The milk quota mess

As the debate goes on in the EU about whether milk quotas can be increased by 2 per cent as part of the soft landing when they are eventually abolished in 2015, it is an opportunity to reflect how milk quotas have affected the UK dairy industry. They were introduced in 1984 to ease the severe budgetary crisis brought about by the structural surplus of milk in Europe. They worked in terms of limiting production growth and coping with the budgetary crisis, but they brought a lot of unintended (or intended) problems in their wake.

The basic problem is that milk quotas ossify structures. Some member states do permit trading of milk quotas within their boundaries, but despite the existence of an internal market, they cannot be traded across national borders. Hence, it is difficult to transfer production from less efficient producers to the more efficient or from less efficient regions to the more efficient.

Of course, some politicians welcome this as a means of enabling farming to survive in these areas. French politicians proudly proclaim that quotas are the reason that milk is still produced in every corner of France. In many areas of Europe only the quota system can guarantee prices high enough to keep farmers in business.

But all this comes at a price. Europe’s share of world dairy markets has been falling. Third country markets for dairy products are being captured by more efficient producers in North and South America. Dairy farmers like them, of course. Their arrival gave them a windfall capital gain and a retirement pot that can be worth as much as €1m.

There was a bare qualified majority in the Special Committee on Agriculture for the quota increase. Germany with a Bavarian farm minister is against, as are Austria, Finland (where there are quite a lot of dairy farmers) and Malta (where there are very few). France would like to delay, but the change will probably be go through and a small step will have been taken towards a more market oriented system.

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