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A new foundation for the European farming systems

On the rocky hill sides of Aragón, Spain, sheep farmers struggle with several challenges. Low profits and the complex entry deter young farmers from entering the sector. Climate challenges are on the rise too, with lower precipitation leading to water scarcity. In Northern Europe, egg and broiler producers on the Swedish plains face challenges of their own. Reliance on imports makes farmers vulnerable to disruptions. Meanwhile, the national demand for eggs and meat increases. On the flat countryside of Veenkoloniën (peat colonies), the Netherlands, farming is capital intensive. This makes it hard for aspiring farmers to start. Because of this, the countryside population is decreasing. The average age of farmers is still going up.

Challenges like these can be found all over Europe. In the SURE-Farm project, the resilience of the European farming systems was assessed. SURE-Farm is short for Sustainable and Resilient EU Farming Systems. The Wageningen University & Research coordinated this project, which was a collaboration of sixteen agricultural universities and institutes. The project started in June 2017 and finished four years later in June 2021.

Professor Miranda Meuwissen of the Business Economics group was project coordinator. Four years of research gave her insight in how resilient European farming systems are. “The situation is dire” says Miranda Meuwissen. “Nearly everywhere we looked, we saw that the resilience of the system was being threatened. From the low countries to Spain, our farming systems have to change. If we want resilient farming systems in Europe, there is a number of things that has to be done. Resilience should no longer be just having an insurance, or finding a new innovation. It is something that has to start at the root level.”

Three building blocks of resilience

In the SURE-Farm project three building blocks of resilience were defined. Diversity, making enough profit to invest back in the farm, and connection are considered as essential for resilience. “When you look at European agriculture through the lens of the building blocks, the situation looks dire” says Miranda Meuwissen. “A resilient farming system needs all three of the building blocks. Farmers need to be able to diversify, make a profit, and they must connect among each other and with society. This is healthy for them, and for their farms or their businesses. Currently, there is always at least one of the building blocks missing somewhere. I believe this is the cause for the farmers’ protests. They know that something is wrong, and they want others to notice this too. There has to be a shift from a one-sided focus on expanding scale and efficiency. If the system keeps on expanding beyond the building blocks of resilience, it will cripple when a shock occurs.”

Part of the research that was done in the SURE-Farm project focused on policies regarding resilience. The Common Agricultural Policy received particular interest. The COVID-19 pandemic led to unexpected challenges for farmers and business in agriculture. It also led to support policies, and extra financial support. There is a recurring trend in policies, that has to change to increase the resilience of the farming system. 

“Keeping things as they were, that is a recurring trend” says Miranda Meuwissen. “Many government regulations have that focus. When the pandemic began, financial support policies followed that same trend. Support payments try to get farmers back on their feet. But they do not plant them firmly on the building blocks of resilience. There is a blind spot in this partial focus. Change has to start at the roots. For instance, there is a young farmer payment that Brussels offers to starting farmers. Which is great, but it does not solve the problem of the decreasing liveability of the countryside.”

Moving towards more sustainable and resilient European farming systems is a group effort. “Our farming system is comprised of many parts. Farmers play an important role in it. But so do bankers, civilians, insurance companies and retailers. What we see is that currently many policies and regulations focus on farmers. There is a mismatch between policies and the people involved. A resilient farming systems requires contributions from all the different groups that are involved. The current situation is partly responsible for farmers’ protests. Farmers feel that they are made responsible for a system that other system actors must also support. If all groups put in their effort, they can strengthen the building blocks of resilience together. When that happens, the farming system will be much more resilient than when it is left up to the farmers.”

Meeting people in person played an important role in the project. Many conversations were held at the proverbial ‘kitchen table’. In these personal conversations, people shared what really kept them awake at night. “In conversations with farmers we heard what really bothered them. First we would talk about efficiency, scale and on-time delivery. Those things are expected from farmers. When the conversation lengthened, other worries came to the surface. Farmers wonder who will be their successor. They notice that the liveability of the countryside is decreasing. It is hard for farmers to talk about these struggles” says Miranda Meuwissen. “They are expected to work efficiently, scale up and deliver on time. The system at large still demands this from them. But these principles are opposites of the building blocks of resilience. This is why education is needed. All actors in the farming system need to learn about the building blocks of resilience. Farmers, but also the retailers, bankers and insurance companies.”

Towards the resilience of European farming systems

Currently, there are many inspired individuals in the European farming systems. There are farmers who are ahead of the curve in innovating their farm businesses to become more resilient. Some insurance companies actively share knowledge about how resilience can be increased. Consumers are increasingly becoming aware of how they can contribute to a healthy farming system by conscious shopping behaviour. They are the crest of a wave of change that is taking off. “It is important that policies change too” says Miranda Meuwissen. “Policies have to accommodate the change that is already happening at the roots. I would say that on the playing field of resilience, the pieces are in the right position. The rule book has to be updated, though. A resilient and sustainable farming system is within reach in Europe. But it does require action. I say we’d better start this year then next.” Applying the lessons learned in the SURE-Farm project can help to do this. These lessons can aid bankers, insurance companies, farmers and policy makers. To move together ‘towards the resilience of European farming systems.’

About Miranda Meuwissen

Miranda Meuwissen is professor of risk management and resilience in food supply chains at Wageningen University and Research. She is academic director of the BSc Honours program at WUR and member of the scientific advisory board of IAMO. Miranda is member of the 4TU.Resilience Engineering strategic advisory board. Her work aims at studying risks in farming systems to improve decision making and risk management and with that to contribute to a more sustainable and resilient agri & food production.