The European Union promised Monday to do more to help struggling farmers, as Belgian producers took to the streets to vent their anger about their deteriorating financial situation.
European farmers have been hard-hit by a Russian ban on EU food imports, implemented amid political tensions linked to the crisis in Ukraine. Slumping world prices have also contributed to the pressure on farmers, whose incomes have plunged.
The situation is said to be especially dire in the dairy, pork, fruit and vegetable sectors.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, said it would exceptionally allow the production of milk to be regulated on a voluntary basis given the "severe imbalance" in the dairy sector.
It also will allow more public purchases of butter and skimmed milk powder and "give its full consideration" to the possibility of member states granting support of 15,000 euros (16,637 dollars) per farmer per year.
A new scheme to help cover the costs of putting pigmeat into storage will be considered too, while the commission indicated that it is likely to extend by another year support measures for the fruit and vegetable sectors - first introduced over the Russian ban.
"I don't think Mr [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is in any particularly good humour at this stage in order to lift those [measures]," EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan noted.
He said he was "prepared to use all instruments that the legislators have put at our disposal" to help EU farmers, while also pointing to "legal and budgetary constraints."
Dutch Agriculture Minister Martijn Van Dam - whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency - called for producers to take measures of their own to address oversupply in agricultural markets.
"What is happening actually is that supply is increasing and prices are lowering still - and if you continue to increase production, then prices will continue to stay that low," he said.
The new measures announced by the commission come on top of 500 million euros worth of support that it already offered last year. Farmers had deemed that to be insufficient.
The European farmers' organizations Copa and Cogeca cautiously welcomed the new support.
"The package is a step forward, but we need to see how it pans out," Copa President Martin Merrild said in a statement, noting that the dairy and pigmeat sectors are "bleeding" after losing access to the 5-billion-euro Russian market.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said the EU ministers had on Monday demonstrated "an awareness on the European scale of the gravity of the situation and of the necessity to act quickly to contain the crisis."
But Belgian Agriculture Minister Willy Borsus was quoted by the Belga news agency as saying that Monday's "small steps" are "insufficient in the face of the gravity of the current situation."
His country's farmers were the latest in Europe to hold a protest Monday to draw attention to their difficulties.
Belgian producers took to the streets of the capital Brussels. Some installed a "temporary farm" near the building where the EU ministers were meeting, while others sprayed milk onto the building housing the commission's agriculture services, Belga wrote.
"Our first demand is and remains fair pay for farmers in an agricultural economic context that keeps deteriorating," said the Walloon Federation of Agriculture, which helped organize the temporary farm protest.
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