On January 23, 2017, hundreds of European dairy farmers dumped one ton of powdered milk in front of the EU Summit Center in Brussels. This act of protest was directed at the decision in November to renew the sale of powdered milk stocks by the European Union (EU). Producers and farming organizations, principally the European Milk Board (EMB) and its member organizations, see the sale of cheap powdered milk from EU stocks as “food dumping” that is dangerous to markets at home and abroad.
In 2015, the EU removed milk quotas to manage the supply of milk on the market, which opened the system up for large-scale dairy production. That summer, protests erupted across the EU after milk prices dipped far below the cost of production for small family farms. Eventually, the EU came to a market stabilizing agreement to buy up the additional stocks of milk. However, organizations associated with the protests argue that this crisis relief is not a lasting solution.
While struggling for a long-term solution to the milk crisis, many producers have come up with their own creative ways to promote the equitable, local production of milk. In Belgium, a group of dairy farmers established a cooperative brand called Fairebel to distinguish their milk on the market. The idea behind Fairebel is that if dairy farmers take on the middle step of processing and packaging milk, and establish their own brand for that product, more of the final consumer price can go directly to the producer.
As the project manager of Fairebel Erwin Schöpges explains, “Across Belgium, family farming is disappearing, and being replaced with operations of 200, 300, even 500 cows. Now there is more money flowing into the system from investors, who are not involved in farming the land but only in managing it. Using a cooperative you improve the product quality, and more of the cost can stay with the producer. The coop ensures that high-quality milk from member farmers receives a fair market price, and that more of the final price goes to the producer.”
As the recent protest highlights, the plight of European family farmers is only one side of a global problem. That is why Fairebel chose to partner with Oxfam in expanding their cooperative abroad. In 2015, Schöpges traveled to Burkina Faso to begin work with the Union Nationale des Mini Laiteries (the National Union of Mini Dairies) on the development of a cooperatively-run dairy and local brand. As of 2016, small-scale farmers participating in the Fairefaso project were producing 100 to 200 liters of milk per day for sale on the local market.
For Schöpges, the problems of European and Burkinabé dairy farmers have to be seen together. “The recent protests oppose the policy of exporting powdered milk, which is destroying local markets and making it more difficult for them to sell their own milk,” he says. “There are four billion liters of milk in the European stock, which they hope to sell again on the open market. If they make this happen, it will sink the market again.”
Fairebel is a project of the MIG, a Belgian member of the European Milk Board, all of whom continue to battle against the European policy of liberalization and deregulation of agricultural markets. While working to change things from the top, they are dedicated to projects like Fairebel, which improve the livelihood of small-scale farmers and demonstrate the crucial role that they play in our society. Beyond their work within the EU, they are committing themselves to global solidarity through the Fairefaso project, which emphasizes the importance of local action with a full recognition of our globalized world.