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WMN opinion: Give dairy code a chance – but it may need teeth

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 04, 2012

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The deal thrashed out between dairy farmers and the milk processors, unveiled yesterday, should not under any circumstances be shot down before it has even had a chance to take effect. There is no doubting the effort that went into drawing up a solution acceptable to all sides, nor the commitment that both the farmers' representatives and the dairy processors have made to get where we are today. We believe that on both sides that commitment is sincere.

But if it is only right that everyone gives this attempt at a long-term answer to the dairy crisis a fair wind, it would be foolish not to consider what might be the best course should the deal fail. And for that it is certainly worth paying heed to the thoughts of Tenant Farmers Association Chief Executive George Dunn, who represents more than 1,000 tenant farmers across the Westcountry and knows more than many about the difficulties farmers who have to rent their land face as they try to make a living in the dairy sector.

Mr Dunn, an economist by profession, has said what many in his line of work would consider almost un-sayable – that the free market is deeply flawed when it comes to the business of producing and selling food. He told the WMN earlier this week that "slavish reliance" on the market would "only produce outcomes which favour those who have dominant power." And certainly, looking at the relationship between, say, the big four supermarkets and farmers, it is not hard to see who holds the whip hand and what impact that has on the long-term future of the smallest farmers – often, they simply don't have one.

Whether or not that makes the case for completely divorcing food production from the open market is questionable, however. But given that farmers are expected to do many other things, including maintaining the environment and investing in long-term food security, there is clearly a case for a system that doesn't give all the cards to the processors and the retailers, such as we have seen in the dairy industry over many years.

The bottom line is that if we want a thriving dairy sector that includes small and medium sized farms, we have to be prepared to pay for it and some mechanism to ensure those vital players at the sharp end get the return they need to stay in business has to be found. If this voluntary code, drawn up yesterday, doesn't hold up then, as MP Neil Parish suggests, it may have to be mandatory. If that amounts to price-fixing of some kind, it could be the price we have to pay.

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There are clearly attractions in privatising many of the council services run in Cornwall, not least the hope that a joint venture company could be run more efficiently and, therefore, more cheaply than the current local government model. For it to work, however, it needs the full support of staff. From the reaction we're hearing so far, that is far from assured. It needs working on.

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