Cows would be helped if humans reduce fossil fuel use and limit the expansion of cattle farming
The costs borne by farmers, notably for energy, fertiliser, and transport, have escalated in numerous EU countries. AFP News

Farmers across the European Union (EU) have taken to the streets, raising their voices in protest against various challenges that threaten their livelihoods.

Brussels city centre witnessed a congestion of hundreds of tractors on Thursday, accompanied by agitated farmers pelting the European Parliament with eggs.

Despite agriculture not being a scheduled topic for the EU leaders' meeting, dismissing farmer grievances could be perilous.

From fluctuating commodity prices to concerns about sustainability and environmental regulations, the agricultural community is grappling with a myriad of issues that demand urgent attention.

One of the primary reasons for the farmers' unrest is the volatile nature of commodity prices.

Fluctuations in the prices of agricultural products, exacerbated by market uncertainties and global economic conditions, directly impact farmers' income.

The EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has traditionally provided subsidies to support farmers, but many argue that the current system falls short of providing adequate stability and resilience.

The costs borne by farmers, notably for energy, fertiliser, and transport, have escalated in numerous EU countries, particularly since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Concurrently, governments and retailers, cognisant of the impact of the cost of living crisis on consumers, have taken measures to mitigate the surge in food prices.

Farm-gate prices – the foundational prices farmers receive for their produce – witnessed an average drop of nearly nine per cent between the third quarter of 2022 and the corresponding period in the previous year.

Only a handful of products, including olive oil, impacted by shortages, have defied this trend.

Imports have emerged as a concern, particularly in central and eastern Europe, where an influx of inexpensive agricultural produce from Ukraine – on which the EU waived quotas and duties post Russia's invasion – has lowered prices and fuelled resentment regarding unfair competition.

Climate change is another significant factor contributing to farmers' concerns.

Erratic weather patterns, extreme temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall adversely affect crop yields and livestock.

Farmers are calling for more comprehensive and sustainable policies that address the challenges posed by climate change while ensuring the viability of their agricultural practices.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a €55 billion per year subsidy system crucial for Europe's food security over the past six decades, has traditionally been grounded in the principle of economy of scale: larger farms, increased holdings, and standardised practices.

This approach has fostered consolidation, leading to a reduction of over a third in the number of farms in the EU since 2005.

Consequently, numerous larger farms find themselves burdened with substantial debt within a low-margin industry, while smaller ones face escalating challenges in maintaining competitiveness.

In more recent times, the agricultural sector, responsible for 11 per cent of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions, has grown increasingly apprehensive about the regulations outlined in the EU's "farm to fork" strategy.

This strategy is a pivotal component of the European Green Deal, aimed at achieving climate neutrality for the bloc by 2050.

The targets outlined in this strategy include a 2030 goal of reducing pesticides by half, cutting fertiliser usage by 20 per cent, allocating more land to non-agricultural purposes—such as leaving it fallow or planting non-productive trees—and doubling organic production to encompass 25 per cent of all EU farmland.

At the European Union level, the European Commission has suggested the implementation of an "emergency brake" to restrict agricultural imports from Ukraine.

Additionally, farmers may be exempted from the obligation to leave four per cent of their land fallow in 2024 while still receiving subsidies from the EU.

The protests by farmers across the EU underscore the urgent need for a comprehensive and strategic approach to address the challenges faced by the agricultural sector.

The EU has the opportunity to lead the way in crafting policies that balance economic viability, environmental sustainability, and social equity, ensuring a thriving future for its farming community.

Through proactive dialogue, policy reforms, and targeted investments, the EU can forge a path that supports farmers and secures the future of European agriculture.