Dairy farmers to discuss milk crisis with Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss


Government ministers will meet industry leaders to discuss the future of British dairy farming following weeks of protest.

Dozens of demonstrations have taken place across the country, including milk trolley challenges and bringing cattle into supermarkets.

Last night, tractors and protesters blockaded one of Tesco's biggest distribution centre in the UK, as well as a Farmfoods depot near Avonmouth, Bristol.

The protest was the first to focus on cheese - rather than milk prices - and highlighted the amount imported by the supermarkets.

Campaigning group Farmers For Action said the protest had resulted in Tesco agreeing to meet them for negotiations later this week. 

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss will meet representatives from the National Farmers Union (NFU) today to discuss dairy farming.

"This is a serious situation for British dairy farmers and I am deeply concerned about the pressures that they are under," she said.

"The dairy industry is worth £4.6 billion to the UK economy and is vital to our countryside.

"Global volatility and a current surplus of milk on the world market have driven down prices. This is affecting farmers across British agriculture."

Ms Truss said the Government will introduce a fairer tax system for farmers, continue to cut "burdensome" red-tape and open up new export markets.

A £24 million rural growth programme has been launched to help countryside businesses, including dairies, expand and diversify.

"We are also taking immediate action to help farmers with cashflow," Ms Truss added.

"And we are working on our new commitment to buy British produce in our schools, hospitals and Government departments.

"Given the scale of the issue, I have convened a meeting today with the devolved administrations and farming leaders to examine further measures.

"Consumers need to be able to understand when they are buying British yoghurt, cheese and butter.

"Currently more than half of these products are imported; it should be made as easy as possible for consumers to know when they are buying British. We also need more investment in processing capacity to make these products.

"I am determined that we should help find a way through this difficult time to build a successful, resilient industry that can hold its own internationally."

The protests in Avonmouth came after Farmers For Action (FFA) examined labelling on packets of dairy products in Tesco stores. 

David Handley, chairman of the FFA, said the store's value range grated cheddar cheese had three countries of origin, while its "everyday" range yoghurt used German milk.

"This is Tesco, every little helps unless you are a British dairy farmer," he said.

The dairy farmer, from Monmouth, said the supermarket paid a cost of production figure to some farmers for liquid milk and mature and extra mature cheese.

James Hole, a dairy farmer from Somerset who acts as a co-ordinator for the FFA, added: "Many brands can follow their cheese back to exactly where it was produced and nearly to which cow it came from.

"That's more the policy that should be advanced, not a policy of four countries of origin. 

"If there if a problem with that product, where do you return it to?

"The supermarkets are trying to offer the cheapest products and that is not coming from the best origin that it can come from.

"Let's use our own before we go anywhere else. A fair price on the shelf and a fair price at the farm gate."

Mr Hole said three weeks of protests had left farmers feeling hopeful but he warned the action was "not half way there".

"We have to keep making sure that it continues and what is put in place continues to go on," he added.

"But I think there is definitely hope."

Following the protests, Morrisons launched a brand of dairy products to support dairy farmers, while Aldi and Asda pledged to pay a minimum price of 28p per litre.

Tesco and Sainsbury's have so far ruled out a similar move to Morrisons, saying that they pay a fair price based on the cost of production. 

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.

Stephen James, NFU Cymru president, said 236 farmers have left the dairy sector since January, a trend that "looks set to continue".

"The Union also estimates that only around 10% of dairy farmers are on contracts that track farmers' cost of production, meaning most dairy farmers are selling milk below the cost of production," he added.

"On lamb, the prices continue to fall and we now see the lowest prices since 2009. In the arable sector, rapeseed, wheat and barley growers are also receiving less than the cost of production."

He said the meeting with UK farming ministers today hoped to find "urgent and practical solutions" to the issues faced by those in the industry.