At this point, most Europeans can agree that greater consensus in EU farming policy would be a wonderful thing. That the Commission launched a Strategic Farm dialogue process on 25 January 2024 is therefore welcome, even if the intended outcome remains mysterious. For now, bringing together stakeholders to discuss the difficulties confronting the farming sector is in itself a positive result.
It is also positive that they’ve made a genuine attempt at inclusiveness – although it’s clearly dominated by large agroindustry, there are also representatives of most relevant societal interests.
Another positive factor, Ariel Brunner of Birdlife International points out, is that historian Peter Strohschneider has been chosen to moderate the process. A veteran of a similar concertation, he successfully navigated the clash of interests in Germany’s Committee on the Future of Farming, winning the respect of stakeholders who, with his guidance, drew up a document that all parties – farmers unions and environmentalists alike – could put their signatures to. He brings his skill and balanced perspective to the EU dialogues.
All his talent is required because, at least for now, consensus appears elusive. Some issues are too ‘hot button’ for certain stakeholders to resist pressing. It is a fallacy that a landslide of European Green Deal legislation is to blame for farmers’ woes. Their rage is understandable, but the claim that EU rules are the problem must be challenged, especially as environmental proposals have been repeatedly gutted to appease farmers (FW 286, FW 287).
The stakes are too high to continue cultivating grievance and pitting farmers against nature. Farming and nature cannot be used as political playthings ahead of the June Parliamentary elections. Farmers are struggling to get by and it's hard to attract incomers; they are losing crops and even farms to floods, droughts and fires; their health is threatened by chemicals that have been pushed as essential; biodiversity – including that of helpful pollinators – is collapsing; and animal welfare is “ferociously” downplayed.
Civil society is determined to bring positive energy to the process, and is especially eager to see what constructive proposals the farm lobby can contribute. Although their anger is widely covered in the media, few solutions have been made public.
“Despite initial worries regarding the role that such an initiative and its final recommendations could end up having, the very fact that key stakeholders will be sitting around a table, confronting openly their positions and visions, is positive,” says Marco Contiero, Greenpeace International. “Most importantly, debates within this group must be based on facts and concrete data, instead of unsubstantiated populist statements that often characterise public debates and biased campaigns.”
In the monthly plenaries and periodic working groups to come, it is hoped that differences can be set aside in order to deliver a consensus document by summer that outlines approaches to protect both farmers and nature. The Commission can then rely on the document to inform the next steps – whether that proves to be a new farming communication, a set of strategy guidelines … a magic bullet. NGOs are clear-eyed that the fate of whatever emerges from the process is largely tied to the outcome of Parliamentary elections and the composition of the next Commission. For now, however, they are glad for the chance to listen and contribute.
This article was edited on 8 February 2024 to correct Marco Contiero's organisation and authorial contributions.