The summer of 2008 may well be remembered as the year farmers stood up to say “no” to falling prices and higher production costs. Or, at least in Europe.

Though the summer has just begun, truckers and farmers in Spain and France have already blocked highways in protest of high oil prices while sugarbeet farmers canceled their supply agreements to their processor until they get higher prices.

And in Brussels, the political capital of Europe, more than 600 tractors arrived one sunny morning to block all traffic from coming into the city so they could make their voices heard. It was just one day before the heads of state of all 27 European Union (EU) member states met down the street for their spring meeting.

In a country often divided by language and politics, two French-speaking and one Dutch-speaking farmers unions came together in Brussels to demonstrate against falling prices, global trade talks in the World Trade Organization they fear will erode their markets, and above all, the rising price of oil. More than 1,000 farmers from across the country turned up on June 18, with more than 600 tractors driven from 60km or more away from as far as the cities of Namur and Liege, to make their point. The firecrackers and honking horns only added to the experience.

“We didn’t want a big protest because the young farmers are in the middle of their exams,” says George van Keerberghen, director of occupation development for Belgium’s Dutch-speaking farmers organization Boerenbond. Though the protest was only organized in about a week, had they had a few more weeks to prepare, there could have been between 20,000 and 30,000 people at the demonstration, he says.

The outburst in the European capital is a result, he says, of German-speaking Belgian milk producers deciding to dump out their milk production two weeks before in protest of falling milk prices.

“It’s not in our tradition to destroy food,” van Keerberghen says. But then again, the milk producers may begin dumping out their milk again the following week, he says, so they can impact milk prices in the region.

According to Yves Somville, director of economics for the Belgian French-speaking farmers union FWA, Belgian farmers pay the same for tractor diesel as non-farmers pay for heating oil in their homes. As a sign on one tractor at the protest said, “I consume 2.5 barrels of fuel per day = €350.”

“It must be strange for consumers to see a demonstration when commodity prices are so high,” Somville says. “When in fact, the prices farmers receive are going down.”

He says not only the price of diesel is going up, but also petroleum byproducts like fertilizer, and feed prices for livestock, as well. Between April 2007 and April 2008, he says production costs across the board have risen 25% to 30%. And as van Keerberghen says, beef prices are down, pork prices are down, yet wheat prices are up 15% and pasta in supermarkets is up 30%.

“Young farmers who invested two, three, or even five years ago are now wondering why they did it. It’s discouraging” for the future of farming in Belgium, Somville says.

In order to show the disparity between what farmers get and what consumers pay, part of Boerenbond’s protest included stalls in grocery stores in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders where farmers sold products at the prices they receive. The situation is bad for producers, as their costs go up and prices go down, yet it’s bad too for consumers because their prices only go up, Somville says.

As small as Belgium is, it’s well aware of its position of one of 27 within the EU. Even more, its size becomes even smaller when as part of the World Trade Organization. Trade talks that have stretched on for nearly a decade are asking more and more concessions of European farmers, something that has many, and especially Belgians, worried.

“We can demonstrate here next week, next month, without changing anything in the negotiations,” Somville says. Yet he was encouraged because each of the political parties joined in the rally that sunny Wednesday afternoon to voice their opinions on trade negotiations, something that he says has never been done in public before. There were even calls for an open debate on the subject within the federal parliament and the potential for a federal task force to explore the price dysfunction between producers and consumers.

Yet it’s the negotiators for the EU that have Belgian and European farmers alike concerned. Because the EU’s 27 countries are negotiating under a single flag led by Trade Commission Peter Mandelson, there’s concern that he’s lost touch with those on the ground.

“The EU Council (EU-27 heads of state) gave a clear mandate to Mandelson, but we have the impression that Mandelson has gone out on his own,” Somville says.
-- Meghan Sapp, Brussels, Belgium