February 26, 2024

Farmers protesting across the street Europe won their first concession from Brussels, with the EU announcing a delay in rules that would have forced them to set aside land to encourage biodiversity and soil health.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič described Wednesday’s decision, which is expected to be rubber-stamped by member states within 15 days, as “a helping hand” for the sector at a difficult time.

Referring to floods, wildfires in Greece, heat waves across southern Europe and drought in Spain, he said it was important to listen to farmers and “to avoid the polarization that makes any good conversation and discussion more difficult.

“We feel we are obliged to act under this pressure that the farming community has [is feeling],” he said. “We’ve had a number of extreme meteorological events, droughts, floods in various parts of Europe, and there’s been a clear negative effect on output, on income – and of course reduced income – for the farmers .”

Combined with higher energy prices, the weather-related risks to crops meant that farmers were now at a “persistent pain point” that was “driving up the cost of production and squeezing incomes,” Šefčovič said.

Under the rules, Farmers were required to keep 4% of their arable land free from crop production in an effort to restore the health of the soil and increase biodiversity, which is also in crisis.

Alternatively, farmers could have been exempted from this “aside” rule if they used 7% of their land for “catch crops” such as clover, which provide cover for the soil after the main crop is harvested.

Under the new proposals, however, farmers will only be obliged to set aside fallow land, or any part of land for catch crops, in 2025.

The change comes as farm protests have increased, with the port of Zeebrugge blockade in Belgium and protests continuing in France and Italy.

Until now, farmers have not been impressed with the quick fixes offered by politicians or officials in Brussels. They have concerns about the high cost of land, the pressure from supermarkets to sell crops at near-cost prices, and the plethora of new environmental rules coming in the form of EU nature restoration laws.

Their critics say EU farmers are among the most favored in the industry, with more than €307bn (£260bn) – 30% of the overall EU budget – earmarked for them between 2023 and 2027.

Asked whether Wednesday’s concession would be enough to quell the protests, Šefčovič admitted that the EU needed to “step up” the dialogue with farmers to make sure they were listened to. “We must make sure that Europe will become a continent that will also be habitable in the future,” he added.

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