Call for legislation to ensure fair milk price for farmers

Demonstrators push a hay bale as they are sprayed with a water cannon during a demonstration inBrussels against unfair milk prices for farmers. Picture: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

New laws forcing shops and supermarkets to give farmers a fair price for their milk will be a hot topic at a conference organised by Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan in Brussels.

Thousands of farmers descended on Brussels earlier this week to protest the big drops in farm incomes, especially because of plummeting milk prices.

A voluntary code of conduct put in place a few years ago is not working, European Commission officials admit, with producers being paid less than it takes them to produce milk, but the price to consumers remaining the same.

Farmers’ bodies, including the IFA and the ICMSA, accuse the retailers, and especially the supermarkets selling 80% of food in Ireland, of putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk to increase their own profits.

Two years ago, the Oireachtas agriculture committee recommended Ireland introduce a code of conduct enforceable by law but so far no action has been taken despite Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney admitting farmers were getting an increasingly smaller share of the price of a litre of milk.

The European Commission says it will produce a report and organise a conference on the supply chain issue next year — two years earlier than planned.

Replacing the voluntary code of conduct with legislation was “definitely on the agenda”, a Commission source said. However, he warned it was a complex issue that would have to involve not just the Agriculture Commissioner, but also those responsible for food and other policy areas.

Big retailers oppose a statutory code, and set out their objections on the issue to the Oireachtas committeein 2013. However, the committee said it believed there was a need for a legally enforceable code covering both suppliers and retailers.

In Ireland milk prices increased by around 40% between 1995 and 2011, but none of this increase went back to the farmer. In fact, the price they got per litre actually fell slightly.

Britain has backed up their code of conduct with an ombudsman to whom suppliers and farmers can complain with a certain degree of anonymity to avoid the retailers taking retaliatory action and refusing to buy their products. The Commission says it will organise a range of meetings to discuss experiences and share best practices among member states. They will also set up a high-level group with senior officials from the agriculture departments of all EU member states to focus on other issues that could ensure a fairer playing field for producers.

There have been a number of high-level groups that have not led to action, but it is hoped that the review next year will force member states to agree to take concrete action this time.

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