Farm workers toil in the fields: Agriculture is no longer what it used to be (Source: Shaina Bombase)

The typical image of an idyllic countryside family farm has dominated the public image of agriculture for decades. The romanticised image of hardworking and honest people living in unison and nature and providing for us easing our minds as we shop in the pampered comfort of our supermarkets. Perhaps as a cognitive defence mechanism against the harsh and often cruel reality of modern agricultural practices, such an image persists extensively in marketing of foodstuffs. However, a hidden crisis has overrun many farms, and does not look to leave us anytime soon. In a world of conflict between the need for food, a drive to increase sustainable agriculture, and constant fluctuations in price, farmers have often been left facing the brunt of the costs. Financial and social pressures often seem insurmountable, and might prove to be a dangerous bubble about to burst. 

Nowhere else does the scale of this crisis become as apparent as when considering the rates of suicide among agriculturists around the world. Across most, if not all, agricultural societies, the rate of farmers choosing to end their own lives vastly exceeds the baseline rate of their nation. In France, reports have shown that a french farmer takes their own life every 2 days, in the United States the agricultural industry is ranked 4th in terms of suicide prevalence, and in India, where the issue is perhaps the most visible, the suicide rate for farmers exceeded any other profession by 47%. Rather than being acute, this rise has been observed for years. Yet, as future climate factors and changes in agricultural policies loom, the fear persists that suicides might skyrocket. 

The causes leading agriculturists to take their own lives are complex and vary by culture, but several trends emerge. Financial pressures are seen as a major cause driving suicides amongst farmers, but structural neglect and social marginalisation of rural areas are also identified as clear drivers of this crisis. Important to note as well is the increase in average age of farmers, as well as the prevalence of men in the industry, together representing one of the most at-risk groups in terms of suicide. Implementing effective aid for these groups requires an adept understanding of the roots of the problem.

Agriculturists, more than most other professionals, are heavily affected by shifts in commodity prices. Their income and bottom-line depend greatly on the price of their output at the time of harvesting, in particular for goods that cannot be stored over time. Such volatility may lead to severe financial difficulties for farmers, who must consistently refinance their operation through their often seasonal sales. 

Competition, both domestic and international, provides a further downwards pressure on prices. The milk crisis in the European Union, unleashed by the EU’s abolition of milk quotas in the common market, and the subsequent expansion of milk production, demonstrated the extent to which these prices affect both the income and health of farmers. As the supply was flooded with greater amounts of milk, prices plummeted as far as 55 cents per litre in Germany in 2015, leaving many farmers with a sudden decrease in income. Tragically, the months in which the prices were at their record low, saw the highest number of suicides amongst agriculturists as seen in survey results from France

 Additionally, necessary input factors, such petroleum, also experience large variability in price, seen prominently throughout the past few months. Other required goods, such as fertiliser and feed, have also greatly appreciated in price over the last decade. The increase in often unpredictable costs threaten the margins of many in the industry. The resulting financial distress and, in severe cases, debt put immense mental stress on farmers.

Compounding this uncertainty is the uneasy tension between agriculturists’ income and government regulation aimed at countering adverse environmental effects of farming. Raising livestock in particular, has incredibly damaging effects on the climate. Yet, limiting such activities is unpopular with many farmers, who cite fear of lack of income and the threat of being outcompeted by foreign producers. Such troubles in balancing policy are particularly apparent in the Netherlands, which is regularly witness to farmers’ protests. A heated point of contention in these protests is centered on the government’s aim of reducing harmful nitrogen emissions. Whilst the Netherlands has approximately twice the EU average in terms of its nitrogen balance, the costs of combating this imbalance would require massive restructuring and reduction of production. Some estimates claim that a reduction of nearly a third of the country’s livestock herd would be necessary, causing the closing down of 11,200 farms across the nation.  

The climactic consequences that await farmers in the future, however pose an even greater threat to the income and financial stability of agriculturists. Declining crop yields and ever-increasing extreme weather events menace many of the world’s farms, but the most severe are concentrated in the global south. In such settings, the onset of the rapid income losses that accompany such dramatic declines in the output result in untold financial burdens that are seldom covered by societal safety nets. As climate goal after climate goal is missed, the human cost of those directly affected by the emerging crises is sure to rise. 

Yet, financial issues are not the sole cause of the abnormally high propensity toward suicide amongst farmers. Indeed, rural areas in general suffer from a general lack of mental health infrastructure and support. Whilst research indicates that the prevalence of mental health illness is roughly alike in urban and rural regions, the latter suffers from a relative lack of availability in resources. Adding to this the greater physical isolation and a shrinking rural population further highlight the fewer support risk rural populations experience.

The increasing degree of urbanisation, particularly by younger generations leaving their rural homes and heading towards cities, also greatly increases the perceived distance between governments and rural populations. As such, many farmers often feel marginalised and forgotten by politicians and urban society alike. This is often observed in voting patterns, with rural voters often turning out in favor of more conservative parties. Returning to the example of the Dutch farmers, the frequent protests are a potent example of the growing divide between cosmopolitan urban government decision-making centres, and the disgruntled rural population. This disconnect, however, is critical. Agriculturists often feel as if they are neglected in policy, and their concerns are forgotten in policy.

The manner in which society and policy value the needs of farmers is vital, yet mired in debate. There is a careful balance to be struck between supporting the interests of the agricultural industry and rural economies, but addressing climate change, many causes of which can be found in current unsustainable farming practices is also a top priority to consider. Add to this the vital task of ensuring food security and protecting exports, and the scale of the dilemma becomes even more clear.

Yet, the high suicide rates expose a clear and potent crisis in the agricultural sector. One of society’s most vital industries is plagued by a mental health crisis. A clear neglect of the financial, structural, and societal needs of this group has become apparent yet remains underreported. In light of the vast importance farmers play in our daily lives, it may be time to pay more mind to the burning hay bales and tractor protests in Paris, Brussels, and the Hague.