14 August, 2015

Is it time for Fairtrade milk (again?)

by Barbara Crowther, Director of Policy and Public Affairs for the Fairtrade Foundation

Shoppers in Asda in Stafford must have got a shock when they encountered two Friesian cows in the supermarket aisle. Following further price cuts from milk processors, dairy farmers have recently escalated their protests to a Milk Trolley Challenge removing their product from shop shelves because the price no longer even covers the cost of production.

They’re not alone. This is the refrain of so many farmers around the world, from cocoa to tea to bananas. It’s why banana farmers were in the UK last year knocking on the doors of government and the Fairtrade Foundation was asking the Government business department to launch its own investigation into the negative livelihood and sustainability impacts of price wars and cheap food. Sadly the Government reply merely said everything was working very nicely in the interests of consumers, thank you very much.

Except it seems that shoppers themselves disagree. Although not scientific, when the newspaper Metro polled its readers on whether they would like to see fair trade milk, a whopping 94% of people agreed. Under pressure from dairy farmers, this week Morrisons announced a new milk brand offering their customers the option of paying 10p more for a litre, with a promise that the money would go to the farmers via its milk supplier Arla. Will Morrisons shoppers rise to the challenge?

In the midst of the furore, the question has been raised once again why Fairtrade can’t just begin at home and extend our label and fair price promise to UK dairy farmers. Could we make our Mark work on milk? It’s a fair question, and is something that has been looked at, and discussed many times – not least as part of a ‘Local and Fair’ conference three years ago, bringing Fairtrade and Cumbrian farmers groups together to discuss the issues they hold in common.

However, we are always reminded that Fairtrade was born from the needs of farmers and workers who often earn less than the US$2 per day absolute poverty line, who live in countries with little or no social safety net, and are far removed from the markets they sell to. Whilst UK dairy farmers are able to take their protest to the doors of supermarkets and processors, lobby their MPs directly or via farmers’ unions and organisations such as the NFU or Small Farmers Association, the farmers and farm workers we represent, like Foncho who led Make Bananas Fair campaign, have not got this access.  They rely on Fairtrade and its partners to be their voice, eyes and ears, and lobby on their behalf.

In short, we are 100% behind the concept of fair trade milk, but we’re not necessarily the right organisation to invest in the work that would be required to set up such a scheme, which we believe would also need to deliver against sustainable agricultural practices and high animal welfare standards too. Meanwhile, a number of retailers have already taken matters into their own hands, through schemes such as Sainsbury’s Dairy Development Group, Waitrose farmgate milk pricing, or Booths Fair Milk programme. A word of caution however from farmers’ groups is that these schemes have addressed the prices for liquid milk sold in pints and litres, but not the vast tonnes of milk that go into food processing and dried milk products that are part of the problem. So a label on the milk cartons you and I buy in the shops may not even be the answer at all.

The irony in the midst of this, is that whilst the relentless price wars on milk, bananas, tea and other daily basket items allow retailers to price match on a daily basis, slowly ratcheting them down, any attempt by retailers to coordinate a pricing model designed to return the cost of sustainable production to farmers across the whole industry could be deemed price fixing and subject to investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority. In fact, several supermarkets and processors were fined tens of millions of pounds in August 2011 precisely on this subject, so it’s not an unfounded fear. There is a point to this focus on pure consumer interest – it is designed to prevent industry conspiracies and protect consumers like you and me from being ripped off. But the question is then left – whose job is it to protect the suppliers?

The Fairtrade Foundation was one of many organisations that successfully lobbied for the establishment of a Grocery Code Adjudicator to ensure fair play between retailers and their suppliers, according to the Grocery Sector Code of Practice. It is clearly already doing good and useful work, but neither its mandate nor the Code itself, are allowed to investigate issues of below cost of production trading. Its focus remains on supermarkets and their direct suppliers, and does not include for example, the relationship between suppliers and primary producers. So farmers who sell via intermediary companies aren’t covered. Without more transparency in supply chains on farmgate and trading prices, it is almost impossible to analyse where the real problems in delivering fair prices to farmers really lie.

With the launch of new Sustainable Development Goals scheduled for September 2015, every government in the world will become accountable for delivery – including a shiny brand new goal (number 12 if you really want to know!) on Sustainable Production and Consumption. Is this an opportunity to think afresh about the kind of mechanisms and regulations to address unfair trading practices in a comprehensive way? Could it even incentivise best practices in sustainable agriculture and fair trading? We in the Fairtrade Foundation think so.  It would require a bit of vision, some progressive businesses to back it, the Fairtrade movement to champion it (we will!), and a government with the political will to make it happen.

But in the meantime, let’s keep voting with our wallets and choosing the products and the shops that best represent the values we want to see become the norm in our food system, for all the farmers who produce it, both overseas and at home.


We really value your comments on this issue. Unfortunately, we experienced a technical problem that affected the comments function on this blog and comments left between the 25th and 27th of August were lost. If you submitted a comment during that period that has not displayed, we apologise. The technical issue has now been fixed and you can resubmit your comment below. Thank you for your understanding.   





  • Dee Marrable said:
    22/08/2015 09:40

    I think it is a great shame that you do not consider yourselves to be the right people. You have all the expertise, a highly respected brand and given that many dairy farmers in the UK are also earning less than $2 a day I see no difference. Whilst they may have unions to represent them these have proved to be very ineffective and given the anti union bias of the British Press it can often be counterproductive for even a mention of a Union when explaining the dire situation most diary farmers now find themselves in. Finally there is a very unpleasant and aggressive tough love lobby out there who simply do not understand the importance of locally sourced food and the underlying food security issues which are only going to get worse as the global population grows. Please reconsider your decision and look again at supporting our diary farmers.

  • Sandra Docherty said:
    22/08/2015 14:47

    I do try to buy Fairtrade goods when available, but if milk is Fairtrade that will mean importing it?

  • Sally Lane said:
    24/08/2015 14:39

    I think farmers deserve a fair price for their milk as they work so hard.

  • pete lippman said:
    24/08/2015 15:15

    great victory..next.lets have more organic food on our shelves...

  • Sheila Page said:
    24/08/2015 15:22

    Perhaps another reason for you not to get involved in UK dairy production is that you seem not to know anything about it. Are you aware of the extent to which dairy farmers have been subsidised by taxpayers? Farmers wanted the European system of quotas abolished so that they could produce more to make more money. They now don't like the fact that this meant that production rose, so prices have fallen. I think that you can find people more worthy of your attention.

  • ann newport said:
    26/08/2015 02:38

    I always feel soo sorry for the dairy farmers, who are not getting the money they deserve, they work so hard to get the milk to us everyday. I do hope they start getting a lot more money for all the hours they put in, they have long days, if you have ever been to a dairy farm and seen the time they start and finish you will understand why they badly need all the support they can get.good luck to them.

  • Mehmet Emin Boyacioglu said:
    16/09/2015 04:15

    Non-vegan items (or anything that is tested on animals) should not be considered Fair Trade. How is it fair to breach the autonomy of an animal that does not give consent? "Animal welfare" is just a means to clear the human conscience. Total liberation for humans, animals, and the earth!

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