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October 6, 2009

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Farmers urge EU aid on milk

HUNDREDS of dairy farmers drove tractors into Belgium's capital Brussels yesterday to pressure European Union farm ministers on the milk price crisis as 20 of 27 nations called for more protection from the volatile world market.

About 1,000 farmers from Germany, France and other EU nations were waiting for ministers with cowbells, whistles and eggs at the ready, hours before an emergency meeting. Police closed off the EU Council building and set up a major security perimeter, causing traffic jams.

Farmers want regulation to shield them from a volatile free market that has led to plunging prices paid to dairy farmers for milk.

Some 20 EU nations met ahead of the meeting, agreeing to push for a new system to regulate the market once the EU phases out market-distorting quotas in 2015.

For weeks now, many European farmers have dumped milk on their fields to underscore the rock-bottom prices they are paid by the food conglomerates. Milk prices have crashed to as low as 18 euro cents (26 US cents) a kilo, well below the 40 cents they say they need to cover costs.

Led by France and Germany, the nations want assurances for the dairy sector in an increasingly globalized world, even if cheaper products can be found elsewhere.

"Farmers are worried we are going to a system where there are no more rules left," said French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire. "We need regulation; it is not the free market that will get us there," he said.

The 20 nations demanded in a statement that the EU Commission come up with cash to relieve farmers' immediate financial needs.

"We need additional money from the EU, a stimulus program for the farmers," said German Minister Ilse Aigner. "We need help now."

Swedish Farm Minister Eskil Erlandsson, who chaired yesterday's meeting, said that the key to better prices lies not with the ministers but with middlemen between farms and supermarkets, who have skimmed off the profits from lower milk prices.

"While the prices have decreased by 40 percent for the farmers ... for consumers, the prices have only decreased by 1 or 2 percent," he said.


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