Should we cry over spilled milk? The case of Sardinia

The rage of Sardinian shepherds explodes because of the low milk price, and thousands of litres of milk are thrown into the street or fed to pigs.  

From the 1970s, the Sardinian sheep dairy sector has often faced cyclical periods of crisis – the current one being one of the most dramatic.

In the past month, the price of milk has varied between 50 and 60 cents, which does not even allow shepherds to cover their production costs. Industrialists defend themselves saying that this is the price dictated by the market. Sardinian regional authorities have been supportive at times but mostly offering quick fixes or opening discussions platforms. After all, we are currently under a regional electoral campaign, so we can hear a lot of moral support and promises from candidates, but no real commitments. Those who will win the regional elections will face the real challenge. Shepherds have tried to open up spaces for dialogue, but again and again this has been of little help or at times completely in vain. The price hasn’t been raised, and many shepherds began to throw away their milk rather than selling it for a pittance – and the numbers are rising daily! Many videos are circulating on the web documenting shepherds opening their tanks and letting litres and litres of ewe milk flow, shouting their anger and frustration for not having any adequate response to deal with this crisis.

The protests have not been limited to the countryside; many shepherds have poured milk into the streets and city squares. In a dramatic action, they blocked the main artery of Sardinia, the state road 131 that connects Sassari and Cagliari (the two main island cities). Shepherds stopped the traffic, including the tankers carrying milk, and poured thousands of litres onto the road.

The protest went even beyond the island’s borders and arrived to Rome, where the government sits. Protesters found allies, as schools and university students took to the streets in solidarity with the shepherds. Farmers’ organizations like ARI (Associazione Rurale Italiana, part of the global movement La Via Campesina, the Italian pastoral network, Rete APPIA, and NGOs that work in this domain, such as Crocevia, expressed solidarity with them. The protests are covered by all regional and national media, featuring for example in Euronews and on the BBC.

The targets are the industrialists and Sardinian regional authorities who are unable or uninterested to offer a stable, long-lasting and shared solution. Shepherds have done a lot to adapt their farms to the demands of the market, often getting into debt and investing in their small and medium enterprises. All these sacrifices barely allow shepherds to cover their production costs, while the price of milk fluctuates continuously.

Emerging from this crisis, a few questions surely need attention.

Why this crisis? This crisis is cyclical; it is related to the fact that Sardinia is among the EU’s leading regions for sheep milk production and its economy relies on the export of Pecorino Romano cheese, an industrial commodity. There are around 3.2 million ewes ​on the island and around 14,000 dairy sheep farms, providing about 330,000 tonnes of milk a year. This means that around 25% of total EU sheep milk production comes from Sardinia. The great majority of the milk produced in Sardinia is made into Pecorino Romano, a hard salty cheese that is not the best to eat with your piece of bread, but it is ideal as grated cheese for flavouring. In fact, it is easy to produce, it lasts for a long time and it can travel or be stocked for long periods of time. Most Pecorino Romano cheese is exported to the USA (the destination of about 80% of total production) and Canada, where it is used for processed products sold in supermarkets, such as ready-made lasagne or pizza or alternatively simply as grated cheese. It is a long commodity chain and many Sardinian shepherds are highly dependent on it. The chain is exposed to monopolies that influence the price, while market fluctuations follow patterns of demand and supply, resulting in high price volatility. The crisis is structural, with price collapses occurring roughly every fourth year. This will not stop unless we change the commodity chain.

Why now? Shepherds were aware of the low price of milk since the end of 2018. Why then are they protesting now, one month before the regional elections? The trigger could be a deal struck between two of the main industrialists of the island and the distribution chain Eurospin. This deal foresaw the supply of 11,000,000 kg of Pecorino Romano for a very low price. Others say that someone has triggered this protest through social media so that Mr. Salvini, current minister of the interior, and Mr. Centinaio, current minister of agriculture, could appear as the saviours of the pastoral sector. Yesterday, 14th of February 2019, Mr. Salvini invited Sardinian shepherds in Rome and promised he will continue the struggle to find a solution to this crisis and he will not stop until the price of milk reaches 1 euro.

Who is responsible? The finger of blame is pointed towards industrialists and politicians. But they are not the only culprits. Industrialists negotiate the price of cheese with distribution chains but they rarely (if ever) include shepherds in this negotiation. They think about their profit, and all the risks that the trade involves. Politicians (regional, national and European) have mainly responded to this crisis with rural welfare policies in the past decades. They have tried to put a cap on production and opened up ‘stakeholder platforms’. Yet these have often not been effective.  And, last but not least, the shepherds are also responsible. When Pecorino Romano cheese paid well, they increased production, but now there’s too much supply. Many shepherds are highly dependent on this chain, and they haven’t diversified to other markets – and now they’re paying the costs.

What can be done?  This certainly requires an urgent discussion, and this must be done by the shepherds themselves. The so-called “experts” need to sit down and listen more carefully since they haven’t been able to improve the system in the past five decades. Welfare policies that pump money when a crisis erupts are outdated, dangerous and inefficient. This is a structural crisis, not an emergency, and the underlying problems need to be addressed. Simplistic approaches to negotiation between pastoralists and industrialists do not work. Pastoralists are a diversified group: they have different interests and needs. And in Sardinia we know that sitting together isn’t always that easy! Some say that free market is the only solution, but it is not. Between free market and autarchy, there is a whole world of alternatives to explore! Can shepherds be helped to understand the market better, and create linkages with new markets and consumer groups? Can Sardinian shepherds learn from other pastoralists – from Europe or elsewhere – who face similar problems? What is the role and responsibility of cooperatives?

The PASTRES team stands in solidarity with Sardinian shepherds and we hope that their expectations for a better system will be met with more adequate and progressive policies.

Author: Giulia Simula. Giulia is a PhD student with the PASTRES project.

Image credit: @La Stampa

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you for bringing to our notice the plight of Sardinian shepherds. I personally wasn’t aware of this.

    Let me ask you a question though, your answer to which may provide you a bit more leverage in thinking through the issues you raise:

    Is it “the Sardinian sheep dairy sector” (or “livestock production sector” as it was called in an earlier blog on Sardinia) just a “sector,” like mining, quarrying, farming, fishing and forestry, or is it actually more a “critical infrastructure,” like large water supplies, electricity grids, telecommunications, and navigation waterways?

    Although the two terms are often tied together, as in “critical infrastructure sectors,” there is a difference that can matter when it comes to weighing the importance of pastoralism in a country’s economy. Basically, infrastructures are the foundations without which the country wouldn’t have sectors, e.g., without the roads and telecommunications etc, you wouldn’t have the mining or farming or etc.

    So the question becomes: Are these Sardinian shepherds—actually Sardinian extensive grazing and transhumance, as I understand it—better thought of as a critical infrastructure for the Sardinian economy or as one of the different sectors in that economy? Less formally, are the extensive grazing and transhumance the foundation, without which you would not have these cheese markets and related supply chains? If the answer to the latter is Yes, it’s an infrastructure, regardless of whether convention still calls it a dairy or livestock “sector.”

    Now why does any of this matter? Frankly, I don’t know if it matters in the case of Sardinia, about which I know nothing other than the PASTRES blogs. It’s for you and your colleagues to try to answer. It does matter, however, when it comes to a more international or global view of pastoralist contributions to economies.

    Bluntly described, when I read a statement (from an unnamed review article) that (1) “Rangelands constitute 30–40% of Earth’s land surface and contribute to the livelihoods of 1–2 billion people,” which then goes on to say (2) “Ecological, economic, and political marginality expose rangelands to degradation, land-use change, and fragmentation worldwide,” that stops far short of what the numbers actually show, namely: Pastoralism is NOT a marginal infrastructure to the global economy, however marginalized it is by the powers that be. Actually pastoralism is a key infrastructure globally, and will remain so if the numbers are anywhere accurate.


  2. Dear Emery, thank you for this reflection! As an instant reaction I would say that pastoralism in Sardinia is an infrastructure. I will reflect about what the implications of this are both on how we think about pastoralism and how we analyse it. If you have any critical reading to suggest, I will be grateful if you could send them. Thanks, Giulia


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