Welsh farmers consider action as protests erupt across Europe
Luke James, Brussels
Welsh farmers were keeping a close eye on events in Brussels as they gathered for crisis talks last week.
While they shared concerns over the future of their industry at the livestock market in Welshpool, farmers from Belgium and beyond blocked the roads around the European institutions with over 1,000 tractors.
“There was certainly a feeling of, well, why can’t we do what farmers are doing on the continent,” said Gareth Parry, a Farmers’ Union of Wales representative who was at the meeting in a personal capacity.
The disruption of an EU leaders’ summit over the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was part of a wave of action that began in the Netherlands before spreading to France, Germany, Poland, and, perhaps soon, Wales.
Sustainable Farming Scheme
Welsh farmers’ main concern is now no longer being eligible for the CAP at all and the uncertainty caused by the switch to the Welsh government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme.
“One of the key differences is that EU money that went towards agriculture was ringfenced,” added Parry. “We have not got that financial certainty anymore. There is nothing stopping the Welsh Government putting our funding into the NHS, transport, or education.”
But there are still plenty of parallels between the grievances felt by farmers in Wales and the rest of Europe.
The spark for the movement was Dutch government plans to clamp down on nitrogen emissions caused by livestock manure and chemical fertilisers.
“There have been some quite rigid rules placed on the livestock sector in particular,” said Dr Prysor Williams of Bangor University.
“Ultimately it boils down to a drive to reduce the number of cattle as a result of concerns over phosphate and nitrate.
“If we were to bring it closer to home, there’s a lot of discontent that the whole of Wales is now what we call a ‘nitrate vulnerable zone’.
“There’s a limit on the amount of nitrogen excreted per hectare, per year. So essentially it’s also a cap on livestock.”
In Germany, the protests were caused by the end of subsidies for agriculture diesel. In France, tax increases on pesticides. And in Poland, the import of tariff-free produce from Ukraine.
The common thread for these disparate issues: the challenge of maintaining food security at the same time as tackling climate change.
“Farmers in the EU have been under increasing pressure due to the regulatory environment,” said Robin Manning, who represents NFU Cymru members in Brussels as director of the British Agriculture Bureau.
“Most prominently in the EU, the introduction of the so-called Green Deal farm to fork policy, which includes a lot of environmental legislation that will impact on profitability.
“The last thing people want to see is production threatened in the EU and the UK and that simply replaced by products from elsewhere which don’t comply with the same standards.”
Farmers in the EU now need to meet a set of nine environmental criteria to continue receiving CAP funding.
Among the most contentious has been the requirement to set aside at least 4 per cent of land to “non-productive areas or features such as hedges or trees.”
In Wales, 10 per cent of land will need to be planted with trees for farmers to qualify for support under the Sustainable Farming Scheme.
“Whether you’re in the CAP or out of the CAP, there’s the same types of concerns about the increasingly stringent environmental concerns that farmers have to meet,” added Dr Williams.
“It’s just that I would say, in Wales, the amount of change that we might see compared to the change we would have seen if we were still under CAP is on a different level.”
The Welsh target of 10 per cent tree planting is the minimum required to recover biodiversity lost through intensive farming, according to the European Environment Bureau.
“The intensification of agriculture, encouraged by CAP subsidies, has led to the removal of natural habitats in the farmed landscape: hedgerows, flower strips, field margins, small wetlands and fallow land,” it has said.
The Welsh Government also says it needs to increase its annual tree planting by 15 times in order to meet its climate commitments.
The policy has become a “convenient pantomime villain”, Climate Change minister Lee Waters has said.
“There’s a lot of anxiety from farming communities about change, but we’re romanticising the present; your average farm income with EU subsidies is £16,000 per farm,” he previously told Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme.
“We’ve been subsidising farmers into working poverty and properly managed tree-planting alongside food production offers a new income stream.”
Welsh farmers are conscious of the need to tackle climate change and the new scheme would provide welcome additional income to some businesses, such as hill farms, according to Gareth Parry of the FUW.
“Every single farm is different. There will be some farmers who are able to plant trees to reach the 10 per cent target.”
But he warned: “There will be some more intensive dairy farms who basically won’t go into the scheme full stop because of the loss in asset value of land and loss of production.
“The scheme in its current form will never compensate for those losses. If the business can’t be financially viable, they can’t expect farmers to deliver on their environmental objectives. That’s where there is that disconnect at the moment.”
The European Commission announced a one year derogation from its tree planting targets in response to the protests in Brussels.
The Welsh Government is currently consulting on its plans and Rural Affairs minister Lesley Griffiths told the Senedd last month she had not pre-empted the outcome of the process.
“Do I think some of the proposals will have to be changed? Yes, of course I think that – there’s no point having a consultation if you don’t listen to it,” the Wrexham MS told BBC Wales this week.
That has been enough to stop the immediate threat of a continental-style protest in Cardiff.
At a meeting of 3,000 farmers at the Carmarthen Showground on Thursday, it was agreed that the organisers would first seek a meeting with the Welsh Government.
But the biggest cheer of the night was for the speech by Gary Howells, a livestock farmer from Llandysul, who said a protest is still “on the table.”
Speaking with his son in his arms, he said: “We will fight to the bitter end. We will take the message to Cardiff and we’ll all go together.”
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