PTB demands respect for farmers across Europe: “They must be able to live from their

“Less capitalists, more agriculturalists”. Photo: Marc Botenga/ PTB

All across Europe, farmers are making their voices heard. In Belgium too, actions and blockages have been taking place across the country. The movement, which started from the base, is supported by agricultural unions, both in the south and the north of the country. “It is not normal that farmers cannot make a living from their work, we support their mobilization,” declares PTB president Raoul Hedebouw. For the agricultural world, the cup is full and the anger is deep. The reasons for this are numerous.

Everything for agribusiness and distribution, nothing for our farmers

Production costs have increased sharply for farmers in recent years, as have prices for the consumer. However, farmers do not sell their products more expensively. It is the players in agro-industry and mass distribution who are getting rich on the backs of both of them.

Thus, the United Federation of Breeders and Farmers Groups (FUGEA) explains: “Despite our efforts, one thing has not changed: the purchase prices of our products! How can we be asked to change our practices without providing us with the financial return necessary to support this transition? This observation is all the more glaring as we have experienced unprecedented inflation over the previous two years. This inflation materialized in the sales prices to consumers, but, on the producers’ side, the purchase price of our production remained the same. While our charges exploded. But where did the margin go? The answer seems obvious to us… And it is unbearable, when we are struggling more than ever to keep our heads above water, to know that our ‘partners’ in the sectors are recording unprecedented economic results. There are no other solutions than to urgently put in place concrete solutions to prohibit the purchase of agricultural products below their cost price and to require transparency from manufacturers and supermarkets on their profit margins. Today, the vast majority of agro-industry players are guilty for the situation on our farms and we will firmly remind them.”

A farmer sells his beef for 3 euros per kg, but in stores you have to pay 10 euros per kg for ground beef, or even more. Someone is getting rich from this, but it’s not the farmers. And, in two years, the price of milk has increased by 30% in stores but farmers have not seen their income increase by 30%. It is the agri-food multinationals that benefit from it…

Today, it is indeed the big players in agro-industry and distribution who dictate prices – and strangle farmers. A minimum price previously existed at European level, but it was gradually abolished during the liberalization of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. And nothing has been put in place to counterbalance the power of agribusiness and mass distribution, in a position of strength against farmers who must “negotiate” alone.

Despite working weeks of 60, 70, 80 hours, working on weekends and sometimes at night, the average income of farmers is often below the average Belgian income; some have to make do with 1,500, sometimes even 1,000 euros per month, or even less. This income includes aid from the CAP (see below). But farmers do not want to depend on aid, and they want to be properly paid for their work.

An unfair Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

The CAP is one of the primary European policies, with a budget of several tens of billions of euros per year. Officially, it serves to support the sector and guarantee food sovereignty, but in fact it is used as an instrument to push the liberal agenda of agriculture built around the largest players in agro-industry. Its aid is thus distributed mainly per hectare and therefore favors large land holdings. 80% of its subsidies go to 20% of agricultural companies, the largest, without taking into account real agricultural activity. Even companies that are only landowners and produce nothing can receive subsidies. It is absurd that a billionaire like Fernand Huts or a large company like Colruyt can pocket European subsidies simply because they bought agricultural land.

And this aid is conditional. What makes life impossible for farmers is the bureaucracy imposed by the CAP and translated into lots of rules by the Walloon and Flemish Regions. Farmers have tons of declarations and forms to fill out, with penalties in the event of an error. It is estimated that farmers spend one to two days a week filling out forms… Their choice of life, their passion (because you have to be passionate to practice this profession), is to plow the land and produce food, not to do administrative work hours.

Today, all political parties say they understand or support angry farmers. However, the right-wing parties – the liberals and the Christian Democrats who claim to defend the agricultural world – did vote for the new CAP 2023-2027, and are therefore responsible for the difficulties that our farmers are experiencing today. Even Vlaams Belang, which claims to support farmers, voted for it. The PTB voted against.

Free trade agreements and unfair competition

In the 1990s, the European Union abandoned its protection of certain agricultural production to align itself with the world market. It was from that moment that prices fell, while we imposed (via the CAP) lots of constraints and standards to our farmers. As if that were not enough, the European Union signed free trade agreements with countries where production costs are much lower than here, or even where health, environmental and social standards are much lower: treaty CETA (Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) with Canada, and more recently, a free trade agreement with New Zealand.

These treaties were approved by the right-wing parties, who today say they defend farmers (but also regularly by the socialist and environmentalist left-wing parties). With the PTB, we opposed it, whether it was CETA (even in renegotiated form) or the agreement with New Zealand. We also oppose the Mercosur agreement.

The earth, their work tool

Finally, farmers can no longer tolerate the erosion of their land. Since the beginning of the 1960s, the European Union has lost a fifth of its agricultural area, the equivalent of eleven times the area of Belgium. In Flanders, a third of the land today has been artificialized (French concept meaning used for commercial purposes and has an impermeable surface). In Wallonia, it is more than 11%. Still in Wallonia, between 1985 and 2022, 1,560 hectares of agricultural land were lost per year, or the equivalent of 2,000 football fields each year. However, we need this land to develop sustainable agriculture, feed people and animals, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Farmers are also fighting against large groups who are buying up and grabbing land, thereby driving up prices. This is what Colruyt is doing in Belgium in order to control all the links in the chain and further reduce farmers’ negotiating margins.

Farmers deserve respect

In light of this situation, the PTB has concrete demands to address the concerns raised by the farmers on the streets.

  1. Establish mandatory floor prices at European level for agricultural products in order to ensure fair remuneration for producers who must be able to make a living from their work.
  2. Limit distributor margins so that consumers are not the ones paying through price increases (and put VAT on food at 0% so that prices fall)
  3. Tax excess profits from agribusiness and use this money to support the transition to sustainable agriculture.
  4. Review the CAP and aid system, towards a fairer and less bureaucratic system.
  5. Challenge free trade agreements that relate to agricultural and food products such as the EU-Mercosur agreement, CETA or the agreement with New Zealand: all products must be subject to the same health and safety standards. environmental issues, and we defend the principle of food sovereignty.
  6. Stop the grabbing of agricultural land. Unless there is an exception in the public interest, no more agricultural land should be sacrificed. The purchase is reserved for real farmers.
  7. Strengthen support for the installation of young and new farmers. Creation of a public investment bank to support farmers, especially young people, in the long term so that they do not depend on private banks only interested in profit. This is what Crédit Agricole was at the time, but was unfortunately privatized by the traditional parties in 1995.

This piece was first published on the PTB website.

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