Europe's Farmers Spill Milk to Decry Tumbling Prices

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Georges Gobet / AFP / Getty

Belgian farmers dump milk in front of E.U. headquarters in Brussels on Sept. 21, 2009

Milk has many beneficial qualities, but being a good fertilizing agent is not one of them. The millions of liters of milk that dairy farmers dumped on fields in France, Germany, Belgium and other European countries on Monday, Sept. 21, won't yield a bountiful harvest, but the farmers hope that the protest will at least raise awareness of their plight.

More than 80,000 farmers took part in the continent-wide day of action, which, along with the milk-dumping, also included a "milk strike," with farmers refusing to deliver to industrial conglomerates that produce cheese, skimmed milk and other products. The farmers' aim: to force the European Union to take action to combat plunging milk prices, which they say have left them in financial ruin.

"We're desperate," says Erwin Schöpges, president of the Belgian Milk Producer Lobby. "We can't make a living. If politicians don't help us, we won't have a European dairy sector anymore."

The E.U. is the world's largest milk producer. Dairy products account for about one-sixth of all E.U. farm produce by value and about 8% of all agriculture exports. But European milk prices have plummeted 40% over the past six months, to around €0.25 ($0.36) per liter, less than the cost of production, according to Copa-Cogeca, a European farmers' association. The group says the price collapse will cost dairy farmers about €10 billion ($14.6 billion) this year alone.

Other industries have been affected by the plunging prices too. Only 10% of all milk produced in the European Union is sold to consumers for drinking. One-third is used for making cheese, a quarter for butter, 12% for cream and the rest for milk powder and other products. Europe's cheese industry has been particularly hurt in the downturn. Unlike milk, which is seen as a staple, cheese is regarded as a luxury, and sales tend to drop off dramatically during a recession.

The European Union has certain measures in place to protect dairy farmers. Since 1984, the E.U. has set an annual milk quota in order to avoid the so-called "milk lakes" and "butter mountains" (stocks of unsold cartons of milk and butter) that were created in the 1980s when farmers produced more milk than Europe needed. This year the E.U. quota has been set at about 134.3 million tons of milk, with the German share the largest, at about 27.3 million tons. But last November, E.U. leaders agreed to phase out milk quotas by 2015, increasing the annual production allotment 1% each year until that date, a move most dairy farmers oppose.

The European Commission has moved in the short term to help farmers rebound from the global downturn. In January, milk prices fell so fast that officials reinstated export subsidies, a controversial measure that means European milk is sold to the rest of the world at artificially low prices, sometimes destroying local markets in poorer countries. In March, the commission started buying up butter and skimmed milk, raising the specter of new butter mountains. (Officials said because the purchases were temporary and on such a small scale, they resulted only in what could be described as "butter hillocks.")

Dairy farmers say they have yet to feel the effects of the E.U.'s market intervention. They have called on the E.U. to immediately abandon its plans to scrap the milk quotas and implement new, more stringent production curbs to make milk scarcer and thus more expensive.

E.U. Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told the European Parliament last week there was no negotiation on the quota issue. But she promised other measures to help the farmers, including enacting special rules on state subsidies so governments can offer them a one-time aid payment of up to €15,000 ($22,000).

And Fischer Boel insisted that the situation is improving, with butter, milk and cheese prices slowly rising again. "We are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

But the farmers say they can't afford to wait. They have promised to continue their protests until the E.U. meets their demands. If not, the continent can expect more milky crop-spraying in the months to come.