All sides must ‘step up to plate’ to tackle crisis, say farmers

Farmers are feeling the pressure as milk prices fall.

Farmers are feeling the pressure as milk prices fall. - Credit: PA

A seismic change in the way food is sold is essential or there could be dire consequences for the farming industry and rural economy, the UK’s farming unions said today as they warned they would be “making their presence felt” in the run-up to an emergency meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers on September 7.

Farming leaders jointly urged Government, retailers and processors, and the European Union not to ignore the warning signs that farming was in a state of emergency following an emergency summit to discuss falling milk, lamb and arable prices, held in central London.

The meeting followed days of protests by farmers including Milk Trolley Challenges, blockades at distribution centres and even bringing cattle into supermarkets.

“We would urge farm ministers across the UK to meet urgently,” they said in a joint statement.

“They need to admit that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the supply chain and take remedial action. In general, voluntary codes are not delivering their intended purpose. Government needs to take action to ensure that contracts to all farmers are longer-term and fairer in apportioning risk and reward.

“At the moment in many contracts all the risk is put on the farmer with very little of the reward. Government also needs to urgently ensure that rules are put in place regarding labelling so that it is clear and obvious which products are imported and which are British. We are all looking for government to ensure that British products are marketed abroad and that new markets are opened up for our high quality British food.”

They added: “It’s time to Back British Farming and the farming unions are looking to Government and retailers to take action now. Until they do, farmers will be making their presence felt, where they feel there is unfairness in the supply chain locally, nationally and in Europe from now and including September 7.”

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Farmers estimate that it costs between 30 and 32p to produce a litre of milk but the average price paid across the UK is 23.66p - following a drop of 25% in a year.

David Handley, of Farmers For Action, said: “There’s a letter going out to all the retailers and I would say to government and the food service industry - they all have to step up to the plate.

“I don’t think there’s any farmer out there at the moment that will accept they can just sit back on their laurels.

“Peaceful protest has worked well so far, I think that will carry on until we can actually deliver something.”

Earlier, the National Farmers Union (NFU) warned British-produced food could disappear from many supermarket shelves in months.

Speaking outside the summit, NFU president Meurig Raymond said: “Obviously the industry is in crisis. There’s despair within our members.

“I’ve been farming for 45 years and this is the worst I’ve known, particularly the dairy sector and the lamb sector.

“We’ve seen a 30% fall in milk prices in the last 12 months and we’ve seen good quality new-season lamb being sold at least £15 per animal less than last year.

“It’s a crisis I’ve haven’t seen in my farming career.”

Milk prices have been falling steadily - with Arla announcing a price cut of 0.8p per litre, taking the standard litre price to 23.01p for its UK members.

Farmers estimate that it costs between 30 and 32p to produce each litre of milk - meaning some are losing almost 10p per litre

A survey of milk drinkers found they would be willing to pay £1.28 for four pints of milk. Supermarket prices currently range from 89p to £1.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said: “We maintain a regular dialogue with farming unions and industry. We look forward to discussing these issues with them further.”

A British Retail Consortium spokesman said: “There is no connection between the price of milk in supermarkets and the price retailers pay farmers for their milk.

“The retail industry pays a fair price with individual retailers using different payment models. We understand the current frustration of farmers but it is wrong to blame retailers.”