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Europe’s Dilemma: Balancing Food Security and Environmental Sustainability

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The current landscape

The recent months have seen a surge in farmer protests across Europe, sparked initially by grievances in Germany and subsequently spreading to neighboring countries. Headlines such as "No farmers, No food, No future" "This is not the Europe we want," and "Notre fin sera votre faim" (Our end will be your hunger) have dominated newspapers, encapsulating the intensity of the unrest. In Germany, agricultural workers were dismayed by the failure of promised government funding for renewable energy transition and economic support, which was instead replaced by austerity measures resulting in public spending cuts, tax hikes, and reduced agricultural subsidies. The discontent born in Germany quickly spread to neighboring countries, including France, Poland, Romania, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In France, the National Federation of Farmers' Unions (FNSEA) and the Young Farmers' Union (JA, Jeunes Agriculteurs) spearheaded mass protests. On the first of February, thousands of tractors staged a blockade on various roads in Brussels, particularly near the European Parliament headquarters. They blocked Place de Luxembourg, in front of the European Parliament, and set several bonfires with wood and tires. Tensions soared as bottles and eggs were hurled at the parliament building, culminating in the toppling of the statue dedicated to John Cockerill in front of the edifice.


Tractors took to the streets, symbolizing the frustration with European agricultural policies perceived as overly punitive for a sector already grappling with challenges in competing with multinational corporations. Key demands include a reassessment of measures concerning the sustainability of the agribusiness sector and a reevaluation of the European Common Agricultural Policy. Additionally, concerns loom over the potential repercussions of Ukraine's prospective accession to the European Union, particularly regarding subsidy distribution and production costs, given its significant agricultural influence on the global stage.


Common Agricultural Policy

One of the primary factors contributing to the rise of protests has been discontent towards the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP is a policy shared by all European Union countries, established in 1962 by the six founding members, making it the oldest EU policy still in effect. Every seven years, based on economic, social, and environmental changes occurring in Europe and globally, it is reprogrammed and modified with new rules and objectives. The current seven-year CAP cycle (2023-2027), characterized by the need to contribute to global environmental and climate protection goals, comprises ten key objectives. Among the primary objectives are enhancing competitiveness, ensuring fair income for farmers and supporting generational renewal, addressing climate change, safeguarding food quality and health, promoting employment in the agricultural sector, and promoting sustainable resource management. Therefore, the CAP represents a close agreement between agriculture and society and Europe and its farmers.


The agri-food sector is one of the largest economic sectors in the EU. Currently, there are 10 million farmers in the EU, and approximately 40 million jobs in food processing, retailing, and catering services depend on agriculture. Agriculture faces some unique challenges that can create uncertainty and unpredictability in managing activities in the sector. Stable income for farmers acts as a safeguard against price fluctuations and poor crop years. Public support for the sector ensures a reliable and abundant supply of sustainably produced food at affordable prices for EU citizens, as well as a healthy environment and exceptional landscapes, thanks to the role farmers play in preserving the natural areas they work in. Support also helps farmers meet requirements that ensure some of the world's highest standards in safety, environment, and animal health and welfare.


Farmers are primarily opposed to a series of reforms implemented within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2020 to make it even more "green". One aspect they reject is the obligation to set aside 4% of land to access funds (a necessary condition for receiving direct payments), as stipulated by the revised CAP in 2021, which came into effect in 2023 to enhance environmental sustainability.




Green Deal

Today, climate change and environmental degradation pose enormous threats to Europe and the world. To overcome these challenges, the European Green Deal aims to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy, ensuring that:

-       By 2050, no net greenhouse gas emissions are generated.

-       Economic growth is decoupled from resource use.

-       No person or place is left behind.

Among the various strategies of the Green Deal, the one most criticized by farmers in the last month is the "Farm to Fork", which aims to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050, and which includes, among other things, halving pesticides, reducing fertilizer use by one-fifth, increasing non-agricultural land -- for example, by leaving it fallow or planting non-productive trees -- and doubling organic production, bringing it to 25% of all EU agricultural land. Furthermore, it proposes ambitious measures to ensure that the healthiest option is also the most accessible for EU citizens.



European Commission response

On February 22, 2024, the European Commission took its initial step by sending a document to the Belgian presidency which has been discussed in the Agricultural Council on February 26, 2024.  Emphasizing the consistent priority placed on simplifying agricultural policy at both the EU and national levels, President Ursula Von del Leyen affirmed: “The Commission remains fully committed to delivering solutions to ease the pressure currently felt by our hard-working farming women and men. We are easing the administrative burden on our farmers to help them guarantee food security for European citizens”.

Another interesting step that the commission aims to endure in March is the launch of an online survey directly targeting farmers. This focused consultation seeks to identify their primary concerns and understand the administrative complexities arising from CAP and other EU regulations governing food and agriculture, particularly at the national level. By the summer, the survey aims to offer a clearer understanding of the main administrative hurdles perceived and faced by farmers. Moreover, the commission also proposes short and mid-term measures beneficial to both farmers but also to national administrations. Among the proposed short-term measures there are: refining the concept of force majeure, changing rules of the calculation of permanent grassland to cater for cases of structural changes in farming, and reviewing possible agricultural practices to cover soils. 


As the European elections are approaching in June, it is evident that agriculture will be one of the prevailing themes in the electoral campaign of these months. The question naturally arises: between food security and environmental sustainability, which path will Europe choose?







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