The European Commission has dealt a blow to Spain’s much needed sunflower crop, and to the farmers who grow it.
The Commission rejected the plan of Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture to continue to subsidise sunflowers in the next round of farm subsidies set to go into effect in 2023. Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture got the news from Brussels on June 30th. Brussels was responding to Spain’s national plan to implement the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a set of subsidies for European farmers, for 2023-2027.
Sunflowers have been subsidised for twenty years. In the current CAP (in force through 2022), farmers have received €40 a hectare, for up to fifty hectares, for sunflowers as part of support for protein-rich crops. Spain’s new national CAP plan, presented to Brussels for approval, would have increased that subsidy for sunflowers to €60 a hectare, with no limit on hectares.
But, according to Diego Ajuste, spokesperson for the Association of Small Farmers (UPA) in Spain, Brussels rejected Spain’s proposal on a bureaucratic technicality: in the calculations of Brussels’ technocrats, sunflowers don’t make the cut in protein content to qualify.
Spanish farmers got the subsidy this year, but unless Brussels changes course, they will have no incentive, or financial support, to grow sunflowers in the future.
The Spanish newspaper, ABC, reports that the Ministry of Agriculture called the move from Brussels “a setback.”
The Agricultural Ministry has instead proposed an alternative scheme to support sunflower and rapeseed crops: a general subsidy that practically all Spanish farmers would qualify for.
Farmers consider the Ministry’s proposal inadequate, as it would effectively dilute the oilseed subsidy, leaving individual farmers with very little real compensation for planting sunflowers—compared to other directly subsidised crops—UPA explained in a press release. They want the Ministry to continue to negotiate with the EU for the subsidy.
The reduction of support for seed oil crops in Spain comes just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a global need for seed oils.
Ukraine is the largest sunflower exporter in the world and those seeds hit supermarket shelves in a variety of products—from potato chips fried in their pressed oil, to sunflower oil sold in bottles. Crucially, they are also used in animal feed. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has prevented the exportation of millions of tonnes of agricultural products stored in Ukrainian silos, including sunflower seeds. The war is also making it difficult for Ukraine’s farmers to produce the next harvests.
Sunflowers grow well without irrigation, which make the arid regions of Spain ideal locations for the crop. But because of their low profitability for Spanish farmers, sunflowers have had little appeal. In fact, the cultivation of sunflowers has decreased in recent years.
But the war in Ukraine has changed farmers’ prospects in this area.
In the Castilla-Leon region in Spain, where 41% of the national sunflower crop is grown, farmers nearly doubled their production this year from the average of 250,000 hectares of sunflowers to 452,844 hectares, according to ABC. In Extremadura, one of the driest parts of Spain, farmers tripled the surface area dedicated to sunflowers, the Agricultural Association of Young Farmers (ASAJA) said in a press release.
The complete reversal by Brussels on sunflower subsidies undermines Spain’s potential for this crop, without sufficient justification, according to farmers.
“There is no explanation for this decision and the blow is terrible for our farmers,” Donaciano Dujo, president of ASAJA for the Castile-Leon region, told ABC. “It is a totally wrong decision.”
He added that just weeks ago everyone was in agreement that it was a crop that needed to be subsidised for both its nutritional and environmental advantages.
“[It]is a crop that complies with all [environmental] regulations and also serves, like rainfed crops in general, for sheltering birds, quails, hares, etc,” he said.
There is also a Spanish national demand for sunflower seeds that farmers had previously not been able to satisfy, leaving the food industry to import them from Ukraine. Farmers also argue that the calculations of the protein content of sunflower seed cakes, a protein supplement for animals made from sunflower seed meal (a byproduct of sunflower seed oil production), justifies subsidising it as a protein rich crop.
And both Spain and Europe need to produce more plant protein.
“Spain and Europe are very deficient in the production of vegetable protein,” UPA’s spokesperson explained to ABC.
Soybean, a principal source of plant protein for both humans and animals, needs a high water input to grow well, and other legumes are not very profitable. Farmers argue that increasing European plant protein production requires a broad strategy.
“It must be taken into account that protein independence, given the climatic and agronomic conditions, must be achieved with different sources. Not only the protein content must be measured, but also how they can potentially help reduce external dependence from a realistic perspective,” José Roales, head of arable crops at COAG office in Castilla y León told El Norte de Castilla. UPA believes that the Spanish agri-food sector needs to reduce its dependence on foreign protein, but it also needs time to adjust, particularly in the present circumstances.
“Farmers are in a process of adapting to the new environmental demands, where the protein sector plays an important role. The current tensions in the fertiliser markets also provide very strong reasons for not eliminating this aid,” UPA’s spokesperson also told ABC.
Juste also explained to The European Conservative that discussions between farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture continue, as well as negotiations between Madrid and Brussels.
Can the European Commission be convinced to change its mind?