All you need to know about the EU’s agricultural sector

Among their complaints, farmers decry the cost of living crisis, fuel taxes, environmental regulation, heavy bureaucracy, unfair competition and free trade markets.

The similar coordinated move, which has already reached countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, has kept Brussels at bay and put the Green Market under serious political pressure ahead of the next European Parliament elections .

Ursula von der Leyen, the mastermind behind the Green Market, responded by publicly singing odes to farmers, praising their hard work, commitment and economic contribution, and promising greater attention to address their concerns.

Farmers “work hard every day, to produce the quality food that we eat. For this, I think we must respect them and thank and respect,” said the president of the European Commission earlier the this month announcing his withdrawal. Controversial pesticide law.

“Questions have been rising in recent years. Our farmers deserve to be heard. I know they are worried about the future of agriculture and their future as farmers.”

Here’s what you need to know about agriculture in the EU.

A small but vital sector

Agriculture is one of the oldest forms of production in the world, dating back 12,000 years, when prehistoric civilizations transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farming in permanent settlements. In the following thousands of years, agriculture was a major force for progress and helped develop many of the European cities we know today.

But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture began to gradually decline as countries moved heavily towards manufacturing, and later, services.

Today, the sector represents a small share of the EU economy: according to Eurostatagriculture contributed €215.5 billion to the Block’s Gross Domestic Product in 2022. In relative terms, this means 1.4% of total GDP, a percentage that has been stable over the past 20 years.

After selling its numerous products on the markets, the sector achieved more than €537 billion in 2022, of which €287.9 ​​billion came from crops, such as cereals, vegetables, fruits, wine and potatoes, and €206 billion from milk, pigs, cattle. , poultry and eggs.

France was the biggest seller that year, earning €97.1 billion, followed by Germany (€76.2 billion), Italy (€71.5 billion), Spain (€63 billion) and Poland ( €39.5 billion).

Production costs amounted to €316.7 billion in 2022, an increase of almost 22% compared to the previous year. The boom was largely driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy and fertilizer prices soaring to record highs.

Heavy concentration

Around 8.6 million people work in the agricultural sector, which is 4.2% of EU employment. Romania (1.76 million) and Poland (1.46 million) are by far the biggest employers. However, these numbers do not give the full picture as harvesting is a seasonal activity that employs many people under temporary, part-time contracts. Taking these factors into account, Eurostat puts the workforce at 17 million people, more than double the main figure.

The sector is male-oriented and aging: the vast majority of farm managers are men (68.4%) and over 55 years old (57.6%). The Netherlands has the most significant gender imbalance, with only 5.6% of farmers being women, while Latvia and Lithuania are the closest to achieving a 50-50 equality ratio.

All these farmers work over 157 million hectares agricultural land, which is subsequently divided into 9.1 million holdings. But this distribution is very uneven: about 52% of agricultural land is controlled by 4% of all farms, those larger than 100 hectares. In contrast, small farms, those under 5 hectares, use only 6% of all available land, despite accounting for 40% of all holdings.

This heavy concentration of land reflects the industrialization of agriculture, where a few corporations can afford to use advanced technologies, machinery and methods to produce crops on a large scale and sell them on a global level.

Billions in subsidy

Agriculture is a risky business at the mercy of weather events, fluctuating demand and foreign competition, making it difficult to earn profits and attract investments. This explains why agriculture is one of the most subsidized industries in the EU, despite its minimal contribution to economic growth.

First established in 1962, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a massive aid program which aims to ensure that European farmers receive a stable minimum income and can compete across borders. For years, CAP was the raison d’être of the common budget, which takes up more than 60% of all expenditure. Today, it is one-third.

The CAP allocates €264 billion for the period 2023-2027, mainly focused on two lines of action: €189.2 billion for income support, the direct payments that compensate farmers, and €66 billion for rural development to tackle the challenges of the areas poor.

Crucially, direct payments are not linked to the amount of crops farmers produce. Brussels argues that this link would encourage overproduction in order to obtain a larger share of subsidies and market consumption. Instead, payments are rolled out by hectare (farming land) and in compliance with the rules on biodiversity, animal welfare and health.

The CAP is one of the most talked about aspects of EU policy and is constantly criticized for, among other things, its unequal distribution (around 80% of the budget is in the hands of 20% of farmers ), of its questionable effectiveness. (Farmers’ income remains 40% lower compared to the average EU wage), and the commercial distortion that has occurred in relation to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Methane propagation

Another recurring charge leveled at the CAP is its poor enforcement of environmental standards. This is because agriculture is a significant driver of pollution, accounting more than 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions.

The IS European Environment Agency (LEE) credit those emissions to three sources:

  • CH4 (methane) from enteric fermentation, which refers to the digestive process in ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats.

  • N2O (nitric oxide) mainly from the use of synthetic fertilizers based on nitrogen.

  • CH4 (methane) from manure management and disposal.

Although the agricultural sector is subject to the EU’s overarching goal of gradually reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving climate neutrality by 2050, the reduction achieved so far is very limited.

In fact, between 2005 and 2021, the EEA estimates that agricultural emissions increased in 13 Member States, with Estonia surpassing the 30% mark. Based on current projections, the agency is predicting a slight decrease of 4% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, which could expand to 8% if additional climate measures are implemented.

This slow pace is particularly worrying given that at least 25% of global warming is driven by methane, an odorless gas that is 80 times more harmful than CO2 in the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere . Meanwhile, chemical pesticides commonly used to maintain crop yields, are factors behind biodiversity loss, poor water quality, degraded soils and pest resistance, and are linked to chronic diseases.

A way to self-confidence

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, the European Commission has adopted “strategic independence” as a guiding philosophy to reduce costly dependencies on unreliable suppliers.

Fortunately for Brussels, agriculture is a well-developed sector in this regard.

The EU has achieved self-sufficiency (meaning it can meet all its domestic needs through domestic production) in a wide range of goods that we consume on a daily basis, such as wheat, olive oil, tomatoes, apples, peaches, cheese, butter, beef , pork and poultry. (For others, such as rice, sugar, oilseed and vegetable oil, imports are still very much needed.)

This allowed the bloc to become a commercial powerhouse on world markets: in the year 2022, the bloc exported €229.1 billion in agricultural products and imported €195.6 billion, leaving a comfortable surplus of €33.4 billion. The most valuable export from the EU was drinks and spirits, bringing in €39 billion.

This does not mean, however, that the EU is completely out of the woods.

Extreme weather events and rising temperatures pose a serious threat to food security and may trigger an increase in some imports in the long term. At the same time, some of the bloc’s clients are developing self-reliance strategies and may not buy as much EU food in the future as they do now.

Recently report The European Commission has warned that the economic slowdown seen in China, which is set to worsen due to the country’s rapidly aging population, could severely limit global exports of soft wheat, maize, barley, beef , pork and most dairy products.

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