EU must wield agri-food policies to counter rural decline underlying farmers’ protests

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Amid escalating protests in central Madrid, where farmers wielded banners branding him “the ruin of the countryside,” Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas met with the country’s farming organisations on 15 February to chart a way forward. Undeterred by the 250 farmers and union representatives gathered outside his ministry, Planas followed the meeting by announcing new measures to bolster farmers’ incomes and supply chain position. 

Mirroring France’s emerging effort to strengthen food producers’ bargaining power with supermarkets and manufacturers, Planas will push for EU legislation against unfair trading practices – a major shared grievance – as well as streamlined environmental rules, third-country production standards reciprocity and a host of other policies at the next gathering of EU agriculture ministers on 26 February.

With Spain’s protesting farmers set to stage their next act during the meeting, Madrid will have additional political motivation to secure bloc-wide lifelines for the sector – an undertaking which should include policies to support rural development and address the root causes of discontent in the EU’s ‘forgotten’ regions.

Hollowing out of EU heartlands

Reflecting on his participation in south-east Spain’s farmers’ protests, Catalonian union representative Ricard Huguet recently highlighted how Brussels’s ‘Farm to Fork’ (F2F) “sustainability requirements are imposed forcefully and mainly to our sector,” citing the Madrid airport extension and a new macro-tourism complex in a protected region. Yet, as Politico Europe’s Jamie Dettmer has rightly observed, farmers’ tangible policy gripes are “all part…of something much…more elemental: a backlash rooted in overall desperation” exacerbated by a perception that rural “grievances are shrugged off.”

Huguet has cautioned that EU policymakers ignore this deep sense of rural abandonment at their peril, as the bloc’s farmers have grown increasingly exasperated with maintaining “the best agriculture in the world” while seeing their efforts fail to “translate into better living conditions.” While a Commission report published last November found that farming income per worker grew by 56% between 2012 and 2021, this deceptive trend broadly reflects and masks a decimation of farm employment and small and medium-sized farms favouring higher-paying behemoths.

Between 2005 and 2020, the EU lost a stunning 5.3 million farms – representing a nearly 40% decrease – while agricultural “work units” plummeted from roughly 13 to 9 million between 2003 and 2018. These millions of displaced EU farm workers have faced the ever-growing dominance of a few giant agribusiness conglomerates, which now absorb 80% of direct EU subsidies, creating a problematic imbalance between large and small farms and undermining rural development, as European Committee of the Regions (CoR) representatives flagged earlier this month.

In its newly-published report on the “geography of discontent,” the CoR identified clear Eurosceptic voting patterns across the bloc’s rural areas – a direct consequence of Brussels neglect that validates the Grand Coalition’s fear of losing the key agricultural vote to the vulturous far-right in June’s elections.

Nutrition label embodies dying agenda

In preparing the ground for her second term as European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen has taken a sharp pragmatic turn, slashing her once-vaunted sustainable food agenda. From explicitly pulling the plug on the SUR pesticide regulation to quietly shelving central F2F policies like the Sustainable Food Systems Law, von der Leyen’s desperate bid to shake off Brussels’s “nanny-state” image has left over half of the strategy undelivered.

F2F has been on a steady decline over the past two years, with its front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition label one of the first proposals to be put on the backburner in late 2022. The culprit for this indefinite delay, France’s Nutri-Score label, remains as controversial as ever, with its updated algorithm continuing to unfairly penalise local EU food producers.

Nutri-Score’s imbalanced, scientifically-contested focus on fat, salt and sugar content at the expense of a product’s micronutrients, realistic portion sizes and place within a broader diet has seen producers of natural, PDO foods such as French Roquefort cheese and Italian prosciutto, hit with “punitive” grades, as described by the former’s producers. Already facing a dire financial situation, Nutri-Score has placed the bloc’s farmers at a further competitive disadvantage, threatening the income of an increasingly-squeezed sector.

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Farmers’ concerns with Nutri-Score have received high-profile scientific confirmation recently, with the French National Agency for Food Safety’s (ANSES) exposure of the new algorithm’s significant shortcomings in guiding healthy diets last December followed by an eye-opening literature review published in February revealing that the vast majority of Nutri-Score-supportive studies have been conducted by its developers, while 61% of independent studies show “unfavourable results.” This study’s findings have notably validated the dissenting voices that have long emphasised Nutri-Score’s scientifically-weak foundation.

Given its embodiment of F2F’s misguided, out-of-touch nature, the Commission should stick to its guns and ensure the Belgian EU Presidency’s attempts to resurrect Nutri-Score meets a dead-end. 

A new direction for rural Europe

Any serious attempt in Brussels to reverse course and mend its damaged relationships with the bloc’s farmers will need to start by sincerely engaging with rural communities and shedding an entrenched elitist mindset responsible for a dying green agenda that placed all the responsibility on farmers’ shoulders without the necessary support.

Aptly capturing the current state of play, Irish organic farmer and advocate Kate Carmody has stressed that the sector does not need more “little grant schemes…to keep people quiet and happy,” but rather “meaningful change” to counter an EU rural depopulation problem creating a “dilapidated countryside” of “ghost villages.” Addressing an EU policy lab on this crisis in Brussels last June, Carmody called for a “bottom-up approach” to tackle rural deprivation through local community empowerment.

Given that the Commission’s ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with the farming sector has yet to include local and regional authorities, as CoR President Vasco Cordeiro recently highlighted, this glaring oversight must be corrected urgently. With the CoR’s new report citing third-country trade agreements and Green Deal-related revisions to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as recent impediments to rural livelihoods, the organisation recommends regionalising CAP management to offer farmers locally-tailored financial support farms, as well as EU-level action against unfair trade practices.

In this effort, the farmer-friendly supply chain initiatives coming out of France and Spain reflect the CoR’s guidance, with a European ‘Egalim’ law to help farmers share the burden of rising production costs offering a promising foundation for a fairer and more resilient food system. With farmers’ protests still raging from Spain to Poland, the time has come to finally deliver for the bloc’s rural areas.

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