What have farmers achieved after three weeks of protesting across Europe? Time will tell, because often the immediate sound bites are not significant enough to have any long term consequence.

There is however, no doubt that the protests have triggered a rethink on the positioning of farmers in the debate. From speaking to farmers in Brussels and Belgium last week, it is clear they want to impact the European elections.

In Brussels, farmers vented anger and came in their thousands to demonstrate. An hour up the road, farmers blockaded key ports and protested outside the symposium on the ‘Future of Agriculture in the EU’ which I attended.

At the conference, the Minister for Economy, Employment, Innovation and Agriculture in the Flemish government Jo Brouns picked up on those outside to set the tone for the symposium.

He said it is clear farmers feel they are insufficiently rewarded, and have a distinct lack of trust in the system as they are at the end of the supply chain.

When you stand back and think about it, the fact is the EU project was built on ‘no more hunger’ or ‘war’. However, now both are centre-stage of a much larger geopolitical debate.

So essentially, European farmers are the foundation of the very core of the European Union. At the moment they feel, through a combination of over-regulation, a squeezed margin, and ever increasing environmental standards that they are being forced out of business.

At the symposium, the Slovakian politician Maros Sefcovic, who is European Commission executive vice president for the European Green Deal, reiterated that the EU needed to be fit for the future.

Sefcovic suggested the ‘strategy dialogue’ that started last week, was the place to sort out the differences.

This week he revealed the target to aim for a 90% cut to emissions by 2040, as part of the journey to net zero by 2050, which was enshrined in law in July 2021.

Phil Hogan

Former trade commissioner Phil Hogan was invited to speak at the event (see p8), and he suggested that overall the balance of trade in the EU was not good.

Hence the net effect was that the EU was flat-lining. Hogan emphasised the importance of trade, which was hugely positive in 2023 and left a €57bn trade surplus.

In one sense, for farmers this cuts to the heart of the problem. Farmers feel regulated and restricted. They feel they are inadequately rewarded for a green transition.

Then to cap it off, imports are coming from other parts of the world, eating their share of the pie and keeping food prices low.

So are the farmers right? The latest statistics suggest EU productivity and performance is mixed and likely to reduce as we see in Ireland already – less milk, less cereals, less beef etc.

The EU is showing some sustainability improvements in nutrient balances, but limited progress on greenhouse gases and biodiversity.

So yes, less productivity. For farmers, the productivity declines are then exacerbated by the high energy and input prices, costs of living/inflation, and changed international trade flows.

Extra support?

So have EU farmers got extra support in the green transition? The answer is no – long-term reforms of EU payments show it declines relative to gross farm receipts: little or no change since 2010 and inflation eating into farm payments considerably.

We have established there is less production and less financial support, so where will the money come from for food producers? Will the consumer pay more?

Will governments top-up? Farmers agree they need to address climate, environmental and biodiversity goals, but what are the best tools to do this? We need a debate on this.

For example, incentives to improve nature do work. We see 30% of agricultural land will have lower pesticide use in 2023 – this is good.

However, more regulation and laws bring farmer resistance. Why reduce milk, beef and cereals produced in Ireland or other parts of the EU when it is more environmentally friendly on a global scale?

It might be EU common policy, but it’s not a common Europe for farming. So are measures targeted enough? No. This is what drives farmers to protest.

We need a much more holistic debate at national and EU level than slamming farmers with regulations that pinpoint only small sub-sections unfairly.

With this debate only starting and strong minds on both sides, it’s likely that there will be further tractorcades, negotiations and challenges into the summer.