Is Brussels demanding too much from its farmers as debate rages over the future of the agri-food sector?

The EU’s new climate commissioner, Wopke Hoekstra, has not given Europe a passing grade in terms of sustainability efforts. In late October, he stressed the need to accelerate emissions reductions to achieve the EU’s ambitious 2030 targets.

Hoekstra already has a particular area in his crosshairs, noting that progress on cutting emissions in agriculture – a sector that currently accounts for 11% of the EU’s total emissions – needs to be significantly accelerated. is required. The question of how to reconcile the needs of the agricultural sector with climate goals remains highly controversial, as the fierce debate over the divisive nature restoration law shows. The law, ultimately passed by the European Parliament on a knife-edge vote, sets binding targets across different ecosystems to reduce human-induced environmental damage. There was opposition from political groups such as the EPP, who argued that the law would threaten the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen, reducing the amount of arable land available to farmers and disrupting long-established supply chains.

It is clear that for European agriculture to catch up with emissions, farming will need to change dramatically – yet there are concerns that the agricultural sector will not face sufficient support to help it weather this coming storm. have to do.

Agri-food is one of the most important policy areas for Europeans across the continent. Brussels has a vested interest in making its policies fair for all European farmers and citizens – unfortunately its scorecard so far has not been very successful.

Making the right policy for the agri-food sector

According to some, examples of excessive pressure being placed on farmers can be seen even further than the Nature Restoration Act. Indeed, the long-running debate over nutrition labeling has food producers across Europe worried that their livelihoods could be at risk if politicians in Brussels make the wrong move.

The EU has not yet agreed on a unified front-of-pack label, partly due to the shortcomings of the Nutri-Score system, which was once considered the frontrunner for bloc-wide labels. Initially promoted as a tool to promote healthy eating, Nutri-Score has faced criticism for penalizing traditional foods such as olive oil and cheese, which has led to reformulating products for better scores. Farmers may be harmed in favor of efficient corporations.

Supporters of Nutri-Score, in response to widespread criticism of its algorithm, have modified the way Nutri-Score scores foods several times – creating even more confusion among consumers, leaving farmers in limbo. We can understand very little about the constantly changing labels except in the U.S. How their products will be classified. At the razor-thin margins on which many agri-food producers operate, this uncertainty can have a devastating impact.

The debate over imposing block-wide labels like Nutri-Score is a concrete example of the Commission struggling to come up with agri-food policies that do not inadvertently harm farmers or consumers. One need not look far for further examples – the Farm to Fork strategy is littered with proposals that could seriously complicate the already bleak picture for European agriculture.

As climate change increases, farmers are already feeling the pressure of reduced yields – however, they have fewer options to help, especially with Brussels’ efforts to restrict pesticides and herbicides. Looking at the pressures that made the agricultural revolution possible. Therefore, it is not surprising that the number of farms in the EU has fallen by more than a third since 2005 – even less when combined with the fact that while the average farm has become larger, farm income Remains persistently low, around €20,000 per capita.

European stability policies – already on the books or in the works – threaten to worsen the crisis for farmers. For example, plans to cut pesticide use by 50% by 2030 could have a serious impact on crop yields, with one estimate resulting in a 15% decline in European wheat yields alone, making the bloc a net loss. Will turn into a grain importer. Farmers are already feeling the impact of an EU directive to tackle nitrogen pollution, which will require farmers to use GPS to record dirt spreading and not cultivate with 5 meters of water. As one Belgian farmer reported, following the instructions costs his farm between €10,000-€15,000 annually; Given that in waterlogged Flanders, the average price of land is €63,000 per hectare, the Nitrate Directive has imposed costs on many farmers that are almost impossible to earn back.

These environmental initiatives, even if well-intentioned, are a hard sell for the agri-food industry, as they appear to increase costs without offering ways to increase income. “Farmers are asking”, underlined Belgian MEP Tom Vandenkendelere, “why does Brussels hate us?”

future of farming

The problem, Vandenkendelere said, is that farmers feel they are facing a barrage of policies that could curb their yields and their competitiveness. “It’s the number of policies hitting them at the same time”, Vandenkendelere stressed. “We need to slow down.”

Picking and choosing carefully which policies to rebuild trust with Europe’s agricultural sector would be a good first step. Removing things like imposing block-wide nutritional labeling similar to Nutri-Score, which could have significant harmful effects on the agri-food industry and bring little benefit to the European population as a whole, to put forward important actions Could free up some bandwidth. Environmental policies.

But this alone will not be enough. Even the environmental policies that are necessary to slow the relentless pace of climate change will come at a steep price for European farmers – a cost that in many cases they will be unable to afford. As Slovenian farmer and MEP Frank Bogovic recently stressed, “…people would be in big trouble if they had to cut down their vineyards…their meat production was financed by loans five years ago. Was. You need 20 years to get your money back.”

To support Europe’s farmers through the EU’s green transition, a comprehensive strategy is needed that links environmental objectives with economic sustainability. Investments in sustainable agricultural technology research, financial incentives for eco-friendly practices, and a support network for knowledge exchange are important. These measures can help farmers adapt to sustainable agricultural demands while maintaining economic viability.

While the EU’s climate targets are laudable, they should not ignore the serious headwinds that Europe’s agricultural sector already faces. A nuanced approach that supports farmers through subsidies, technology and community networks will be essential to achieve a balanced and fair transition to a green agricultural future.