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Milk protests spread across Switzerland

(Keystone)

Swiss dairy farmers have joined colleagues from other European countries in protesting against the drop in the price of milk.

Since the beginning of the year, the price of milk in Switzerland has fallen by an average of 30 per cent. Swiss farmers currently earn SFr0.55 ($0.58) for each litre of milk produced - half the amount of ten years ago.

On Monday around 200 milk producers and 100 tractors blocked the entrance of the ELSA milk production plant owned by the supermarket giant Migros in Estavayer-le-Lac, canton Fribourg.

Tractors carried banners with slogans such as "Peasants uprising" and "The small die while the big make a packet".

The farmers' union Uniterre wants Swiss Economics Minister Doris Leuthard to hold urgent talks with the concerned parties, but the Federal Agriculture Office rejects the idea.

"The only representative institution is the Swiss milk producers' association," said Federal Agricultural Office spokesman Jean-Marc Chappuis, adding the protestors behind the ELSA blockade were a non-representative minority.

"The state will not intervene as long as there is no consensus within the Swiss milk producers' association," he said.

But talks within the body, which brings together farmers and the milk industry, are deadlocked.

The association's decision to raise the indicative price of milk by just four centimes per litre to SFr0.62, sparked the recent protests.

Growing unrest

According to farming associations, the milk protest movement is spreading.

On August 29, around 10,000 Swiss farmers protested in the central Swiss town of Sempach against liberalisation in agriculture and the reduction of milk prices.

They denounced negotiations between Switzerland and the European Union on an agricultural free trade accord and called for a "fair milk price".

Milk producers said that they had suffered since May when milk quotas in the country were abolished. This had led to over production and lower prices, they argued.

The Swiss Farmers Association said the "dramatic" income losses over the past few months were untenable in view of the uncertain political outlook.

On Sunday 150 farmers aboard tractors protested outside the Comptoir Suisse trade fair in Lausanne.

This follows similar action last week in cantons Vaud, Geneva, Bern and Jura, where farmers demonstrated and sold their milk directly to the general public in front of big supermarkets.

According to the Swiss-German group Big-M, some 400 dairy farmers have joined the protest movement; 300 in western Switzerland and 100 in German-speaking Switzerland have already ceased supplies, it claims.

Meetings are planned in Switzerland in the coming weeks to decide whether to step up industrial action.

Overproduction

The origin of the problem appears to be overproduction: Switzerland currently produces about 3.4 million tons of milk per year, or five per cent more than the market requires, leading to an inevitable slump in prices.

The crisis has been exacerbated because since April 30 milk quotas have no longer existed.

For many years, the state guaranteed a fixed price for milk, regulating production via quotas. Under this system, which was introduced in 1977 to curb overproduction, each dairy farmer was allowed to produce a certain quantity of milk that it could sell for a set price.

Against a backdrop of agricultural reforms, producers and other parties under the umbrella of the Swiss milk producers' association (28,000 producers represented by 38 organisations) have tried to find solutions, but have been unable to agree upon a common model. Regional interests often diverge.

A fair price

As protest action gathers strength, Swiss dairy farmers have fine-tuned their demands: a fair price for milk (SFr1 per litre); the milk industry alone should set annual production quotas; and manufacturers should stop fixing the price of the product.

The farmers are up against large firms like Emmi, Cremo, Nutritec and ELSA.

To try to instil some calm, Leuthard met with milk industry representatives last Tuesday to discuss subsidies for farmers to cope with the financial crisis. The federal government has offered an additional credit of SFr14 million.

According to Albert Rösti, president of the Swiss milk producers' association, the only way out is through dialogue.

"Radical solutions like demonstrations or strikes do not solve the long-term problem," he said. "Switzerland is different from the EU as it has its own agricultural policy and regulations governing the milk market, for which it has to find its own solutions."

Andrea Ornelas, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from Spanish by Simon Bradley)

In brief

A record volume of milk was produced in Switzerland in 2008 - more than 3.4 million tons.

But the number of dairy farmers in Switzerland is on the decrease. It has nearly halved over the past two decades, falling from more than 57,000 producers in 1986 to 28,830 in 2007. The number dropped by 4% in 2007.

In June 2007 parliament decided to gradually open up the agriculture market by scrapping subsidies. Milk producers say that they have suffered since May 2009 when milk quotas in the country were abolished. This has led to over production and lower prices, they argue.

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European milk protests

The wave of protests that began on September 10 in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Italy and Luxembourg against the slumping cost of milk has spread across Europe.

The action has extended to 16 EU countries led by 40,000 milk producers belonging to the European Milk Board. In many cases farmers have distributed free milk, while other have others have simply poured it into the streets.

Milk quotas are due to disappear in the EU in 2015, as they did in Switzerland from May 2009.

While the EU strongly subsidises agriculture, milk farmers' groups say world prices have sunk so much that they have to sell their milk at about €0.20 per litre – half its production costs.

A group of 18 EU countries has called on the European Commission to take urgent measures.

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