Agrifood Brief: Power to the peasants

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As the old English joke goes, an advisor to the King went to warn the monarch that the peasants were revolting. “I know they are,” replied the monarch, “but I love them anyway”.

And, just as in the joke, the meaning of the word peasant, derived from the Old French word “païsant”, meaning one from the pays, or countryside, has shifted over the years into something revolting – a derogatory term for someone simple, unsophisticated, ignorant or backward.

But now, the peasants really are revolting as small farmers move to reclaim the word back for themselves.

In linguistics, reappropriation or reclamation is the cultural process by which a group reclaims disparaging words as a form of personal or sociopolitical empowerment.

The reclamation of the word peasant follows a growing movement of redefining once derogatory terms (think things like ‘queer’ and ‘geek’, for example).

A culmination of efforts to recognise peasants’ rights resulted in adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other people working in rural areas (UNDROP) in 2018.

“Peasants are not just farmers, but as stated in the declaration, have a special relationship with the land, water and nature and conserve and improve biodiversity through agroecological practices,” Pier Francesco Pandolfi, Youth representative of the International Coordinating Committee of La Via Campesina, told EURACTIV.

As part of efforts to shift the narrative, farmer and peasant organisations mobilise each year around the International Day of Peasant Struggle on 17 April.

The day was formed in 1996 following the massacre of Eldorado dos Carajás, a mass killing of 19 rural workers in Brazil during a protest for paperwork to be able to live and settle on a farm which was at the time occupied by 3,500 landless families.

“For us, 17 April is also a day of hope. It helps us believe we can stop so many small farms disappearing because we see the strength that peasant farmers have to feed the world sustainably,” Pandolfi explained.

But this year,  the celebration has renewed importance in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with climate change, growing global food insecurity and, most recently, the Ukraine war.

The war has spotlighted small and medium-scale farmers, who have historically been largely overlooked by the Ukrainian government in favour of large agribusinesses.

But, after a mass exodus of largely oligarch-controlled agribusinesses after the outbreak of war, it is these small farmers that have been left to pick up the pieces, Attila Szocs from the Romanian small farmers’ association Ecoruralis told EURACTIV.

“Nobody really discusses who stayed to farm. But who are the ones who are farming right now in Ukraine, and what are they farming? Who is managing the food security of the country? It’s the small farmers producing a lot of these foodstuffs that stay in the country and actually nourish the country,” he told EURACTIV.

According to Szocs, Ukrainian small farmers now make up as much as 98% of the country’s total harvest of potatoes, 86% of vegetables, 85% of fruits, and 81% of milk.

And this lesson doesn’t stop at Ukraine’s borders, according to EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who called this a “great lesson in food security from Ukraine for the whole [of] Europe.”

“[It is] not large industrial farms save Ukraine from hunger today, but small farmers,” he tweeted, calling small farmers “quiet, underappreciated heroes who feed and defend”.

“Today, the protection of small farms is our raison d’état!” he concluded.

But there’s a long way to go, according to the small farmers’ association European Coordination Via Campesina, which sent a letter to the European Commission to mark this year’s International Day of Peasant Struggle.

“The role and importance of small-scale farmers must be better valued, and these farmers should be guaranteed access to land, seeds, resources and the market through EU policy,” it stressed, criticising the inaction of EU Institutions for tackling the challenges facing European agriculture and the “very serious fragilities” of the current food distribution, processing and production systems.

So, to sum up, peasant is now pleasant – and good things can come in small packages.

By Natasha Foote

PLEASE NOTE:  There will be no EURACTIV agrifood podcast this week as we are currently migrating our podcast to a new supporting platform. We’ll be back in business on 29 April. 

Agrifood stories of the week

Small farmers: The unsung heroes of the Ukraine war
The war in Ukraine has thrown up concerns over food security, both in the war-torn country and elsewhere in the world. But the key to ensuring Ukraine’s food supply may come from an unlikely place: small and medium-scale farmers. Natasha Foote has the story.

Greek agri minister: Ukraine war to shake up Greek CAP plan
Greece is planning to reshape its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strategic plan in light of the Ukraine war to strengthen resilience and expand farmers’ finance and risk management tools, Georgios Georgantas told EURACTIV Greece in an interview.

Germany calls for global food security alliance
German development minister Svenja Schulze is travelling to the World Bank Group’s spring meetings in Washington with a clear mission: G7 and donor countries should form a food security alliance to tackle the global food crisis. EURACTIV Germany reports.

News from the bubble

Commission vows to stick to green goals. After the EU Commission had postponed two legal acts to implement its flagship sustainable food policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, a few weeks ago due to the attack on Ukraine, Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has now stressed that she intends to stick to her plans for more sustainable agriculture despite the war. “Sustainability remains our policy compass for transforming our food systems,” she told MEPs. Even though the Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) and the nature restoration law were postponed “to allow for better political space”, none of the Commission’s planned legislative initiatives have been called into question, she stressed.

Free borscht for Ukrainians. More than 1 Million households in occupied regions are getting the seeds and seedlings to plant the vegetables needed to make traditional soup dish borscht for free through the charity “borscht initiative.” The funds come from private donations, while partner companies have also directly donated seeds. The initiative aims to distribute around 2.5 million small seed packages by the end of the month. According to agribusiness chief Alex Lissitsa, who initiated the project, many people in the occupied regions depend on what they grow to feed their families and are in dire need of seed material.

A (re)new food security task force. A new food security task force was created in Renew Europe this week. Chaired by MEP and ex-prime minister of Romania, Dacian Ciolos, the group aims to help develop ideas for securing food supplies in light of the war in Ukraine. The task force counts  Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) chair Pascal Canfin, as well as agriculture committee (AGRI) lawmaker Ulrike Müller among its members.

EU set to lose 6.4 million farms by 2040. According to a new report on the future of the European farming mode, the number of farms in EU-27 declined from 2003 to 2016 by 32%. The publication warns that by 2040 the EU might lose 6.4 million farms more, resulting in a 62% decrease as compared to 2016 figures.

Ensuring reliable food supplies for Europe. EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA, along with other EU Agri-Food Chain organisations, including FoodDrink Europe, EuroCommerce and CELCAA, issued a statement this week on the key points for maintaining a well functioning food chain in light of the Ukraine war. You can find it here.

Agriculture in the world

Aid reaches Tigray. After 105 days without a single aid truck entering the Ethiopian region of Tigray, two convoys arrived with food, fuel and medicine this week. Head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, called this “important progress, but a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed every day”.

World’s largest meat company under fire for greenwashing. The world’s largest meat company, JBS, has increased its greenhouse gas emissions by 51% over the last five years and is now responsible for greater emissions than Italy’s annual climate footprint, according to new research released this week from A coalition of campaign groups, including the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Feedback and Mighty Earth. Accusing the company of greenwashing, Shefali Sharma, Europe director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said it was “mind-blowing” that JBS can continue to make climate claims to investors, even as the company massively increases its emissions.

Agrifood news from the CAPitals

SLOVAKIA

Slovak agriculture ministry draws up new climate fund for land. While the EU is still waiting for the European Commission to propose a common framework for promoting farming practices that help remove carbon from the atmosphere, Slovakia has charged ahead and drawn up a new land-use climate fund. Marián Koreň and Julia Dahm have more.

SLOVENIA

Agri minister resigns over hotel bill scandal. After facing backlash over an unpaid bill, Slovenian agriculture minister Jože Podgoršek resigned just four days before the country’s general election. As media investigations uncovered, a weekend Podgoršek spent in a luxury hotel with his wife was paid for by agribusiness company KŽK, prompting allegations of corruption. Read the full story here.

ALBANIA

Albania doubles wheat imports from Russia. Since March, Albania has imported some 10,000 tonnes of wheat from Russia, according to figures from INSTAT. This is an increase of 100% from March 2021, when the country imported 5,000 tonnes. Get the full story here.

FRANCE

Macron and Le Pen clash over agriculture. While agriculture was only touched on in passing, the TV debate ahead of France’s final presidential election round revealed two different visions for agriculture. One key area of discord is the notion of sovereignty: While incumbent Emmanuel Macron stressed that France’s national food sovereignty is intimately linked to that of the EU, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen spoke out in favour of a “Europe of nations” and wants to renationalise agricultural policy. Read the full analysis of the debate here.

GERMANY

Wolf population growing in Germany. The country’s wolf population continues to grow, according to data released by the Federal Agriculture Information Centre. Two hundred and four wolf territories were identified throughout Germany in the monitoring period from 2020 to 2021 – almost four times as many as five years before. One hundred fifty-eight territories hosted packs, 27 couples, and 19 single animals. The reintroduction of wolves into German ecosystems is a polarising topic. While biodiversity campaigners support the move, livestock farmers bemoan the risk of losing animals to wolf attacks. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

UK

British produce left to rot due to Brexit bureaucracy. As Brexit has made British exports to the EU increasingly complex and bureaucratic, UK goods are more and more unwanted on the continent. Many farmers now find themselves with significant stocks of beet or vegetables that they cannot sell. While many are looking to develop business opportunities inside the country instead, this is a long-term process and does not help the immediate problem of surplus goods. Find out more here.

AUSTRIA

Research for food security. As food supply is under pressure in the face of the Ukraine war, what can research contribute to national food security? This was the topic of the “Policy Research Day,” a conference hosted this week by Austria’s agriculture ministry. “A resilient and future-oriented supply of food, energy and inputs is more important than ever,” minister Elisabeth Köstinger said during the event. “For our decisions, we need the support of research,” she added. She also stressed that the ministry oversees several research agencies and financially supports policy research. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

ITALY

New draft of CAP plan by the end of July. Italy’s agriculture ministry expects to transmit an updated version of its CAP’s national strategic plan by the end of July. The objective was announced during the latest national round table on the CAP implementation on Wednesday (19 April), where stakeholders and Italy’s farm minister Stefano Patuanelli discussed the Commission’s observations on the first draft. Among the things touched on during the meeting were the eco-scheme and the financial allocation of interventions under the second pillar of the CAP devoted to rural development. The Commission also complained about Italy’s decision to consider the entire national territory as a single administrative region for the purpose of direct payment. But in the government’s view, this choice ensures a balanced income and aligns with sectoral needs. This could, however, be a bone of contention in the negotiations to come.

SPAIN

Slump in Chinese demand drives down Spain’s pork exports. Spanish pork exports were close to stagnating in 2021, after a year of double-digit growth in 2020, as sales to China slumped due to outbreaks of African swine fever (ASF). Spain is the second-largest meat exporter worldwide, surpassed only by the US. EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro has the full story.

ATHENS

New fisheries programme in line with EU’s green transition strategies. Speaking during the second Fish Farming Conference on 15-16 April, food minister Simos Kedikoglou stressed that the European Union’s strategies for a green transition are also the backbone of the National Strategic Objectives of the new Fisheries, Aquaculture and Maritime Programme for the years 2021-2027. These objectives include reducing the environmental impact of aquaculture activities, strengthening innovation in the sector, implementing comprehensive spatial planning, and protecting and restoring biodiversity and ecosystems. “This is a modern, resource-efficient, resilient, competitive and sustainable economy in which biodiversity is conserved, restored and used sustainably in line with the standards of the circular economy by 2050,” the minister said. (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni | EURACTIV.gr)

CROATIA

Sugar beet producers to receive 12 million kuna (€1,6 million). The funds are set to come from the government’s support programme for sugar beet producers, adopted this year.  Production has been declining since the middle of the last decade, mainly caused by the fall in sugar prices on the European market due to the abolition of production quotas in 2017. Given this is a very demanding field crop, producers are turning to less demanding crops, said Minister of Agriculture Marija Vučković. She added that the difficulties faced by sugar beet producers were further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, the new support measures are meant to avoid the complete termination of production in the country, according to a government statement. (Željko Trkanjec, Euractiv.hr)

Events

25 April | The evolution of food: towards animal-free and sustainable technology

26 April | New Genomic Techniques – What benefits for SMEs in the agri-food sector?

26 April | WTO seminar on food security: Technical Perspectives

28 April | European Parliament’s environment committee meeting

28 April | Plant Variety Protection: the path towards more sustainability, innovation and growth in the European Union

28 April | EURACTIV event: The role of food supplements in improving health in the EU

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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