Farmers across Europe have been taking to the streets to protest at an ever-increasing number of demonstrations to highlight poor market returns for their produce. Despite the scale of some of those protests, and their effectiveness in publicising the issues of market volatility, and how low prices are affecting farming and its ancillary businesses, none have highlighted the farming community's hidden tragedies of suicides.

The extent of the problem of farm suicides was highlighted a fortnight ago when members of the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament held a minute's silence for those farmers who had committed suicide as a result of the on-going crisis in agricultural markets. The politicians' period of reflection was prompted by recent figures estimating that every year around 600 French farmers make the decision to end their lives.

The problem is not just a French one - all over the EU farmers are struggling to survive amid falling prices for products such as milk and pork.

While global economic conditions are a factor, dairy farmers in the EU have been hit particularly hard because of a decision to end milk quotas. A sector that was tightly regulated by Brussels for decades, with production levels capped at national levels, has been opened to the vagaries of internal and external market forces.

Coinciding with a global surplus of milk and a Russian embargo on imports from the EU, the result has been disastrous for dairy farmers, many of whom have tragically taken their own lives. It's a phenomenon across the EU. Germany has a minimum of 500 farmer suicides a year while Belgium suffers at least 400.

Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness summed up the tragedy of the situation when she said that there was something very rotten in society today if those who produced food were so desperate on their farms that they were committing suicide.

Not that farmer suicides are a uniquely European problem. It is reckoned that in the last 20 years 300,000 farmers in India have ended their lives by ingesting pesticides or hanging themselves. Around 41 Indian farmers commit suicide every day leaving behind scores of orphans and widows. America is also reporting an upturn in farmer suicides.

That farmers are one of the highest suicide risks of any sector of society has long been recognised - and I put that down to their sense of betraying previous generations if they are about to go bankrupt and lose the family farm.

One of the cornerstones of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of supporting small, family farms has failed miserably and only served to trap hundreds of thousands of small European farmers in a life of poverty and unrelenting hard work.

I whole-heartedly agree with dairy industry commentator Ian Potter when he advised dairy farmers in his most recent article that this is now the time for them to face up to the fact that their lifestyle is under threat and it could be the end of the line.

Mr Potter went on to tell dairy farmers that it is no longer possible to succeed by getting up earlier in the morning, staying on the farm later and pushing themselves harder. The number of hours they work outside will NOT determine their success or failure, but it will push them and precious relationships to breaking point. Faster or harder-working hands are unlikely to turn around a loss-making situation.

Many hope that prices will recover to between 30 and 35p per litre (ppl), but Mr Potter believes they could be in dreamland and suggests the normal price for milk could easily be 24ppl going forward,

In his opinion, too many farmers he knows, if they were honest, are married to their cows and the farm, and in second place comes the children, followed by the wife and the marriage.

Mr Potter asks: "At what cost do you intend to keep the family dairy farm going? Are you prepared to sacrifice everything - for example your own health and happiness, your family's happiness, your marriage, or will you sacrifice the dairy unit to retain them all?

He went on: "It's a massive decision to give up dairy farming, but it's not the end of the world. It's more you taking control and having a change of direction with new opportunities and challenges. Sadly, recently I have heard of dairy farmers cashing in their pensions just to keep the wheels turning. Please don't be afraid of change, it's part of surviving."