‘The most important keys for an agricultural and food model that allows all farmers worldwide to be provided with fair prices and living wages lie in legislation and regulation’, write Koen Van Troos and Philippe Weier of Fairtrade Belgium.
The farmers’ protests have been gripping Europe for days now. Honking tractors block major traffic arteries, important buildings receive milk and manure showers, and cows appear in the streets of Paris, Brussels and Bucharest. The farmers are angry and people will know it.
The reasons for the farmers’ anger are very diverse. In France, for example, it concerns the abolition of a tax advantage for farmers on Diesel – which has since been returned to – while elsewhere it concerns unfair competition for European farmers as a result of free trade agreements with countries where farmers apparently have to follow far fewer rules. (as in the EU-Mercosur treaty).
Low prices create a dire situation for farmers
What is a common thread throughout the protests is the farmers’ difficulty in covering costs. Rising fuel and electricity prices due to the economic crisis, but also higher costs to adapt to climate change and new regulations, are putting strong pressure on the income of European farmers.
So old news in new pockets. After all, European farmers have been at a loss for years due to an outdated agricultural model that focuses on monocultures, economies of scale and increasingly cheaper products. A model in which the real costs for the production of our food are hardly translated into a correct price for the farmer. Because even though we (rightly) believe that food is becoming increasingly expensive, the price the farmer receives for it does not sufficiently reflect his work. And the burden on the environment is also hardly included in the final price of most agricultural products. Consider, for example, the costs associated with dehydration of agricultural land in central Spain, with major environmental and social consequences.
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Labels, a solution?
The solutions are as old as the problems. It has been almost 30 years since the Fairtrade label was created to guarantee a fair price for banana, coffee and cocoa farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Detailed specifications were developed for this purpose, including external environmental and social costs.
And there are also numerous initiatives to guarantee Belgian farmers a fair price. In Belgium, for years you have been able to choose milk from the Fairebel brand – the Belgian milk brand that prides itself on paying its members a fair price – or labels such as “Prix Juste Producteur” and BioGarantine for organically grown food. Each in their own way ensures that the farmer receives a fair price that, depending on the label, also reflects the environmental burden of the food product.
But it should not depend on a brand or a label whether or not a farmer receives a fair price. Not here and not elsewhere. Because getting paid for work is a basic right that should be guaranteed by law. And for the farmer, a fair wage starts with a fair price.
A legal framework for fair prices…
An absurd idea? Not really. After all, the right to a fair price fits perfectly into the list of other social rights such as the right to holidays, the right to a 38-hour week, the right to weekend rest, etc. Rights that many farmers still cannot enjoy.
And legally establishing fair prices – or prices that at least cover the costs of sustainable production – also seems increasingly possible. In France, for example, since 2018 there have been EGALIM law that legally anchors both fair prices for the farmer and long-term relationships between farmer and buyer.
And there are also legislative initiatives in our own country. For example, there is the law that prohibits unfair trading practices between companies in the agricultural and food supply chain. Here, concrete efforts could be made to add a ban on the sale of food at a price lower than production costs.
And of course there is also the European Duty of Care Act that will oblige companies to take responsibility for their impact on human rights and the environment throughout the value chain. Fair prices for farmers will certainly play a key role in this.
… supported by the general population
Be that as it may, the most important keys for an agricultural and food model that allows all farmers worldwide to be provided with fair prices and living wages lie in legislation and regulation. A legislation that also enjoys the support of the population, as evidenced by the increasing sales of products with organic and ethical labels such as Fairtrade.
If we want to enable the transition to a sustainable food system, the burden should not fall solely on the shoulders of farmers or consumers. Then the costs and risks must be distributed across the entire value chain. And then we must also dare to leave the dogma of global free trade behind us and argue for the legal anchoring of fair trade and fair prices for farmers. Because this is the only way to provide a structural response to the farmer’s justified anger.