EU’s farm-to-fork strategy must not forget smallholders

The WEF found that while most farmers surveyed want to make on-farm sustainability changes, they are held back by lack of access to reliable information.

A report from the World Economic Forum has put into context the size of the challenge facing the EU as it seeks to implement its Green Deal-aligned farm-to-fork strategy, as well as the substantial opportunities that can be unlocked through the sustainable farming practices it seeks.

The WEF found that if just 20 percent of EU farmers adopted five climate-smart agriculture practices, by 2030 the bloc could reduce its annual agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent – ag accounts for 10 percent of all EU GHG emissions – improve the soil health of 14 percent of its agricultural land and improve farmer profits by between €1.9 billion and €9.3 billion annually.

The report adds that the economic benefits to farmers could be increased “by more than fivefold if operational on-farm improvements are complemented by broader market-based incentives that are inclusive of societal benefits, such as carbon credits and price premiums, along with public subsidies.”

Some of the biggest sticking points, then, will revolve around how successfully the EU can communicate with, educate and incentivise farmers to adopt the required practice changes, given the considerable challenges they face to simply stay afloat and remain in business.

For example, the report notes that the average farming family in the EU earns just €20,995 per year, which is well below the average EU family wage of €50,432.

The relatively small size of EU farms partly drives low farm wages, with more than two-thirds spanning less than five hectares, while the design of the common agricultural policy means roughly 80 percent of all CAP direct payment subsidies go to just 20 percent of farmers. Smaller land sizes inhibit economies of scale, which in turn disincentivizes “professionalization” through larger investments that could drive long-term profitability, the WEF found.

Further exacerbating this issue is a lack of appropriate and affordable agricultural insurance schemes that offer protection from increasingly extreme weather events. Ag insurance can be critical in mitigating a loss of income, a lack of which can lead to farms slipping into debt, which in turn hinders investments that can support sustainable practice changes.

Perhaps the most striking finding of the report – which surveyed 1,600 farmers from seven countries – is that while more than 75 percent of respondents from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania and Spain said they searched for information on carbon farming, 76 percent of all respondents said a lack of information prohibited them from enrolling in a carbon farming program.

“The results indicate that farmers do not have the information they need to understand the value of climate-smart agriculture to their farm operations, learn how to conduct the practices, justify the investments or connect to the enabling infrastructure in place to support the transition,” the report said.

All of which reiterates the need to take a whole market and farmer-centric approach to the climate-smart agricultural transition the farm-to-fork strategy seeks to stimulate. As things stand, the EU’s farmers seem to be clearly indicating this is yet to occur.