Debate on the Future of European Agriculture
Food and farming have become popular topics for debates and events. That’s an evolution we should embrace. Food is so much more than a basic need. Food determines to a large extent our wellbeing and it has a high cultural value. No food without farming. Yet, the farming sector phases enormous challenges with economic, ecologic and social dimensions.
The Junior Chamber International (JCI) decided to make food the central topic of their annual event. That event took place in Bruges. Apart from a very tasteful fair, the event also included several debates. One of the debates concerned the future of farming in Europe. Is there a future for European farmers? What impact has the Ukraine crisis on our food system? What is sustainable farming? All these questions were brought to the table.
Panelists were Bram Van Hecke (Director Groene Kring), Stef Aerts (Lector Odisee Hogeschool), Joris Relaes (Director ILVO) and Tessa Avermaete (project manager COCOREADO and RUSTICA at KU Leuven). The debate was moderated by Isabel Albrecht. ‘That makes five bio-engineers’, a remark by Stef Aerts who also chairs the alumni society of the Bioengineering Faculty at KU Leuven. Apart from the common educational background, everyone has a personal view on the future of Europe’s agriculture, based on our background, experience, our professional position and the colleagues and experts within our environment.
Several topics were debated: from Ukraine crisis to Farm to Fork, from the income of farmers to the food expenditures of European citizens, from the nitrogen agreement in Flanders to soy dependency of the livestock sector. Overall, the panelist agreed on the main challenges for European agriculture. They shared the concern of young farmers about the future. There is need for a policy that guarantees young farmers long term perspectives. Farmers are willing to adapt, as they have done for centuries, however, society cannot expect family farms to reorganize at the speed of European, regional or national elections. Investments at the farm level exceed generally 15 years.
The panelist also agreed on the fact that action is needed to make our food system more sustainable. However, putting all the blame at the farming sector is incorrect. All actors in the chain have responsibilities and drive the sustainability of the food system as a whole. Moreover, many farmers don’t have much freedom in crucial decisions. They are ‘just’ small players, squeezed between large companies both upstream and downstream in the food chain.
Finally, the perception and position of consumers and citizens were discussed. There is a lot of misperception on sustainable production. People want to see small extensive farms, bringing back the nostalgy of the old days. This is associated with sustainability. Evidence shows reality if far more complex. While the necessity for a more efficient use of natural resources in farming practices can’t be ignored, we will need intensive farming to meet global food security and the growing food demand.
Debates like this are important. Pressure on the farming sector is high, and media very often enhance the polarization rather than stimulate a real dialogue. Debates provide the space for nuance and explanation, respect and understanding for each others opinions. It is only by bundling forces that we will be able to find sustainable solutions for the future.