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Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

In my blog, Out of space, I talked about how the energy crisis may make chemical fertilizers unaffordable to farmers in the foreseeable future. Modern agriculture will need to become less dependent on expensive external inputs such as animal feed and fertilizer, and make better use of knowledge of the ecological processes that shape the interplay between soil, nutrients, microorganisms and plants. But whether farming will remain a viable business for European farmers in the next decade, will not only depend on new knowledge.

A recent radio broadcast on Radio 1 mentioned that in Belgium since 1980 two thirds of the farmers have abandoned this profession, with currently only some 30,000 farmers remaining in business. And many see a bleak future. With large corporations and supermarkets keeping the price of commodities at rock bottom, and at times even below the production cost, it comes as no surprise that few young people still see a future in farming. A neighbouring dairy farmer in Belgium told me once that the difference of 1 Euro cent per litre of milk he sells can make or break his year. In 2016, around 30% of French farmers had an income below €350 per month, less than one third of the minimum wage.

One French farmer (often a dairy farmer) commits suicide every two days, according to a survey conducted by the French national public health agency. The suicide rate among Swiss farmers is almost 40% higher than the average for men in rural areas. The reasons include financial worries and inheritance problems related to passing the farm on to their children. The EU farmers’ union said this alarming situation should be addressed immediately, emphasising that the farming community deserves better recognition.

How has it come so far? And is there still time to change the tide?

While reading a book on the history of the Belgian farmers’ organisation, called the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League), I was struck by how deeply engrained our food crisis is and how much history has shaped our agricultural landscape and food crisis.

As the steam engine made it possible to transport food much faster and over longer distances, from 1880 onwards large amounts of cheap food from America, Canada, Russia, India and Australia flooded the European markets. This resulted in a sharp drop in food prices and many farmers were forced to stop or expand, others migrated to Canada, the USA, Argentina, and Brazil.

From the early 1890s Belgian farmers began organising into a cooperative to make group purchases of chemical fertilisers, seed, animal fodder, milking machines and other equipment. Milk adulteration was one dubious strategy some farmers used to make a living.

As early as 1902 the Boerenbond started providing administrative support to its members. Basically, consultants were recruited, subsidised by the Ministry of Agriculture, to keep an eye on the financial books of farmers, and of the quality of their milk. The Ministry also invested in mobile milking schools to teach farm women about dairy and milk processing. Along with milking competitions this boosted the attention to quality and hygiene.

The Boerenbond increasingly tried to bring various regional farmer organisations and milk cooperatives under its wing. In between the two World Wars they had representatives in Parliament, and they had their own oil mills, warehouses, laboratories and animal feed factory (made, for instance from waste chaff from the flax industry). The Boerenbond didn’t risk manufacturing their own chemical fertilizer, but bought shares in some of the large chemical companies. Group marketing, education, social security, credit and insurance were all managed in-house to support its members.

It all seemed so progressive, but by the 1930s, deepened by the stock market crash in 1929, the organisation was in a dire financial situation. After the crash of the potato and milk prices in 1936, the government realised that the Boerenbond was no longer capable of providing all these services, so the government set up its own credit and marketing institutions for milk, grain and horticultural crops.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Marshall Plan provided food aid and contributed to the reconstruction of Europe, under the condition that Western Europe subscribe to international free trade. While economic cooperation and integration gradually took shape, the economic advisors of the Boerenbond pleaded to keep a certain level of national autonomy for matters related to agriculture. But as food and milk production increased, the need for export markets grew and the Boerenbond became a strong advocate of European integration.

In 1958, a year after the European Economic Community was established, member countries developed an agricultural policy meant to guarantee a decent income for farmers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, productivity enhancement was considered a priority, but farmers found it hard to keep on investing in restructuring their farms to ever more specialised production units while over-production resulted in falling prices. In reality, farmers had to take larger loans and earned less and less. As in the USA, European farmers were buying more machinery, paying more for inputs, and falling deeper in debt.

In 1984, the European Community introduced production quotas to address the shocking situation of milk lakes and butter mountains. With very narrow profit margins set by a limited number of buyers, many farmers gave up.

For those who remained in business, the quotas lasted for about 30 years. By 2015 dairy farmers again could produce as much as they wanted.

The European Commission thought that this liberalisation would not bring back those lakes and mountains, because there was a growing market from developing countries, including China, and price monitoring had improved. In reality, in an attempt to prop up prices and curb the dairy crisis, Brussels has been buying up milk since 2015.

Stockpiled in warehouses, mainly in France, Germany and Belgium, the sacks of milk powder are a déjà vu of the milk lakes. Milk farmers and traders fear that these stockpiles are dragging down prices, as buyers expect the dried milk lakes to be sold off at any time.

Classical economics is based on the idea of many willing buyers and many willing sellers. In modern Europe there are many regulated farmers, buying agrochemicals, seed and animal feed from a few corporations and selling to just a few buyers. Farmers are forced to take prices for inputs set by large corporations, while prices of raw milk are fixed by supermarkets who have concentrated the power of the market. Whether they buy or sell, farmers are price takers, caught in the middle between monopolistic suppliers and a few powerful buyers. And farmers are paying a high price: input costs rose by 40% between 2000 and 2010.

The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) will shortly vote on new amendments including the support to protein crops to reduce dependence on imports (read “GMO soya”), and a mandatory introduction of leguminous crops in the rotation in Good Agricultural Environmental Practices.

While EU policies can contribute to protecting our farmers and our environment, consumers also have a crucial role to play. As consumers we have no idea how the continuous search for cheapest products is putting farmers in a stranglehold. While Fairtrade schemes are a nice thought, in reality all food sold anywhere should be fair for the people who produce it, including our own dairy farmers.

For more than a century, strong farmer organisations such as the Boerenbond have tried to protect farmers’ interests by promoting a model of industrial agriculture. How the Boerenbond will deal with farmers’ hard realities, the complexities of a changing climate, environmental degradation and economic pressure of corporations and supermarkets will determine its future relevance.  

Improved consumer awareness to buy local produce at a fair price, enhanced access to affordable animal feed and policies conducive to environmentally sound family farming will decide whether farmers will be able to survive or be replaced by new smart agriculture that can do without farmers, using machineries and investment funds.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp

Ulmer, Karin. 2019. The Common Agricultural Policy of Europe: making farmers in the Global South hungry. In: Who is Paying the Bill. Report published by SDG Watch Europe, pp. 21-30. https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/documents/2019/08/whos-paying-the-bill.pdf/

IPES-Food. 2019. Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU.
www.ipes-food.org/pages/CommonFoodPolicy  

Related blogs

Out of space

Why people drink cow’s milk

Roundup: ready to move on?

Fighting farmers

What counts in agroecology

From uniformity to diversity

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers in developing countries.


Hydroponic fodder ; Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows; Herbal medicines against mastitis ; Making rennet ; Making fresh cheese ; Making yoghurt at home

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