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Dairy Industry debate

You can listen to Jonathan’s contribution here:

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC):

Diolch, Mrs Riordan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. I associate myself with many of his comments.

The Welsh dairy industry contributes about 10% of the milk produced in the UK, and Carmarthenshire is one of the places in Europe most ideally suited to producing milk, due to the plentiful resources of fresh grass. However, the long-term trends in the industry have not been particularly good. Since 1999, the number of dairy producers in Wales has fallen by 51.3%.

Recently, the price of milk has fallen below 27p a litre, with the cost of production being higher than that. First Milk has announced that it will cut its prices even further in December. In the Baltic states, the price of milk is down to 13p a litre; that shows the fall in milk prices throughout the EU and the world. Milk is a highly nutritious product and a vital component of any healthy diet, but in the supermarkets it is cheaper than water, so something is going wrong somewhere.

Dairy Industry Debate

During the recess, I visited a local farm, Bremenda Uchaf at Llanarthney, in the middle of the Towy valley, with the Farmers Union of Wales to discuss the emerging situation in the dairy industry. As I said recently during Welsh questions, the most recent crisis has been caused by two main factors: another supermarket price war, in which dairy foods and milk in particular bear the brunt as they are gateway products; and reprisal Russian sanctions on EU food products. President Putin introduced a one-year ban in August, and CNN reported that it is worth £1.5 billion to the EU dairy sector. Demand for milk and other products, such as beef, has fallen significantly and over-supply in domestic and EU markets has depressed prices. I read in The Guardian today that the situation in the eastern part of Ukraine is still highly volatile, so the sanctions may remain in place.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con):

On the impact of sanctions from Russia, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government should act in the same way as the Polish Government, for example, who have encouraged people there to eat apples to stand up to Putin? Should we not encourage people to eat Welsh cheese to stand up to Putin?

Jonathan Edwards:

I would certainly encourage people in Wales to eat Welsh cheese and to drink as much Welsh milk as possible. My daughter is on a pint a day, so I am doing my bit for the cause.

The industry also faces other long-term challenges, in particular the end of milk quotas next year. Competitors in Ireland are preparing for this by increasing milk production, and unless there are strategies in place to help Welsh farmers, we could have a long period of milk price instability. I fear that there is a lack of political direction at Welsh Government level. In a recent evidence session of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the new the Rural Affairs Minister seemed to indicate to me that the current difficulties were likely to be short-term. I invite her to reconsider her position and to put in place interventionist measures to help the industry before we face another serious crisis, like the one we faced a few years ago.

I want to list a series of interventions that are needed, from the Department but primarily from the Welsh Government. We must ensure that all that can be done is done, and that no one in the supply chain is using the current downward price trend as a convenient excuse to make additional cuts to farm-gate prices. We need retailers who use milk as a loss leader to ensure that they fund those deals from their own profit margins and not from the pockets of farmers. It is vital that those retailers put transparent pricing mechanisms in place and ensure that suppliers are compliant with the voluntary code.

Put simply, milk being sold cheaply devalues the product in the eyes of consumers, and this could have long-term negative ramifications for the sector as a whole. It is extremely worrying to every dairy farmer to see milk being used as a battleground between retailers.

Mr Mark Williams:

Before the hon. Gentleman continues his list of remedies for the problem, does he agree that a particular problem, which I am witnessing in Ceredigion, as I am sure he is in Carmarthenshire, is the inability of new entrants to join the industry? What we are experiencing is hardly an advertisement for people to invest in family farms and to keep them going, but it is essential to the fabric of rural Wales.

Jonathan Edwards:

That point is especially pertinent to the dairy industry, because entering the market requires a huge investment in milk parlours, and without long-term stability, the investment is too high a risk.
Plaid Cymru has called for the voluntary dairy code to be made compulsory to protect the interests of dairy farmers. This is the first big test since the voluntary code came into being following the 2012 milk crisis. If the voluntary approach fails, we will need to move to a statutory code. Competence for that lies with the Welsh Government, and I would like the relevant Welsh Minister publicly to declare her willingness to intervene if necessary.

Plaid Cymru has long campaigned to change EU procurement rules to allow sub-state Governments to strengthen domestic supply chains. We have succeeded in achieving that, but the Labour Government in Wales have not taken advantage of it. They could use the rural development programme, but they are not doing so.

I would also like the Welsh Labour Government to consider creating a dedicated promotion body for Welsh dairy produce, like Hybu Cig Cymru, which promotes Welsh red meat. Given that global demand for dairy is likely to increase, and that one reason for the current difficulties is the loss of Russian markets as a result of sanctions, the dairy sector needs a dedicated body to look for new and emerging markets. While I am on this issue, I would like to ask the Minister to look at the red meat levy, which is paid when animals are slaughtered. Hybu Cig Cymru loses out on an estimated £1 million a year because the levy is collected where the animal is slaughtered. Many animals from Wales cross the border, and that money is lost to Wales and the Welsh farming industry.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP):

Just before the hon. Gentleman moves away from that point, on the issue of the UK-wide promotion of the dairy industry, does he agree that what we would like to see—and should see—is the UK Government actively promoting our dairy industries across the United Kingdom internationally to try to counteract the problems, and particularly what is happening in Putin’s Russia?

Jonathan Edwards:

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid intervention. There are huge opportunities in developing markets across the world that we should be hoping to access.

Returning to the Welsh levy, there is an issue of fairness here. The previous Minister, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), promised to reform the system, and I am glad to see him in his place today. We need the UK Government to act to ensure that Welsh farmers and our promotion agencies receive the appropriate levy for Welsh produce. If a similar levy was introduced for the dairy sector, this issue would be even more pertinent, because the vast majority of Welsh milk is processed outside our country, regrettably. It is a brilliant food source that we should be doing everything at all political levels to support. Diolch yn fawr.