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The price farmers pay for milk has fallen by 25% over the past year, and according to milk farmers the so-called price-war between major supermarket retailers is to blame. The past week has seen a surge in direct action by the farmers and campaign groups tired of seeing dairy farms exploited in a fast accelerating race to the bottom.
The price of milk has always been a contentious issue - from accusations that our national politicians are out of touch for not knowing how much it costs to buy a pint of the stuff, to milk becoming a key target for price slashes as retailers vie to provide consumers with ever more bang for their buck.
The depreciation of milk prices is unsustainable for farmers struggling to make ends meet in a market that pays several pence less per litre of milk than it costs to produce. And the casualties of this price war continue to mount: in the past year, nine dairy farms have been forced to close per week in England and Wales. The National Farmers Union (NFU) has declared a 'state of emergency' for farmers, estimating that around 60 dairy farms left the industry in December 2014 alone.
Dairy industry experts agree that 30p per litre is the absolute minimum required by farmers so that they don't operate at a loss. While some of the best known big brands have established agreements that guarantee the price paid for milk, this only covers around 14% of milk sold for home consumption, with products such as cheese and yoghurt mostly exempt.
Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl and Asda have been targeted in particular due to their failure to pay a higher price for milk that is more closely linked to the cost of production. The current average price paid to farmers is 23.66p per litre.
Following intense pressure this week, Aldi and then Asda announced that they would pay a minimum of 28p per litre. Morrisons will pay 26p and is to launch a new brand titled ‘Milk For Farmers’, which will pay a 10p premium directly to dairy farmers. Though this is an improvement, it is clear that this does not go far enough.
In their defence, supermarkets' claim that the fall in milk prices reflects a much bigger problem - that of declining commodity prices across the globe and an oversupply in Europe. As the Russian ban on importing farm produce from the EU continues, with reductions in dairy imports into an economically struggling China, the European market is witnessing something of a milk flood.
Whilst reductions in milk prices might seem like good news for consumers under pressure from squeezed living standards, cheap food is no replacement for quality produce. If dairy farmers continue to go out of business, consumers will increasingly have to buy milk that is imported from abroad, and without the Red Tractor Mark there will be no guarantee of high standards, including those relating to animal welfare.
It is clear that customers have an important role to play, by demonstrating to the supermarkets that they do not want to be unwittingly involved in putting UK dairy farmers out of business as a result of buying cheap milk.
How can this be done? First, we can all place pressure on the big brands by asking how much they pay dairy farmers and encouraging them to guarantee that the price they pay for all milk products is fair to the men and women producing them. This is what Christian Aid did in the 1990s, where I worked as Head of Campaigns, alongside Oxfam and other major development agencies. We campaigned hard to get UK supermarkets to stock fairly traded goods from the developing world by placing customers at the centre of the movement for change. And with great success: supermarkets responding by stocking fairly traded products such as coffee, tea and bananas, which customers then bought.
So, write to your supermarket managers, call, ask to speak to the person in charge when you next do your weekly shop or leave a note at the till. And when possible, opt for the fair trade milk option that guarantees dairy producers are not being exploited. It's time we showed our support for a fair price for milk and a brighter future for our farmers.
One topic seems to have dominated the EU's trade policy agenda in recent months - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - but it is certainly not the only major trade deal in negotiation. As a member of the International Trade committee of the European Parliament, I am following approximately 30 sets of negotiations between the EU and third countries.
With much public attention, MEPs recently completed an important stage in the process of democratic scrutiny of the TTIP negotiations, which culminated with the adoption of a non-binding resolution on the negotiations in July. This resolution sets out MEPs' concerns on key aspects of the ongoing negotiations with the US: a crucial opportunity for MEPs to influence the direction of EU trade policy.
Now the same process will start for several of the other negotiations underway - and again I find myself in a strategic position in the committee as Socialist lead MEP on the 'plurilateral' Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), as we endeavour to conclude a resolution in the coming months.
Launched in 2013 between the EU and 25 other 'parties', TISA is an attempt to update global rules on the trade in services, notably to take into account advances in digital services since those global rules were concluded in 1995.
The trade in services cannot be separated from jobs and growth. In the EU, services employ 68% of the labour force. Trade in services provided a surplus of €173.2 billion for the EU in 2013. As a result the EU member states consider services to be a priority offensive interest in trade for the EU as European service providers are highly competitive in the global market place.
However, by their nature, high quality services depend on good working conditions and fair market rules. This is where global rules have a key role to play in setting standards and protection. However, our rules are outdated - for instance, the scale of the internet in 1995 was such that, there are currently very few rules today regulating e-commerce at global level, and consequently guaranteeing little consumer protection and raising concerns about data protection and privacy. Equally we need to ensure that trade in services does not provide cover for worker exploitation.
I am a convinced multilateralist and believe that global rules are the 'first best' choice to regulate globalization. However since the WTO has been stalled for a decade, 'plurilateral' negotiations have emerged on a number of subjects where groups of countries want to move forward with the intention of making any deal global once a critical mass of participants has be reached. Therefore, these negotiations remain open to new participants. One of the key concerns for European negotiators is that the US seems to be blocking the participation of China - an action which effectively blocks the route back into the WTO towards a global agreement. MEPs have been highly critical of this.
As the TISA spokesperson of the 191-strong Socialist and Democrats group in the EP, my aim is to maintain the critically-constructive approach to international trade we have successfully initiated with the TTIP negotiations.
We need to seize any opportunity we are given to regulate globalisation, this means engaging in the debate rather than grandstanding.
While it may be tempting to treat all current trade negotiations as a package, TTIP and TISA are very different beasts. TTIP is a bilateral deal between the EU and US, while TiSA is a plurilateral negotiation between 25 parties, the EU counting a one. TTIP covers a very broad scope, touching upon trade in goods and services, as well as investment. TISA only deals with services. What is a reality is that these negotiations are going on in parallel and have multiple impacts on each other. How public services are affected is a prime example.
In the EP's July resolution on TTIP, MEPs unanimously called for all public services to be fully excluded from the negotiations. I will be strongly advocating for the same language in the forthcoming TISA resolution. This would mean that regardless of how the services are funded, organised or operated (including but not limited to water, health, social services, social security systems and education), they should be excluded. The re-nationalisation and re-municipalisation of a once outsourced public service must be safeguarded. I want to ensure that national and local authorities retain their full right to introduce, adopt, maintain or repeal any measures with regards to the commissioning, organisation, funding and provision of public services in Europe. There is not as much public attention on the TISA negotiations as we have seen on TTIP, which is a danger to consistency around questions like public services.
Despite the focus on TTIP in the last few months, I have been actively monitoring the activities of the European Commission in the TISA negotiations, and have clearly signalled that Socialist MEPs will not agree to trade away our public services, our privacy or our workers' rights. We now have the opportunity to make these demands the whole Parliament's demands. In the coming months, I will be engaging with my fellow MEPs from other countries and political parties in full transparency to try to convince them of the relevance of our concerns - please help me. Together we can make Europe the driver of change at global level.
Jack Drum Arts, a community arts organisation based in Crook, South West Durham, were offered the opportunity to play at the European Parliament on the 14th July 2015 during their trip to Brussels, sponsored by the Labour MEPs office.
The band which is called ‘Runaway Samba’ have been preparing for the gig at the European Parliament through some intense training with Moises Lama, a famed Brazilian samba musician who taught the group some new complex rhythms which the group executed perfectly on the day of the event.
‘Runaway Samba’ is just one aspect of a creative community of artists and performers who operate under the broad title of Jack Drum Arts. The organisation is funded through a range of grants including the National Youth Music Foundation, Big Lottery and Durham County Council’s Adult and Community Learning, with a mandate to encourage creativity and community integration. The team works with citizens and professionals across the North East to inspire and enable new audiences to consider how creativity might work for them – whether as a career or as an enriching leisure and learning activity.
At the heart of the organisation are professional artists with a drive to share their passion and demonstrate how creativity can improve people’s lives. They believe that creativity works on lots of different levels, and aim to offer people of all ages and abilities the opportunity to discover new things about themselves and their place in the world.
One of the two Labour MEPs for the North East, Jude Kirton-Darling, has said of the group’s performance “it is a pleasure to see a community organisation from the North East performing and doing what they love at the heart of European politics. I sincerely hope this demonstrates the importance people in our area assign to culture and the arts, even during this period of government-imposed austerity.”
It is hoped by the band that their performance at the European Parliament will help to raise awareness about their activities, and encourage involvement by artists and the wider community, as well as draw more attention to the important role culture and the arts have to play in the lives of people not just in the North East, but across the European Union.
Helen Ward, director of Jack Drum Arts said “We are very grateful to Jude and Paul for giving our young people the opportunity to travel to Brussels to see what happens in Parliament and how decisions made there affect us back here in the North East. It was incredibly exciting for all the young people and I am sure they will remember the trip for the rest of their lives, especially the bit where they got to play drums to a group of politicians.”