Family farming as we know it is under threat and this may be the last generation of EU family farmers, according to Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus, who raised concerns over land concentration and called for a larger safety net for small farms.
“I am very concerned this will be the last generation of family farmers in the EU,” he told EURACTIV, adding that we really are “against the clock” to take action to save the EU family farming model.
“These are people with families and for many, it means an end to a way of life that they have carried on for generations”.
Citing agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who recently pointed out that up to 1,000 farmers per day decide to leave the profession due to unprofitability, Macmanus added that understanding the gravity of this on mental health may go some way to explain why on average a farmer in France commits suicide every two days.
As for the culprit of the demise of small family farms, the Irish MEP, who is also one of the parliament negotiators on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) horizontal regulation, highlighted concerns over land concentration, which he said is increasing at an “alarming rate”.
This is due to small farmers being forced to abandon the land as it becomes chronically unprofitable, he explained, which is then purchased by large enterprises, such as processors and supermarkets, resulting in rapid consolidation.
Highlighting that the COVID crisis has compounded the concentration of market power already seen in the sector, MacManus warned that a “combination of lacking economies of scale and bearing the brunt of supermarket price wars has made it almost impossible for small farmers to hold on”.
‘Crisis waiting to happen’
MacManus also reserved criticism for the CAP and its role in supporting small farmers.
Warning that the combination of farmers selling their produce below the cost of production and shrinking EU subsidies is a “crisis waiting to happen,” he said that in order to salvage some credibility for the CAP, it must deploy a safety net to keep small to medium farms viable.
This includes weighting payments to offer more support for the first number of hectares, with a lower and uniform payment for the remaining hectares, which would benefit small farmers.
To control the market, the new unfair trading practices directive must be strengthened further, he added, proposing an EU-wide ban on below-cost selling by supermarkets which he says “undermines small grocers and customer perception of the true price of a litre of milk or kilo of beef”.
According to the European farmers and farm workers confederation, the European coordination via campesina (ECVC), the EU lost 4.2 million holdings, or approximately a quarter, between 2005 and 2016.
This is something that Andoni García Arriola, member of the coordinating committee of ECVC, says is no accident.
“Current CAP payments, based on hectares, benefit large producers and industrial agriculture, driving up land prices, encouraging land concentration and making it difficult for new entrants to access land,” he said.
He added that by stripping the CAP of market regulation instruments and adapting to the globalisation of markets, the Commission is “openly driving this structural change”.
García Arriola also called for mandatory limits to annual direct payments per beneficiary and for a redistribution of basic payments to prioritise small and medium-sized farms, as well as young farmers and new entrants.
However, Paulo Gouveia, chief policy adviser of EU farmers association COPA-COGECA told EURACTIV that although they recognised the challenge of generation renewal and the need to attract the young generation to the sector, hope is not lost for small farmers.
Pointing out that farm size is variable across member states as well as other farm structure elements, he highlighted that there are already measures in place in the current CAP that provide increased payments to smaller farms.
Instead, he put the imbalance in the size of farms also down to the fact that farmers receive only a small percentage of the price that the consumer pays for the food.
“Recently during the Christmas period, reports showed that vegetables were being sold in supermarkets at prices 13 to 14 times higher than the price the farmer was paid for them. Such situations cannot continue and they are also at the root of the problem, on the CAP,” he highlighted.
“There is a need for a long-term vision for rural areas that can contribute to their economic viability and ensure that they become even more vibrant than they are,” Gouveia said, adding that this “can and must” be done through a multi-annual rural development approach.
He also stressed that standards and quality of living for those living in rural areas must be improved and become closer to those living in urban areas, adding that here other EU policies, such as the Cohesion and Regional policies, must also play a role.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]