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Farm protests grip Europe as prices slump

BRUSSELS, February 5  – From Greece to Bulgaria and Latvia, European farmers are mounting increasingly unruly protests as the economic crisis causes prices especially for milk to collapse.

Greece has seen particularly turbulent demonstrations over the last two weeks with police clashing on Tuesday with farmers from Crete, using tear gas on them as they protested against slumping prices.

Greek Agriculture Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis came to Brussels on Wednesday to meet with EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel to see if 500 million euros in aid he has promised farmers is in line with EU rules.

Bulgaria as well has seen protests with around 100 dairy farmers blocking a key border-crossing point to Romania on Wednesday in a protest against low milk prices, according to national radio.

In Latvia, Agriculture Minister Martins Roze announced his resignation on Tuesday, bowing to pressure from angry farmers who want help to face a recession.

Their protests have also centred on the dairy sector with Latvian farm leaders demanding government support for milk prices, a year-long moratorium on loan repayments and handouts.

Anger has been building for months across Europe as milk prices drop. Demonstrations have not only been limited to southern and eastern Europe but have also occurred in Germany and France.

"The discontent is widespread across the European Union," said Marie-Christine Ribera, an official with the Copa-Cogeca European farmers union confederation.

After peaking at the end of 2007 on the back of a global commodities boom, wholesale milk prices dropped by 50 percent on average last year as demand collapsed in the face of global recession.

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"Farmers are getting pinched because low prices are theatening their businesses," Ribera said.

Gerard Choplin with the European Farmers Coordination association said: "Most dairy farmers are selling at a loss, below their production costs, so they are rising up and protesting."

The trend is also being seen in grains where prices have also fallen by half over the last year.

Falling prices are not reaching supermarket shelves "although they should in order to boost consumption," said Ribera. "It\’s the middlemen who are making a margin on the back of the farmers."

With farmers up in arms, the European Commission is coming under fire and finding it difficult to defend its free-market approach to Europe\’s Common Agriculture Policy, the EU\’s farm support system.

Before the collapse in prices, the commission had long pushed for milk quotas that had held back production to be scrapped.

However, since the fall in prices, the EU has hastily been forced to re-introduce dairy sector support measures that Brussels had wanted to bury, such as aid for storing butter and export subsidies.

"We are aware of the difficulties in Europe, that\’s why we have announced the measures," said commission spokesman for farm issues Michael Mann, adding that new aid for the most hard hit farmers was planned for next year.

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