Answering the profound crisis in the European dairy sector and the EU's attempt to resolve the issue by dumping its cheap dairy overproduction in India, ECVC, co-hosted this past January 14th the debate “milk crisis: the global impact of exports and local solutions”. Kannayian Subramanian, Henri Lecloux and Yvon Deknudt - dairy farmers from India and Belgium- took on the free-market policies of the EU and offered concrete sustainable alternatives beneficial to society and the environment.
Answering the profound crisis in the European dairy sector and the EU's attempt to resolve the issue by dumping its cheap dairy overproduction in India, the European Coordination Via Campesina, co-hosted this past January 14th the debate “milk crisis: the global impact of exports and local solutions”. Kannayian Subramanian, Henri Lecloux and Yvon Deknudt - dairy farmers from India and Belgium- took on the free-market policies of the European Union and offered concrete sustainable alternatives beneficial to society and the environment. Geneviéve Savigny (ECVC) and Stephan Backes (FIAN BE), moderators, kicked off the event by shedding light on the origins and history of the current dairy problem. Faced with the consequences of overproduction and the high cost of storage, production quotas were established in 1984. The idea seemed to work. Prices remained fairly stable for the next 40 years, despite the negative impact this had for countries forced to limit their production, and the loss of dairy producers. The quotas were reviewed and in 2009 production was increased, leading to overproduction and the fall of milk prices. The EU hoped to expand its exports to Russia and China, except that Russia had stopped its import of EU dairies in reaction to the European embargo, and now China is massively developing its milk sector hoping to supply Russia. The doors closing in the east for its cheap dairy exports, the EU's ambition headed south to India, with whom since 2007 it is negotiating a free trade agreement. Nowadays the EU is heavily insisting that India reduces its tariffs to near zero-levels for European milk products. In 2015, the situation got much worse for European small and medium dairy producers when the EU decided to remove the quota system completely. Currently, with the price of milk below 30 cents per liter not allowing most European producers to cover production costs, debt and bankruptcy is spreading among countless dairy farmers in Europe; thus clearing the way for the agroindustry. In this context, the EU with its cheap and subsidized milk pretends to want to stabilize prices by exporting massively to India and destroying that country's dairy sector, the largest of the world- an option denounced and heavily opposed by the peasants of La Via Campesina, present in India as well as in Europe. Kannayian Subramanian, former dairy producer and member of the South Indian Coordinating Committee of Farmers Movements (SICCFM) described the situation in his country. India has an impressive system of milk cooperatives, 90 million people keep a cow in their backyard. Through these means come 70 percent of that country's milk demand - righteously awarding India the title of home of the “people's milk” industry. This assures the countries food security. Furthermore, the farmers get 77% of the final milk price. In the 90s, free market policies encouraged the creation of private dairies, who consequently entered in a price war with cooperatives. Fortunately, the cooperatives were strong and are still doing well. For the last 3 years, however, India has being touched by the same problem as Europe: overproduction. India is even pondering exporting to Russia. The solutions been advanced by the industrial sector there are- as in Europe- pressuring farmers to produce more and to industrialize their milk production. Besides this, European corporations are profiting from the current Indian governments free-market legislation and thus investing in private diaries. Now, Indian milk producers are asked not to bring in their milk, prices have also dropped over there while the cost of production is going up. This situation will be exacerbated by the free trade agreement negotiated since 2007 with the EU, which has the potential of collapsing India's dairy market. Dairy imports from the EU are heavily subsidized therefore costing much less than Indian dairy. An FTA between both regions might allow certain EU dairy farmers a temporary bridge out of the crisis but it will destroy 90 million families in India. Milk is fundamental to Indian society, it is given abundantly to children, it is used in the traditional chai, ghee, buttermilk, in the preparing of lentils, for different kinds of sweets and also used in religious rituals. The FTA being negotiated with EU policy makers in partnership with corporations not only threatens the livelihoods of millions of Indian families but is also an attack on their way of life. Food should continue to be produced by small farmers and consumed locally, not decreed by corporations. After the testimonies from India, it was up to the Belgian peasants to share their struggle. Yvon Deknudt, dairy farmer from Belgium since 1985 and member of the FUGEA (Fédération Unie de Groupements d'Eleveurs et d'Agriculteurs), spoke of his initial acceptance of mainstream dairy production until the milk crisis of 1989 hit him and pushed him and his wife in short food supply chains initiatives- a choice that according to him saved them at the financial level. When European milk quotas were increased in 2009, he first thought it would be a good thing, only to find out otherwise. This incited him to join FaireBel, a milk cooperative created that same year that sells milk at a fair price for producers. However, if this has spared him from the worst, he still faces financial difficulties. In view of all this his son doesn't plan on taking over the farm. Until then, for Yvon the only solution is selling directly to consumers. Henri Lecloux, farmer and livestock producer from Belgium for 40 years and member of the MAP (Mouvement d'Action Paysanne) addressed the responsibilities the WTO and the corporate world had in provoking this crisis – the main actors involved in the elimination of milk quotas. For Henry, the current crisis is structural, therefore the relief promised by the EU after the 7 September demonstrations (420 million euros for EU dairy and pig meat sectors) will not change anything in the long term. Some useful measures have been taken, such as the recently created European Milk Market Observatory, an important tool to gather and share information concerning dairy prices and quantities, but it is no lever. Overproduction is still increasing and prices continue to drop. In the meantime, the Commission continues to bet on free market solutions, like the entry into Asian markets, and that it will bring relief to European farmers. This in complete disregard of the poverty it will provoke or the consequences for the environment and the climate. We are witnessing an all against all war of competition. So what can we do? For Henry, we need to go back to the founding principles of Europe: produce for Europe and construct an EU of peace. We need to go back to human-scale farms and in this way encourage the installation of young people in the sector, create jobs and produce quality food. We have a number of challenges ahead of us: feed the entire world, protect our peasants without destroying those in the south and counter climate change, but let's not forget our humanity on the way. André Pflimflin, former dairy zootechnician, now milk expert for the EU Committee of Regions, intervened in the closing debate. He highlighted the impressive example India represents on milk production: A country of 1.25 billion people that with mostly small herds of cows succeeds in feeding an entire population that, on top of that, increases by approximately 12 million each year! It is a great autonomous, low cost and ecological model that could inspire many countries and their dairy producers in Europe. The exchange between the speakers and the audience, also underscored the neo-liberal ideology dominant in the EU Commission. Despite the fact that EU Agriculture Commissioner Paul Hogan has recently admitted that the current crisis is structural and not conjectural, not everyone present saw this as a turning point. In her closing statement, Gwanaelle Martin from FUGEA, pointed to the Commission's deaf ears to the cause of European peasants, and to a policy that placed trade before farmers, the environment and communities. She reminded us however, that it is us that have built this Europe and thus that it is up to us again to re-occupy and re-invent it. Stephan Backes from FIAN Belgium, added the importance Food Sovereignty had for people around the world. Peasant farmers and agroecology provide concrete and sustainable solutions to several problems and challenges we face today, such as climate change, famine, unemployment and environmental destruction. In this context it is important to support two important negotiations in the United Nations: the international declaration on the rights of peasants and the discussions for an international binding instrument to address the abuse of transnational corporations. Kannayian concluded the discussions emphasizing the connection this milk tour had forged between him and European farmers but also on the need to continue building tight grassroots alliances between India and Europe - an important step in the need to globalize the struggle and hope. Rightly illustrating the dairy crisis, Kannayian closed the event with a quote of the great Mahatma Gandhi: “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.”
This event, co-organised by the European Coordination Via Campesina with the Belgian based organisations FIAN, FUGEA and the Mouvement d'Action Paysan (MAP), is part of the Hands on the Land European project, a human rights based campaign on issues related to the use and governance of land, water and other natural resources and its effects on the realization of the right to food and food sovereignty.
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