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Are Farmers Fighting a Losing Battle?

Rather than propping up the status quo, farmers should focus on the transition to more sustainable methods of food production

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The battle for a sustainable food system and rural livelihoods isn’t a battle that farmers should have to fight alone. However, if farmers’ protests descend into violence as seen in the latest protests in Brussels, they may indeed be facing a losing battle in navigating the complexities the agricultural sector faces.
The battle for a sustainable food system and rural livelihoods isn’t a battle that farmers should have to fight alone. However, if farmers’ protests descend into violence as seen in the latest protests in Brussels, they may indeed be facing a losing battle in navigating the complexities the agricultural sector faces.

by Judy Dempsey*

NOAH GORDON/ ACTING CO-DIRECTOR OF THE SUSTAINABILITY, CLIMATE, AND GEOPOLITICS PROGRAM AT THE CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE

Yes, Europe’s farmers are fighting a losing battle—though there is still time for them to redirect their attacks.

At a time when climate change is threatening food production—the European Environment Agency just warned of “catastrophic” risks to crops in Southern Europe—farmers should be focused on transitioning to less polluting methods of production.

Instead, they are carrying out a rearguard action. Those blocking roads with tractors are protesting aggressively to hang onto what they have, seeking to prevent, for example, a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, the import of Ukrainian food, the implementation of new regulations on pesticide as well as the attachment of other green strings to their subsidies.

This may work in the short term—indeed, it appears to be forestalling near-term change, with politicians focused on the European Parliament elections in June. But it could be a mistake to use political capital to prop up the status quo when agriculture needs to focus on having the state facilitate a green transformation. Droughts are not swayed by protests; and other sectors, from defense to energy, are making strong demands for a larger share of the EU budget, of which agriculture currently gets a quarter.

PATRICK HOLDEN/ CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE SUSTAINABLE FOOD TRUST

Farmers in the UK and across Europe have been protesting against proposals to replace existing subsidies with support for nature-friendly farming.

Many farmers see the changes as favoring the environment over food production. However, this must be recognized as a false choice. Biologically based farming systems that produce quality food can go hand in hand with environmental protection. As a farmer who has been applying sustainable principles for over fifty years, I know that this can work in practice.

There is a win-win here for farmers and nature, if we get this right. To achieve this, three key things need to happen. First, regenerative farming must pay better than industrial systems, with payments to support the transition and maintenance of the environmental and social goods that it provides. Second, subsidies must be redirected to ensure farming and nature can coexist in-field, rather than land being taken out of food production. Third, farmers need to be financially rewarded for delivering the climate, nature, and social benefits of a truly sustainable farming system.

If we all get behind this, food production and the environment will no longer be in competition but working together, enabling both to come out on the winning side.

OLIVIA LAZARD/ FELLOW AT CARNEGIE EUROPE

Which battle? The climate one? Yes, European farmers mostly rely on intensive forms of agriculture that accelerate the demise of ecological services, and thus productivity. The economic battle? Yes, farmers are working themselves to death, and face mountains of debt. The political one? No, they’re a formidable force. They just obtained the rollback of key regulations on the use of pesticides. They also sentenced the Farm to Fork Strategy to death.

Will the latter help European farmers to win their war? That of a more dignified, economically resilient and secure way of producing food? Probably not. This gives them respite in the midst of external shocks, sure. But the respite will not solve deeper-seated threats: the incoming water crisis; the loss of ecological services and of productivity; and crucially, the increasing competition from countries that are about to exploit their climate niche.

This is the larger issue that both the farmers and the European institutions are losing sight of in their current fight. Europe is losing its climate niche, its water and food resilience. These are the bedrock of economic security and strategic autonomy. Russia, on the other hand, has a comparatively better climate niche. It owns 20 percent of the world’s water resources. It has invested in organic agriculture over vast areas, which it thinks of as a geopolitical power chip.

The only way to prevent a dystopian future in which Russia weaponizes agriculture, food, and water is to shift toward regenerative agriculture in Europe to combat the loss of its climate niche. Europe has five years left to change its agricultural political economy, reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and give farmers a role in Europe’s security transformation. If farmers are to help Europe in this transformation, then Brussels needs to understand how to support them.

DENIS MACSHANE/ FORMER UK MINISTER FOR EUROPE

Sadly, yes. The decline in the share of the EU economy taken by farming continues apace: from 11 percent in 1991 down to 1.4 percent of the EU’s GDP today. You can buy a decent sized farm houses in remote Italian deserted villages for 1 Euro though a purchaser has to promise to invest in the property and even live there. Our Lidls and Aldis are full of cheap food from far away.

Yet farming receives nearly 25 percent of the total EU income in subsidies and causes more political headaches for EU leaders than any other sector. Steelworkers or coal miners can disappear from Europe’s industrial landscape and no-one seems to notice let alone care.

But farmers have taken over left-wing trade union tactics with giant demonstrations in Brussels and noisy, smelly protests dumping mountains of manure outside ministries, town halls, and national legislators’ offices.

They are also responsible for the massive immigration of labor from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and from poor to better-off Europe. Greek farmers couldn’t survive without Albanian immigrant workers and the UK’s Brexit Tory government has had to relax its anti-European ideology to allow in workers from poor EU member states to harvest and process food.

Polish governments of both anti-EU right and pro-EU center unite in helping Putin by trying to cut food imports from Ukraine.

It was always thus. Man ist was er isst, say the Germans. People are what they eat. No other lobby has so much power in Europe as the farmers. But for how much longer?

PATRICK SCHRODER/ SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW AT CHATHAM HOUSE

The battle for a sustainable food system and rural livelihoods isn’t a battle that farmers should have to fight alone. However, if farmers’ protests descend into violence as seen in the latest protests in Brussels, they may indeed be facing a losing battle in navigating the complexities the agricultural sector faces.

At the same time, European governments must recognize the urgent need for policy change and actively engage with farmers to facilitate a just transition to a sustainable food system.

As a recent OECD study shows, reforming agricultural subsidies rather than phasing out budgetary support is the most viable approach. Decoupling payments from production and instead tying payments to agri-environmental practices and investments in abatement technologies in OECD countries would reduce global agricultural emissions by 5 percent while fulfilling broader food systems objectives related to food security and famers’ livelihoods. These would be a suitable approach to the ongoing CAP reforms for the incoming European Commission.

By working together, European governments and farmers can transform agriculture into a force for environmental regeneration, ensuring long-term food security while preserving the planet’s resources. It’s time to recognize that the battle for sustainable agriculture is one that must be won collectively, for the benefit of all.

*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu

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