Britain's dairy industry is suffering. Milk prices have decreased by a quarter in the past year and more than half of dairy farmers have gone out of business since 2002. While some have expanded their product range or turned to new technologies in an attempt to make their profit margins, many find themselves facing bankruptcy. As Yorkshire dairy farmer Matthew Bell told MUNCHIES earlier this year, "The prices for milk now seem to be linked to the world price, which fluctuates widely. It causes farmers to be profitable at times and then struggling to make ends meet at others."
Right now, most are struggling. For the past week, dairy farmers have staged protests at supermarkets across the country, who they say are putting them out of business with milk price cuts. Their efforts have focused on ASDA, Lidl, Morrisons, and Aldi, retailers who do not guarantee farmers a price for milk that covers production.
Most of these protests take the form of a "trolley dash," with farmers clearing supermarket shelves of their entire milk supply and either abandoning it at the checkout or buying it and giving it away to customers in the car park. Supermarkets in Devon, Cornwall, and Telford have all been hit, as well as several in Kilmarnock and Ayr and Northern Ireland, with one Bude farmer taking a cow along to the protest.
Speaking to the BBC, West Midlands dairy farmer Michael Oakes explained the thinking behind such tactics: "I'm getting paid 24p [per litre] and it's costing me 28p to produce. So we thought we'd go along to the retailer. We've bought the milk and we're going to give it away to the consumer and explain why."
Many involved in the protests, which come in the wake of similarly direct demonstrations by French farmers against their national supermarket chains, have also highlighted the impact of supermarket pricing tactics on customers. Welsh farmer and chair of the Farmers for Action group David Handley told the Guardian: "There's a crisis. People are selling the core of their business just to pay bills and the banks. It's also a crisis for the consumer. They wish to buy British but if we don't address this situation that's going to be taken away from them by corporate greed."
While further trolley dashes are expected this week, Morrisons, which has been accused of paying as little as 74p for four pints of milk, says it will not negotiate with Farmers for Action while the protests take place. The supermarket is in talks with the National Farmers Union, with a spokesman saying: "We recognise that the current issue is being caused by a reduction in global demand for milk that has led to an oversupply in the UK and very difficult conditions for many dairy farmers."
Despite farmers targeting their anger squarely at supermarkets, some argue that the large retailers are not entirely to blame, with an oversaturated global market pushing down prices.
"Until that picks up there will be problems. But it's absolutely wrong to look at retailers here. Retailers are actually doing the right thing—they are paying the best prices—but these are global conditions outside their control," Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium told the BBC.
While the demand for milk from emerging dairy markets like China and the pricing methods of UK retailers have no doubt added to the plight of Britain's dairy farmers, milk buyers themselves are also implicated. If we want to douse our cereal and stir our tea with cheap milk, someone else inevitably ends up paying the price.