Dairy farmers are planning demonstrations against supermarket chains in protest at lower milk prices that they say will bankrupt them and change the countryside.
Blockading stores and restricting supply by pouring milk down the drain are among measures being considered against Asda, Co-Op and Morrisons, unless the farmers' demands are met – a reversal of the 4p-a-litre cut in the next fortnight.
The grocers pay around 27p a litre for milk, below the 30p cost of production estimated by the National Farmers Union (NFU). Marks & Spencer and Waitrose pay 32p, Sainsbury's 30p and Tesco 29p.
The prospect of escalating action has raised the stakes of a dispute that saw more than 2,500 protesting dairy farmers descend on Westminster last week. The NFU wants a reversal of all this year's cuts. "They are unsustainable, dairy farmers won't be able to stay in business," Fran Barnes, the union's communications manager, said.
The TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said: "What's at stake, ultimately, is the full intensification of the dairy industry, into an indoor industrial process like broiler farming or factory-pig production. So what's also at stake is a whole landscape and a centuries-old rural infrastructure: millions of acres of permanent pastures and hedgerows."
The British Retail Consortium Food said supermarkets paid more for milk than other customers.
Since 2000, the number of dairy farmers has shrunk by 40 per cent to 10,700 and many of those producers were struggling before this summer's price reductions at supermarkets.