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Subsidizing tobacco a blow to sustainable food production

Tobacco farming continues to be subsidized in several countries of the WHO European Region. These payments incentivize farmers to use large areas of fertile land to grow tobacco rather than healthy food, even though tobacco has been shown to have an adverse impact on people’s health and on the environment. Foreign exchange earned from exporting tobacco is also used to import expensive, processed food, while growing tobacco leads to soil erosion and desertification and contributes to food insecurity.

Environmental damage caused by tobacco growing includes the irreversible loss of precious natural resources. Forests, plants and animal species are all threatened by habitat loss when land is cleared for growing tobacco. Tobacco depletes soil fertility making it harder to grow crops for food; it also uses large quantities of chemical fertilizers, which leach into nearby water sources killing fish and contaminating drinking-water for humans and animals.

“Moving away from tobacco and choosing different crops to grow leads to obvious benefits for farmers, for businesses and for countries,” said Dr Gauden Galea, Strategic Advisor to the WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“Encouraging diversification in farming reduces the health burden on farming families who are exposed to heavy chemicals and nicotine, and improves incomes and living standards. Moreover, in the longer term, it leads to improved food security and sustainability.”

Moving on from tobacco subsidies

In 2020, North Macedonia spent roughly US$ 32 million on tobacco subsidies, a disproportionate amount compared to animal husbandry, orchards, dairy farming, and field and garden crops. Tobacco farmers in the country earn less than the monthly average income and the intensive labor required means they spend most of their day tending to the plants. The social and health impacts of tobacco growing are high as farmers and their families suffer the effects of nicotine poisoning from tobacco dust, increasing household health-care costs.

Direct tobacco payments and subsidy schemes are also present in other western Balkan countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. In Switzerland, tobacco farmers received US$ 32.62 million in direct subsidies in 2015–2020. Meanwhile, national subsidies to tobacco growers in Bulgaria are more than 3 times the value of tobacco produced. However, Bulgaria’s Rural Development Program is encouraging growers in rural areas to diversify into non-agricultural activities and agronomic farming practices that lead to increased soil biodiversity and improved soil structure and health.

Some big villages in southwest Bulgaria, which were once established tobacco-growing areas, have witnessed an economic boom in recent years. Farmers in these areas have successfully transitioned to growing nuts and berries or animal husbandry and moved away from growing tobacco. They have seen their living standards rise and tobacco now plays a marginal role in agricultural production in Bulgaria.

Supporting diverse livelihoods

In Türkiye, the government removed its tobacco subsidy program in 2002 and channeled funds into a program to support alternative crops. Without government subsidies, many tobacco farmers were unable to sustain their production, which resulted in a decline in the number of farmers growing tobacco.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the program, which provided financial support to grow alternative crops and direct cash support for lost income, derived in 30% of the land where tobacco was once cultivated being used for other agricultural purposes. It also led to an increase in tourism, greenhouse production, cattle stock and dairy farming. In addition, many people migrated to the provinces, increasing industrial development in those areas.

Country experiences such as those in Bulgaria and Türkiye show that switching to alternative crops is not only possible, but can be profitable, and brings clear social, environmental and economic benefits to those involved.

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