Farmers take fight over pricing to centre of Brussels

Burning tyres sent plumes of black smoke into the air just metres from where EU Agriculture Ministers were meeting and police in riot gear held back thousands of farmers angry at falling prices for their produce.

The sounds were deafening as the protestors threw fire crackers and honked the horns of their massive tractors and lorries that blocked most of the streets around Brussels’ EU quarter.

Irish farmers were among the estimated 5,000 from all over the EU that brought their grievances about falling prices for milk, pork, and other food stuffs to the doorstep of the special meeting of agriculture ministers.

However, a return to the past with the EU increasing the price of dairy produce they take into storage was ruled out by the European Commission that argued it would not help, especially in the longer term.

Instead, farmers can look forward to getting 70% rather than the normal 50% of their direct aid payments next month, and 85% rather than the usual 75% in area and animal related payments for rural development to ease cash flow. The balance will be paid in December.

There will be €500m for other measures with about four fifths for the dairy farmers — to be divided out between the member states who will then distribute it according to criteria to be worked out over the next few weeks.

The biggest Irish issue is a drop of around a quarter in the price farmers are getting for milk over the past nine months, despite the fact that the price to the consumer remains the same, increasing profits for the retailers.

A furious John Comer, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, berated the European Commission and Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney for what he said was their failure to tackle the cartel created by the retailers and big supermarkets.

“The retailers are making their own market — there is effectively no competition”, said Mr Comer.

IFA president Eddie Downey also demanded a strong declaration that Europe ban below-cost selling of food and address what he said was excessive input costs for farmers.

Mr Coveney said the medium and long-term market observation and intervention proposals should do something to improve the situation where a smaller and smaller percentage of the price paid by consumers is going to the producer.

However, he said, just 10% of Ireland’s milk production sells as liquid milk with the rest going into cheese and powdered milk products, and what was needed was a global price increase.

There were signs of increasing prices but nobody expected anything big for the rest of the year.

However, Mr Comer did not fully accept the minister’s reasoning and insisted prices for all milk, irrespective of its end use, were being manipulated.

He reminded Mr Coveney that Co Cork, that produces a quarter of the country’s milk, lost €235m in the past year because of the drop in milk prices.

Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan — unable to attend the meeting because of illness — will be raising the issue of the relationship between farmers and retailers.

“Retailers need to realise that it is in their own interest to deliver a fair return for farmers — without producers, you do not have a product”, said commissioner Jyrki Katainen, standing in for Mr Hogan.

A code of conduct introduced a few years ago has not been effective but the commission so far has been reluctant to introduce legislation.

There will also be new private storage scheme for skimmed milk powder and cheese and for pig meat and new funds for promoting the consumption of both.

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