Familiar Issues In A “Complicated But Peaceful” Country

“When they (farm groups) were divided, I always won.”

– PIET VANTHEMSCHE, BELGIAN FARMERS UNION

Does this sound familiar? A national farm leader del iver ing a speech in two official languages, and calling for farmers to present a united front to government through a single farm organization rather than through a bunch of commodity groups.

Actually, the speech was mainly in a third language – English, for the benefit of a group of international farm journalists at a meeting here, but for the Canadians among them, the theme was familiar, as were themes for the country itself.

Piet Vanthemsche, president of Belgian Farmers Union, describes Belgium as a “very complicated, but peaceful country.” Having been overrun in a series of wars over the last two centuries, and with no one living far from a war cemetery, Belgians understand and appreciate peace as much or more than anyone.

That’s presumably what keeps them apparently laid back and able to deal with the complicated part. Canadian national politics look like a piece of cake compared to Belgium’s, which actually has three official languages. The largest Flemishspeaking area is in the north, with a smaller French-speaking region in the south and a small German region in the east.

Regional political differences have become increasingly marked in recent years. The difficulty of holding a government together has recently been so great that some are suggesting the country makes no sense and the regions should go their separate ways.

“SINGLE-ISSUE” GROUPS

That’s not Vanthemsche’s view when it comes to farm organizations. He’s concerned about a recent trend by “single-issue” groups such as pork and dairy who’ve chosen to take their cause separately to government, often with public demonstrations which catch media attention.

“Politicians focus on the short term and give a lot of attention to single-issue farm organizations,” he said.

He cautions that will lead to a splintering of efforts at a time when farmers, representing only two per cent of the Belgian population, need solidarity.

Vanthemsche said that as a former senior agriculture official in the Belgian government, he knows whereof he speaks.

“When they (farm groups) were divided, I always won.”

Vanthemsche acknowledges the need for farmers to adjust to economic and environmental pressures on one hand, and the need to produce more food for a growing world population on the other.

“We must be prepared to change. With the climate change debate, in 10 years we will farm differently. We know that.”

That will require solidarity, not just among farmers, but the whole rural community, Vanthemsche said.

“It’s not only about farming. It’s about defending the interests of the countryside.” [email protected]

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