A fair price for milk? Thinking beyond fair trade

03 August 2012

In recent days, in light of the plight of British dairy farmers being highlighted in the press, there have been calls for a fair trade labelling system to be applied to products in the UK. The main milk processing companies – Arla, Dairy Crest and Wiseman – were preparing to reduce the price paid to farmers to 25 pence per litre, below the estimated cost of production which stands at 30 pence. Suppliers blame supermarket pressure for price reductions, although many have now agreed to pay 30 pence per litre to at least meet the cost of production, following the thousands of farmers who marched on Westminster and public support which the National Farmers Union (NFU) describes as “almost overwhelming”. In light of these developments, vocal advocate of fair trade and Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has publicly made the case for a fair trade mark for British goods, so that consumers can buy confidently with the knowledge that “the producer has been paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

What is interesting in this debate is that supermarkets agreeing to at least meet the cost of production is hailed as a “victory” for farmers. Paying anything above and beyond this through a much celebrated “premium” is not saintly – increasingly, it is driven by self interest as companies realise that without paying more, they will suffer an unrelenting barrage of bad publicity. What is called fair trade – offering a premium above the cost of production – offers a fairer way of doing things in an extremely unequal world, where the strong exploit the weak in the so-called “free market”. It should be lauded, but it should also be the start of something much, much better, as the burgeoning food sovereignty movement – pushing for a more just food system in both the global North and South - is now a testament to.

Beyond the current discussions around the possibilities for fair trade milk, the European Parliament is now discussing reforms to agricultural policy in Europe, a crucial opportunity for ordinary citizens to express what they want from their food system in years to come. Just one of the many ways you can support this movement is by joining or supporting the Good Food March to Brussels which begins at the end of this month. Consider giving your support today.

Farmer's field, Fontainebleau, France (From Dean Searle's photostream on Flickr)



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