Protesting Spanish farmers fear countryside has no future

By Jon Nazca
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Protesting Spanish farmers fear countryside has no future

Spanish farmers and ranchers protest outside the Ministry of Agriculture in Madrid

By Jon Nazca

MURCIA, Spain (Reuters) - Thousands of farmers took to the streets of Murcia in Southern Spain on Friday, blocking streets with tractors and tossing vegetables to the ground in protest at low food prices and precarious working conditions.

Similar demonstrations have sprung up around the country over the last month, part of a broader pattern of agricultural discontent across the European Union.

According to Spain's UPA union, which represents small producers, average farm earnings fell by 9% in 2019 because of higher production costs and declining food prices as highly-competitive supermarket chains piled on the pressure and tariffs were imposed on some goods.

"All this is creating a climate of complete uncertainty so farmers and ranchers feel the countryside doesn't have a future," said Ignacio Huertas, secretary general of UPA Extremadura, who raises cattle in the area of Montijo.

European Union budget negotiations in Brussels, where agricultural subsidies have emerged as a point of contention, are exacerbating the anxiety across the sector.

More than a third of the EU's previous budget went on support to farmers, even though agriculture accounts for just 1% of its economic output, a disparity which some countries including the Netherlands have decried as unsustainable.

Agriculture Minister Luis Planas has said Spain would fight to maintain subsidies as close as possible to current levels, but acknowledged this would be hard following Britain's exit from the bloc at the end of January, which has left a 75 billion euro ($81 billion) hole in its budget.

European Council President Charles Michel last week proposed cutting the proportion of the budget dedicated to farming subsidies to 30% from 36%. Such a cut would translate into a reduction of 925 million euros a year for Spanish farmers, according to an analysis by agricultural association COAG.

In Spain, where agriculture accounts for around 2.8% of GDP, Planas has said he plans to introduce a law that would give farmers and ranchers more power in negotiations with supermarkets and large distributors.

Under the proposed law, sales contracts would be indexed to production costs, ensuring that farmers are not forced to sell at a loss, Planas told Spanish radio station Onda Cero on Thursday, adding that he hopes to propose the bill to the cabinet before the end of the month.

"The main problem is that we have no capacity to negotiate prices... We can't carry on like this," UPA's Huertas said.

($1 = 0.9258 euros)

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Emma Pinedo in Madrid and Jon Nazca in Murcia; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Barbara Lewis)