Shoppers visiting Asda (Wal-Mart owned) stores in the UK have been greeted by dairy farmers complaining about the low prices they receive for their milk and the margin claimed by the processors and retailers.
Some dairy farmers are certainly finding it hard to make a profit, but bleaker times may be ahead for the sector across the European Union. If the planned phase out of export subsidies goes ahead, let alone tariff reductions, dairying will be hard hit. It depends to a large degree to the export of surplus product on to the world market under written by EU subsidies.
The EU is closely behind the climatically favoured Kiwis as the world's leading exporter of butter and skimmed milk powder. However, whereas New Zealand's success reflects its lush pastures and absence of really cold weather in most of the country, the EU spends close to €1 billion a year to help its exports on the world market. When export subsidies go 11% of total EU butter production and 18% of skimmed milk powder will have to be absorbed on the domestic market.
When the current reform programme is completed in July 2007 the EU butter intervention price will stand at €2463 per tonne. Calculating the world market price is notoriously difficult because in practice there is no one world price, but Dairy Markets estimate it at around €1570 to €1650 per tonne. The world market price could well go up, particularly if dairy production falls in Europe, but not to an extent that would close a gap of €800 a tonne or more.
There may be particular implications for the UK market. Dairy UK chairman David Curry has warned that 'There is a danger that if the export route is closed, big volumes of Irish milk will be seeking a home on the British market at heavily discounted prices.'
All this helps to explain why the EU is so keen to keep as many tariff lines as possible within the 'sensitive' products designation in the Doha Round talks and also to ensure that any tariff cuts for sensitive products are as low as possible. What the EU wants is to limit the amount of trade in the sector while retaining as high a level of domestic support as possible. One reason it has painted itself into a corner is the decision to retain dairy quotas, an artificial market restraint if there ever was one, until the middle of the next decade.
However, other products like beef and poultry meat also have claims for 'sensitive' treatment, so dairying is unlikely to get all the protection it wants. Which is perhaps why it is the most efficient and innovative dairy farmers in the UK are getting out of the business and employing their capital where it can earn a better return. Those who cannot think of any alternative activity tend to stay on and try to eke out a living. They are the farmers likely to be found demonstrating at Asda (although some of their fellow farmers have argued that they should be dropped as Asda suppliers). The irrationality of exit patterns could be regarded as a market failure.