Stephen Cadogan: Brexit latest fresh milk threat

We are one of the biggest consumers of milk in Europe, at 43.5 million litres per year.

But few seem to be aware that the milk we put in our cereals each morning and in our cups of tea throughout the day is an endangered product.

Only farmers have sounded the alarm, and they could now be accused of crying wolf, repeating their annual warning that the economic sustainability of fresh milk production is threatened.

They seem to be a voice crying in the wilderness, with no-one listening.

Those who have most to lose, consumers and retailers, haven’t joined the debate.

Perhaps they find it unbelievable that a country famous for dairy farming might not be able to put milk on our tables. 

Maybe that is why they might pass off farmers’ warnings as just more complaining from the usual source.

In one way, it’s surprising that farmers make so much noise about fresh milk, because it is a business they are deserting in large numbers.

In 1995, 3,334 registered milk suppliers were supplying fresh milk for the winter trade and the milk-drinking trade. By 2015, only 1,982 remained. 

Now, only 1,800 specialist producers milk cows 365 days a year to guarantee consumers fresh, high-quality, locally produced milk supplies all year round.

They have seen one quarter of the Republic of Ireland’s fresh milk market taken over by farmers and processors in Northern Ireland.

The end of EU milk quotas in 2015 has created expansion opportunities away from fresh milk, which accounts for only 8% of Irish milk production.

Brands and dairies controlled by farmers once dominating the market, including large volumes sold door-to-door. But supermarket private labels have largely taken over. 

In effect, retailers now dictate the price, and the price is too low for more and more farmers. So they are switching to lower cost, simpler, spring calving production system, and joining the 90% of Irish dairy farmers who produce milk seasonally for commodities, mainly for export.

However, farmers in the Republic still have an estimated €400m (retail value) of the €530m fresh milk market, a market on their doorstep, and they would be foolish to leave that behind without a fight.

So IFA have again this year offered solutions which can secure locally-produced, high-quality fresh milk year round.

Maybe they will get a meaningful response this time, now that Brexit is added to the threats hanging over fresh milk. 

If there is no EU-UK trade deal after Brexit, significant import tariffs will be imposed on milk imports from the UK into the EU (and Ireland), and vice versa.

That would be disastrous for the Irish dairy sector.

As for our consumers and retailers, they would probably no longer have access to the fresh milk from Northern Ireland on which they currently have 25% reliance.

Retailers in particular need to wake up to the potential loss of a product which attracts significant footfall, in shops, especially when sold below cost. 

Brexit, and dairy farmers turning their backs on fresh milk, could leave retailers with nowhere to turn to but the UHT milk which most of Europe’s consumers already rely on.

At least farmers will be able to say they gave plenty warnings.

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