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"(Small farmers) have a lot of things to say but no one is listening"
Behind the scenes of our Copa-Cogeca investigation with a Romanian journalist
Last week, I brought you the detailed findings of an investigation into Copa-Cogeca, with a focus on what’s happening at the Brussels level.
This week, I bring you an interview with one of the reporters involved in the investigation to talk about what they discovered in their country.
I chose Romania because it is emblematic of the problems with agricultural policymaking in the EU. It has the largest number of farms in the bloc yet those who gets to stroll in the corridors of power in Brussels bear very little semblance to the majority of farmers toiling away in the nation’s fields.
Andrei Petre and Matei Bărbulescu reported on the situation in Romania looking at the representativeness AAC, the Romanian affiliate of Copa-Cogeca, and the struggles faced by the country’s small farmers.
Matei is on a much-deserved holiday so below is a conversation I had with Andrei, a 22-year-old freelance journalist and OSINT investigator based in Bucharest.
He has worked with journalists from The Guardian, Politico, Lighthouse Reports, Deutsche Welle, South China Morning Post, OCCRP, Balkan Insight and Libertatea on stories about migration and workers rights, protests and social unrest, disinformation, corruption, and environmental issues.
The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So how are you feeling now that the story has been published?
A: It was amazing. After so much work to get the story right and check every last detail, it's so good to publish it eventually. We had a good response and I'm really pleased we can put the problem in this way because in Romania we don't talk about farming in this manner. The main focus is basically about exporting grains and people don't see agriculture as a pathway towards healthier foods.
Q: You had a two-parter, and it was on the front page of Libertatea, the largest newspaper in Romania, for two days in a row. What was it like seeing that?
A: It was special. I’ve published stories before for Libertatea on the front page, about migration and workers’ rights. But this topic isn’t really for Facebook or social media, but for print. Libertatea has this grassroots reach to local areas and that's basically the people that we wanted to talk to.
Q: You said the response has been good. Have you heard back from farmers that you spoke to or AAC?
A: No, we didn't hear anything from AAC. But the response otherwise was pretty good. The other publications in the country talked about this story. This was Libertatea’s doing because they have developed these relationships with local media.
It was on the TV too, although it was like more like Libertatea published this. They didn't have a talk show discussing it. But it reached the public and seeing it in local newspapers was really great.
I know this kind of story has an impact because it gives a clear example of the huge inequalities in our society. I mean, it's not only about agriculture, it's about rich people owning a lot of land and doing whatever they want and shaping laws and shaping the society as well.
Q: What was it about this investigation that interested you and Matei because you weren't covering agriculture issues before, right?
A: To be honest, the topic of the investigation wasn't the main thing that got our attention but the opportunity to work in a cross border team and to publish a story documented this way with this expertise coming from reporters from Lighthouse, Politico, and all our partners.
Journalism is not as developed here and we don't see these kinds of collaborations. Almost everyone in Romania publishes stories alone. The editors (at Libertatea) have only good words (for this investigation).
We also knew it was an underreported topic so I personally saw it as an opportunity to cover it in a country where agriculture is important.
To be honest, it could be a story about anything and not knowing a lot about this helped in a way because I was more curious and I didn't have some assumptions.
Q: Take us through the specific findings in Romania.
A: I start with my favourite one, which is this huge inequality.
You have 0.56% of the farms that own almost half of the land, and the fact that each member of AAC owns hundreds of times more land than an average farmer. These were things no one talked about even though it wasn't hard to find this kind of stuff. It was hard to verify it, of course.
Then, one of the main findings was from MEP Alin Mituța about how he was threatened by Copa-Cogeca. He described the way they work, how they basically took this as a given to have access to internal negotiation documents and to put pressure. I was really surprised by that. (Head of Copa-Cogeca told Politico they apologized for the unfortunate choice of words used in an e-mail to Alin.)
We were surprised (also) that the big farmers are really powerful in the national political ecosystem.
We discovered how AAC was opposing changes such as the neonicotinoids ban and the capping of subsidies in Romania. This led to us finding that they have several current or former members who are also politicians. In our story, we only included the members with executive functions that have political ties, but a lot are either county councillors, politicians, or party members.
Besides this, it was very interesting to understand more how no one represented the small-scale farmers, despite the fact that they make up most of the farms in the country. It's very weird because a lot of people have relatives who are small-scale farmers and I’ve never seen anyone talking about this.
(The small farmers) have a lot of things to say but no one is listening to them. I think we managed to give them a voice, put it in context, and showed what they are fighting.
Q: I want to go back to this big inequality that you discovered. I think in some ways Romania is an extreme case, but it does illustrate that power imbalance between big and small farmers. Those numbers were eye-popping and we went back and forth so many times on them. Tell us how you resolved these things. How stressed were you?
A: (Laughs and shakes head) It was very difficult. You had different methodologies, one from Eurostat, one from the National Institute of Statistics. Then there are like two words to say agricultural holdings in Romanian, and I had to check if there's any difference between them and it took us some time to find out they are used interchangeably.
I basically tried to find more sources to confirm them at the national and European level from the Ministry, institutions in the Ministry, the National Institute of Statistics, basically from everyone because this data is all around the place. I tried to understand the methodology. It was painful.
We interviewed the members of AAC and this was a problem as well because we had to take their word for it. It was impossible to check how many members they really have. We had to check their press releases.
This is a common problem with reporting in Romania - a lack of transparency and the data is messy.
A lot of documents we found also weren't in editable formats. They were scanned pages in PDF and I had to go through like 200 pages from certain reports from the Ministry of Agriculture to find that data.
Then we had to be sure they are talking about the same thing. Because they would sometimes say farmers, sometimes agricultural holding, sometimes farms. Most of the time they were referring to the same thing but not every time.
Q: Any particular findings that shocked you?
A: I can start with the funny one and then get to a more serious one. The funniest one is that Romania has a huge problem with bureaucracy in which you have to go to the institution with a certain file with a certain size that's not a four but it's not a three or a five either. And then you wait a lot.
If you want to change your papers, you wait two months. If you want to make a passport, you wait one month. If you want to get a FOIA request answered from the Ministry of Agriculture, you wait a month.
But AAC’s derogation to use insecticides banned by the European Union (was approved) in less than five days. They applied on Thursday and got the answer on Monday. And I was like, “Wow, these guys are amazing. How did they get the government to respond so quickly?” This basically shows how powerful they are.
Then you have most of the farms working on 30% of the land.
Q: Besides the bureaucracy and difficulty in getting verifiable numbers, what else did you find really challenging?
A: It was challenging to find out how to interpret the numbers. I’m not necessarily referring to statistics, but also historical data on, for example, who are the Presidents and Vice Presidents of (Copa-Cogeca’s) member associations and checking if this person has political ties or are politicians themselves.
Sometimes you would not even have a full name or a photo. Their websites were inactive for so long. We had to find all these data in press releases and the news reports some people did on them. Again, it was a transparency problem.
It was very difficult because we started basically from scratch. No one has really covered this topic in depth.
Q: Are you working on any follow ups? Or are you just going to take a bit of a break for now?
A: I am in talks with Matei to understand more about the complaints the farmers told us about how the markets are dominated by big farmers. We'd really love to cover how this works.
We’d also like to look more into the pesticide industry and their sponsorship for AAC events. An AAC member just co-hosted an event with AgroBiotechRom, a non-profit industry association whose members are directors at Monsanto Romania, Corteva, and Syngenta.
Speakers included Marius Micu, the former official with the agricultural ministry who’s now a vice-president with Copa-Cogeca, several parliamentarians, and officials from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Q: Last point, what kind of change would you like to see in Romanian agriculture?
A: I think we need to start with more education. We need to change the image that agriculture means exporting sunflower and cereals.
As I said, this is very weird because there’s this discourse, especially from populists, about how Romania was the granary of Europe and how the peasant is the wisest man, how living in the countryside is a dream.
At the same time, we still view agriculture as the job you seek if anything else you tried failed. If everything went wrong with your life, you go and make a farm with tractors. Basically big scale farming is something you do only as a last resort. So imagine how people see small-scale farming.
I think if we started talking more about this, we can help the small-scale farmers. There are a lot of people living in rural areas, in poverty, and working in agriculture. But they don’t have access to the market. This is what the farmers we interviewed told us. I think this is the change I would like to see.
More Behind the Scenes
If you have 10 mins to spare, you can also listen to my colleague Lionel and me speaking about the investigation for Lighthouse Reports’ Backlight Podcast. That’s the Spotify link. It’s also available on Apple and Google Play.
I also appeared on 8point9.com, a multimedia news channel for people working on food and fibre.
Interesting Upcoming Events
A two-part online webinar happening next week will discuss power in the food systems, including at the UN level.
I will also be talking to investor Jim Mellon about alternative proteins on July 10 (Monday) at 1800 CEST. You can register on the webpage here.
Three Good Things to View or Read
The Prime Minister of Barbados, the first woman to hold the office, is known for her fiery, passionate speeches on climate action as well as her push for a new world order that would provide inclusive financing for poor nations to adapt to climate change.
Don’t miss this one, delivered at the Paris Summit nearly two weeks ago. It’s only 10 minutes.
Swipe fees have grown from $16 billion in 2001 to $138 billion in 2022, representing a 760% increase in revenue for banks and credit card companies, and a massive spike in transaction costs for businesses, including food shops, writes Annie Sholar in this eye-opening piece.
He writes about their latest paper which found that “climate models tend to underestimate the risks of concurrent extreme weather events”, which by extension means underestimating the impact on food production.
Yet another important study showing why we need agriculture to mitigate as well as adapt to climate change.