A delicate balance to save our farmers

OVER THE YEARS, we have come to associate Cypriot farmers with aggressive behaviour, disruptive protests and constant demands for state funds. Always pandered to by vote-hungry politicians, the farming community has acquired a reputation as a collection of selfish scroungers who consider it their right to be compensated by the state when things do not go well.

If their crops are destroyed by bad weather they demand state compensation; if they produce a bumper crop and cannot sell it, they demand that it is bought by the state; if the market price for their product is too low, they expect the state to subsidise it. Whenever things go wrong, they consider it their right to be bailed out by the government of the day, which is understandable given that this had been standard practice for decades. The government, as in most countries, always helped out the farmers when they faced problems.

Whenever the government showed signs of hesitation, farming associations would stage disruptive protests aimed at proving a point and putting pressure on ministers to pay out. Over the years, as part of these protests, they have rioted inside the House of Representatives, poured gallons of milk in the streets, taken their livestock into the grounds of the Presidential Palace, blocked busy highways and streets, attacked police, laid siege to the airport and invaded the airport runway.

These are not the type of actions that earn public support or sympathy, especially when taken by people who have regularly benefited from the generosity of the taxpayer. But if there is one time that Cyprus’ farmers are entitled to state help and support, it is at present as they are not exaggerating when they are claiming that they are on the brink of disaster.

Livestock farmers have had to cope with the devastating effects of foot and mouth disease – made worse by the appalling handling by the previous government – before the more recent problems with aflatoxins surfaced. The drought has meant that they have had to buy animal feed from abroad at three times the cost they were paying, forcing them to get rid of livestock in order to stay afloat. Meanwhile crop farmers have had to survive with greatly reduced quantities of water as a result of the acute shortage being faced by the island.

There is currently a dispute with the government over how much compensation should be paid to farmers for the effects of the drought, with farming associations accusing the government of dragging its feet on the matter. They correctly pointed out that a state of emergency should have been declared for the farming sector several months ago, when it was known we would have drought conditions, as this would have enabled the government to seek financial help from the EU.

Protest measures had been threatened by farming associations, which had become frustrated by the government’s failure to take any decisions on compensation, but this was averted after a meeting of the two sides on Thursday. The Agriculture Minister undertook to prepare a compensation scheme for all farming sectors by mid-September, in consultation with representatives of the farmers. It was also announced that taxpayers would foot the compensation bill, presumably because the government was not eligible for EU help.

The amount being sought by the farmers is in excess of €70 million, but the government, concerned about public finances, will try to lower it. Whether this will spark dynamic protests nobody can say, but the farmers should also be made to understand that they are receiving favourable treatment. It needs to be made clear that if free market conditions were allowed to operate in farming, the sector would have been wiped out. Before the drought, farmers were taking 70 per cent of the island’s water resources, at subsidised prices, were entitled to subsidised petrol and contributing a paltry four per cent to GDP, not to mention the cost to the taxpayer of assorted compensation schemes.

From an economic point of view, our economy would have been better off with a much smaller farming sector, especially now that so much farm produce could be easily imported and be sold cheaper to consumers. Everyone, however, seems to agree that a country needs to be, to a certain extent, self-sufficient in its food production – more so in the case of an island. And this is why our society has been footing the bill to keep the farming sector going.

We hope farmers bear this in mind when they are negotiating with the government the levels of compensation they will receive for the damages caused by the drought.