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Why the EU farmers’ protests have relevance in South Africa

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Wandile Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University's Department of Agricultural Economics. His latest book is “A Country of Two Agricultures”.

As the farmers’ protests continue in various regions of Europe, the primary question on the minds of South African agriculturalists is what implications, if any, these will have on local production and exports.

According to various media reports, the European Union (EU) farmers’ protests mainly centre on the EU’s declining agricultural subsidies, the environmental policy to reduce chemicals and fertiliser use, and the need for protection against imports.

Whether the farmers are correct in raising their dissatisfaction about the EU’s policies in these areas is a point of much discussion. But it is worth emphasising that these events and the policy outcome in response to them will matter for South African agriculture in two ways.

First, South Africa’s agricultural sector is strongly linked with the EU through trade. The region is the second most important market for South Africa’s agricultural products, accounting for 27% of the country’s total agricultural exports, according to data from Trade Map

Climate change policies

The EU and the rest of the world seek to implement urgent policy measures to combat the effects of climate change. In its 2030 climate target plan, the EU aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels. To that end, the EU has crafted the “Farm to Fork Strategy”, a new approach that ensures that agriculture, fisheries, and the entire food system effectively contribute to achieving this target. 

The strategy seeks to ensure that farmers produce sustainably by setting targets that reduce the use of fertilisers and pesticides and revising legislation regarding feed additives and animal welfare. 

But these production changes will not only apply to EU farmers, but trading partners such as South Africa as well. Hence, monitoring whether the farmers’ protests make a dent in persuading EU lawmakers to adjust these regulations is vital for South African agricultural exporters.

From a South African perspective, sustainable agricultural practice is a cause worthy of our collective support and various farmers domestically are pursuing better production methods to ensure soil and environmental health.

Reasonable transition

To that end, attaining a balance between agro-chemical use and productivity in pursuit of environmental sustainability is critical. In that sense, a drastic reduction of agrochemicals use and fertilisers is not ideal as that would negatively affect the harvest quality and output. Hence, a reasonable transition under the framework of a moderate approach with feasible timelines, which EU farmers are advocating for, is worth supporting. 

Such a reasonable outcome would imply that the EU’s trading partners do not have to significantly reduce agrochemicals and fertiliser use to lower productivity levels. This would also ensure that trade between South Africa and the EU continues on the current terms.

Protectionism

Second, there seems to be a growing protectionist sentiment among the various protesting farmers, arguing that EU lawmakers should consider protecting the farmers against unfair world competition. South Africa worries about this particular line of argument as an export-oriented sector with strong links with the EU.

The South African agricultural sector has faced various protectionist tendencies in the EU market, particularly in citrus. For example, the EU recently used non-tariff barriers by alleging a “False codling moth”, a citrus pest, in South Africa and requiring that citrus products be kept at certain temperatures before accessing the EU market. 

This happens while South Africa has already treated the products to eliminate the chances of such pest occurrence. This was a subtle form of protecting Spanish farmers, who are also major citrus producers within the EU market.

With an outright view from farmer groupings in the EU that they face unfair competition in the global agricultural market, we worry that using various non-tariff barriers may be common.

The aspect of subsidies that the EU farmers also argued for is perhaps not top of mind for a South African farmer. Over nearly three decades, the South African agricultural sector has had to grow and be globally competitive with minimal government producer support relative to the EU and the US. The key aspects currently relevant for South Africa are matters pertaining to trade, which are environmental policies and the talk of unfair trade policies. 

Overall, the outcomes of the EU farm protests will be consequential to South Africa, mainly the fruit, wine and beef industries with a specific interest in deepening trade with the EU region. 

Diversifying markets

More importantly, the environmental laws in the EU, because of the importance and influence of the area in the world, are likely to be applied in other regions over time. Such development would have notable implications for the exporting nations, again illustrating the importance and relevance of the ongoing developments in the EU. 

Beyond the EU challenges, what we observe today – rising tension within regions and countries and among regions and countries – implies that each country must always seek to diversify its markets.

South Africa’s primary reliance on the EU region is one such risk, so exploring markets such as China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the Philippines and Bangladesh is always essential. Notably, such market expansion should coincide with maintaining EU market access – it remains vital and strategic to South Africa’s agriculture. DM

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  • Andre Grobler says:

    I applaud the seeming direction the EU is taking about using less external inputs in farming… but surely you should target the pushers of these drugs, that made farmers dependent on these drugs, assisted with subsidies and legislation from government and bad science promoted by government extension officers, rather than the farmers who fell for the whole “cheaper food for more people” slogan and by the way here’s the drug for it…

    This is like blaming a mother who chooses abortion for all the ills of society

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    The irony is that industrial farming “is proving less and less profitable for farmers. The increasing use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides together with seeds which are genetically modified to withstand herbicides such as Roundup is leading to Farmageddon. The only winners are the large chemical manufacturing companies, multinational food companies and the machinery manufacturers. The only solution is to move away from the monospecies industrial model to the mixed farming model which includes grazing animals. Unfortunately, that won’t happen as the large companies have too much political clout.

  • Sally Laurens says:

    We have farmers and consultants in this country who are already practising regenerative farming, which promotes soil and crop health, and reduces impact on the environment, and damage to health of workers and consumers. However the majority of farmers continue to abuse the use of chemicals (many of which are banned in the EU), which cause untold damage to the environment and to our health. I’m glad of the new rules enforced by the EU, however government needs to enforce the existing rules here, weak as, they are for the sake of our children’s futures. Yes, its that bad. Farmers have access to very damaging chemicals, and they use them without applying safeguards, which are themselves insufficient. I know potato farmers who never eat potatoes, and its not because they don’t like them

  • Tanya Wichmann says:

    I have been watching the EU farmer strike action. The farmers’ dumping manure on the steps of government buildings has just been superb.
    I understand that they are trying to protect their Diesel rebate. As farm vehicles largely stay on farms, the various road taxes need not apply to them. Other countries have similar rebates. It is a subsidy of sorts, however the use of the word “subsidy” in general press reporting, gives the idea that it is a super sheltered industry.
    The bulk of farmers will agree that protecting the environment is a good idea. Its’ health ensures a recognizable climate, and continued profit from the land. It seems however that government officials have lost touch what it means to make a living outside an airconditioned office.

  • Jabu Mhlanga says:

    The EU protection against imports would surely have negative impact on SA export as EU consumers are willing to pay for SA products unlike other markets…China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam etc.

  • Sharda Naidoo says:

    This is a timely article (if not somewhat overdue). The key question is why we aren’t we moving to sustainable agricultural practices in South Africa? Climate change is an equaliser that is affecting all countries and people. It would be unfortunate, detrimental and unsustainable if South African farmers change to agroecological farming methods just to retain access to EU markets.

    • Andre Grobler says:

      There are many of us who are doing regenerative agriculture. We do it to increase profits, be less dependent on external inputs, and have a better environment and just plain old good stewardship. But it takes quite a while to wean your soil and animals off the “drugs” that improves yields… sometimes… perhaps…

  • Dave Crawford says:

    Is it just my imagination or is the impossible claim of making up to R93 000 in 7 days just a joke? Surely if you are moderating posts you would verify this? It appears in the comment section of a number of articles. Doesn’t this constitute a form of accidental endorsement by DM.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      After so many weeks of this scam on DM and complaints related thereto … one would have thought the originator of it, would have been banned or excommunicated from any access to DM ?

  • Jabu Mhlanga says:

    The EU protectionism against imports would surely have negative impact on SA export as EU consumers are willing to pay for SA products unlike other markets…China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam etc.

  • Trevor Stacey says:

    This could change a few things. Lets not forget there are many subsidies for european farmers not just diesel and vehicle tax. Remember butter mountains and milk lakes when the farmer cant sell the government buys it!!!
    However, France (and most of Europe I believe!) has resisted the temptation for GMO crops with only a few acres of crops under test last time I visited (2022).
    Try French bread vs SA’s supermarket bread and the difference is dramatic which we put down to being non-GMO wheat.
    I am an organic farmer in SA but if they take carbon inputs into account we will be at the end of a long transport chain which could be the biggest concern

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