Earlier this month, Spanish farmers gathered across the countryside to protest a number of issues affecting their crops and livelihood. While mostly specific to the country, two issues affect farmers across the European Union and would require large-scale policy adjustments.
Pedro Barato, President of Asaja, an association of young growers, summarised the many problems his industry faces to El Pais, saying “the EU’s environmental requirements, the demonisation of activities over animal welfare, tougher and more expensive legislation regarding the use of some fertilisers and sanitary products, renewed threats of fewer subsidies when the [EU’s] Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) gets reviewed…we can’t go on like this. And to top it all off, there’s the new minimum wage, which does not seriously affect the entire sector, but it does affect those activities that are very labour-intensive, such as fruit and vegetables and some vineyards”.
Meanwhile, matters are being compounded by lowered prices for food products throughout the EU. In total, the sector saw an 8.6 percent decrease in income – amounting to billions of euros – last year. The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture concedes that this is a tough time for farmers and believe that action is necessary.
But Spain is not the only EU nation where farmers are frustrated by the state of agriculture. Major protests related to environmental policy occurred in Germany’s capital, Berlin, during International Green Week, a food and agricultural fair that took place last month. And Greece’s farmers have also staged their own recent strikes throughout the country because of the CAP, stopping traffic in Larissa, Volos, Karditsa, and Trikala in the northern part of the country. Unfortunately for Greece, these protests have been happening for years with no tangible results other than minor inconveniences for motorists.
Wages and Production Costs
The new wage hike instituted by Spain’s governing coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos has increased Spain’s minimum wage from 750 to 900 euros per month, having already been put into effect, and even backdated to the beginning of January 2020. While this may be a positive change for citizens in other industries, farms that rely on large numbers of field workers are feeling the burn.
Juan Hernández, a manager at Paloma, employs approximately 2,000 people on his farm and claims this new law will influence close to 70 percent of his workforce. “It will seriously affect competitiveness in areas such as tomatoes or strawberries, where the picking work represents more than 45 percent of overall costs”, he says.
Another major point of contention is the cost of products. Enrique Sánchez, a grape grower in the province of Alicante, is particularly frustrated by unsustainably low pricing – a positive for consumers, but a massive negative for the farming community. “We are selling the grapes at prices of 20 to 25 years ago”, he said to El Pais. “If I have to give away everything I make and there is nothing left for me, it is impossible to make a living.”
José Diego Garrido, another Spanish farmer, presents the numbers plainly: “I work 35 hectares of traditionally irrigated olive groves, and my production costs are no lower than €2.50 a kilogram, whereas I am earning €1.70 a kilogram.”
There are many reasons behind a fall in food prices, including an inability by governments to regulate markets, as well as an influx of cheaper imported products.
Lorenzo Ramos, secretary general of UPA, an agricultural union in Spain, indicates that what farmers receive is only a very small portion of what customers pay, so those in the industry want some kind of regulation on this, as well as on the long-standing strategy employed by most major food chains of operating at a loss. Ramos says, “It’s crazy what’s happening in the food chain; there should be a mechanism so that producers at least have their production costs covered”.
And stone fruit farmer, Domingo Garcia, agrees that changes must happen, and fast. “The system is failing…It would be enough if growers were paid 15 cents more per kilo. They wouldn’t get rich, but at least they would cover costs.”
Combatting the CAP
Farmers across the European Union are also protesting decreased government subsidies stemming from the Common Agricultural Policy, a complicated financial structure in need of change.
When the CAP was created in 1962, it was intended to ensure that the continent, still recovering from World War II, would be able to provide enough food for its citizens. Fast forward 58 years, and today it essentially acts as a subsidy system for farmers and is often the reason they are able to stay afloat. The CAP is one of the biggest financial programmes in the European Union – with an annual spend of about 114 euros per citizen – and is the largest subsidy system in the world. For an average consumer, this may seem like an exorbitant amount given other financial needs across the EU.
Meanwhile, corruption scandals that have come to light in recent years are strikingly nefarious and include defrauding the programme. In Italy, a country that takes approximately 12 percent of CAP payments, the Sicilian mafia has pocketed nearly 10 million euros since 2013. Not only did some farms fraudulently qualify for aid, but their land – and resulting financial benefits – was acquired through extortion and threats. Five Star Movement parliament member Gianluca Rizzo stated that the arrests made in this case are “a true and real blow to the heart of a criminal system that, sucking away European funds to develop our region, makes money off the backs of future generations”.
Some mobsters have extended their reach beyond Italy’s borders; in Slovakia, an “agricultural mafia” was found to have infiltrated the farm industry in order to benefit from the CAP, resulting in the death of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova.
But this isn’t the only example of a population taking advantage of subsidies. The New York Times published an investigation in November of 2019 that illustrates a reality of land grabs, government deals shrouded in secrecy, and what amounts to a modern-day feudal system in countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Even at the highest level of the European Union, those voting on the CAP policies in Brussels do not seem to have a clear idea of what is happening with said subsidies.
Even still, farmers are fiercely protecting this programme while simultaneously pushing for it to undergo necessary changes.
Last year saw a number of protests related to CAP policies, with an EU-wide alliance calling for “the CAP’s re-orientation to support a greater supply of local foods”, and the elimination (or at least alteration) of direct payments, which benefit huge companies but not small to medium-scale farmers. Studies have shown that 80 percent of payments go to just 20 percent of farms, and many use this money for political gain. In Spain, 2018 saw the country as the second biggest recipient of subsidies in the EU, so restructuring of these payments would be significant.
Meanwhile, farmers in the UK will not be receiving any CAP benefits due to Brexit, although the country is supposed to continue paying into the system. For now, 2020 seems to be a period of limbo for Europe’s agricultural sector, with farmers across Member States apprehensive over what 2021 could bring about.