MPs hit out over beef prices paid to Northern Ireland farmers
A Westminster inquiry has said supermarket giants must do more to explain why Northern Ireland farmers get the lowest UK prices for red meat.
And it warned that dairy farmers must not become the victims of supermarket wars in which milk is sold as a loss leader to attract more customers.
The environment, food and rural affairs committee heard that price differentials cost beef farmers here around £17m a year.
Its report also questioned assurances by retail bosses that there was "no link" between the prices at which supermarkets sell goods and prices paid to farmers.
It said that trust between farmers and retailers had been damaged over the last 10 years and "must be restored and reinforced".
The Belfast Telegraph has repeatedly highlighted the plight of producers over recent months.
They include a Co Down farmer who was receiving 14p for a kilo of potatoes which then sold for £1 in the supermarkets, and a Co Armagh farmer who was getting 8p for parsnips which retailed for 10 times more.
The report - which will bolster the investigation being conducted by the Assembly's agriculture committee - warned: "Regional price disparities pose a threat to the economic sustainability of the national market, with regions receiving lower average prices being made more vulnerable to external price shocks and regions relying on an above average market price becoming vulnerable to undercutting over time."
The inquiry said the situation for dairy farmers in Northern Ireland was "particularly difficult, as three-quarters of milk produced (is) exported as milk powder".
Yesterday's inquiry, to which the Ulster Farmers Union gave evidence, concluded: "Retailers must adopt clear and transparent approaches to pricing and ensure that any regional price differentials for equivalent produce take into account the full costs of production and do not undermine the economic sustainability of farmers at a regional or national level.
"Supermarkets may choose to sell milk cheaply as a loss leader, but farmers must not be the victims of the supermarket wars currently taking place in the UK."
Recent research showed farm incomes had fallen far further and faster in Northern Ireland than in Britain.
Economist Paul Gosling said incomes shrank by 17% in real terms in 2014 compared to a fall of just 4% in the rest of the UK.
Almost one in seven farms (14%) in the province now runs at a loss - with severe knock-on effects on employment and the overall economy.