouve, an economist at the AgroParisTech institute.

That is despite 85 percent of European dairy output being consumed at domestically, said Thierry Roquefeuil, head of the National Federation of Milk Producers.

At the moment, each country is trying to address the most urgent problem of farmers facing the squeeze from the low prices, Perrot said.

At about 200 euros (US$222.77) per tonne on the international market, the price of milk is about 20 percent lower than what it averaged in the 2007-2014 period in France, Germany and the US, Perrot said.

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