European leaders are responding to a wave of farmer protests sweeping across the continent by rolling back climate and environmental policies instead of blocking competition from cheaper markets.
And while right wing groups have seized on the outrage to build support ahead of a major election cycle, protesting farmers are also flanked by environmental activists who see their plight as the result of decades of unsustainable policies, only to be worsened as the planet warms.
“For over 60 years, European farming policies and subsidies have fuelled the industrialization of our agriculture, relying heavily on fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides,” Clara Bourgin, a food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, writes in an opinion piece for Euronews.
More than 80% of subsidies under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are still going to 20% of European farms, promoting large-scale industrial production, Bourgin says. This model “traps farmers in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing spending and no guarantee of proper income,” while benefiting big agribusiness and food corporations.
And these big businesses have been lobbying for years against meaningful reform of the farming objectives within CAP and the European Green Deal (the EU’s net-zero playbook), Bourgin adds. As a result, EU trade agreements favour food giants while undermining the viability of small-scale, family farmers—who find themselves frustrated by their lack of prospects.
Pressing Challenges for Farmers
As food producers, farmers have been caught between the rising cost of inputs and government policies that aim to keep food prices low for consumers despite rising inflation. “Farmgate” prices, the base price farmers receive for their product, dropped by almost 9% on average between the third quarter of 2022 and the same period last year, but costs for fertilizer and energy have been rising for years and skyrocketed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
That pressure, combined with “heavy regulation, powerful and domineering retailers, debt, climate change, and cheap foreign imports,” has boiled over in recent weeks into a wave of protests across the EU. Some of the particular issues that farmers are protesting include a free trade agreement with the South American trading bloc Mercosur and new rules being set in the EU’s Farm-to-Fork Strategy.
“The EU-Mercosur free trade is a very big threat for us because it would mean a lot of imports of a lot of cheap meat and feed that are not produced with the same standards as what we are doing,” said Vincent Delobel, a goat farmer in Belgium. “It would be a very unfair competition for all farmers and put more pressure on prices and the availability in the supermarkets as well, so this must be stopped.”
Hijacking Farmers’ Momentum
While the protests encompass a range of economic pressures, there are some grievances against environmental regulations, which have allowed an anti-climate narrative to take root in the media coverage of the movement. Some companies and organizations are also hijacking the momentum built by farmers to push back against net-zero policies and “the green agenda,” reports DeSmog. And certain groups are “piggy backing on farmers’ noisy outrage” to boost populist support, Politico says.
There is “massive discontent in the farming community,” arable and livestock farmer Joe Stanley told DeSmog, but not all campaigns represent his sector. For instance, No Farms, No Food—an anti-climate regulation campaign initiated in the United Kingdom by a well-known PR correspondent—“does not seem to be a farmer-generated movement,” he said.
Environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and La Via Campesina have also joined the farmer protests, emphasizing that the core message is not against climate action, but rather in favour of more support for farmers. The groups say EU leaders should see the protests as a sign to do more, not less, to protect the environment, writes DeSmog.
“We are very clear that as farmers we want to take action to struggle against the climate crisis,” said Morgan Ody, a farmer from Brittany and member of the European chapter of La Via Campesina.
To see where most protesters stand in relation to environmental issues, Carbon Brief analyzed the key demands from farmer groups in seven countries. While many of the issues farmers are raising do directly and indirectly relate to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, biodiversity, or conservation, others are not related at all.
“In some countries, protesters are calling for more action on climate adaptation, particularly in Greece, where farmers are asking for measures to prevent farmland being damaged by flooding and other extreme weather,” Carbon Brief writes. “In other cases, farmers are calling for fuel subsidies to continue and for fertilizer and pesticide restrictions to be reconsidered.”
EU Embraces Carbon Removal
Earlier this month, the EU Commission released a climate target that aims to cut net greenhouse gas emissions by 90% from 1990 levels by 2040. The plan calls for emissions cuts, but also technologies to capture carbon in sectors where emissions “are particularly difficult or costly to reduce.”
In particular, the EU says meeting this goal and then reaching climate neutrality by 2050 will require capturing at least 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2030; approximately 280 million tonnes by 2040; and around 450 million tonnes by 2050. This will require increased investments in carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), and direct air capture (DAC) technologies to remove carbon emissions “from fossil fuel combustion, industrial processes, biogenic emissions, or directly from the air.”
But environmental groups and climate scientists say there should be more focus on stopping emissions in the first place. The 90% target sounds like a big number, but it depends on “some creative accounting with promised carbon capture to hide much lower actual emission cuts,” Silvia Pastorelli, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, told the Guardian.
Meanwhile, as protests continue, EU leaders are rolling back environmental regulations that would affect farmers, including targets from their emissions reduction plan. For instance, the document no longer refers to cutting agricultural methane or nitrogen emissions, stating that its purpose is to launch a political debate rather than propose new policy measures or sector-specific targets, the Guardian writes.
Other environmental measures are also being abandoned—EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced decisions reversing rules that would require farmers to use less pesticide and to set aside part of their land for wildlife.
But there haven’t been any concessions tackling the economic policies that several farmers are protesting. For instance, the free trade deal with the Mercosur bloc is still moving ahead, despite it being a “front of mind” issue for many.
The EU’s willingness to abandon environmental measures altogether, rather than see them through with increased investments, stands in stark contrast to its commitment to invest heavily in expensive, unproven technologies that allow industrial emitters to continue polluting. Green activists are calling this inconsistency shortsighted, noting that it will not improve economic conditions while the heightened impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss only make matters worse for farmers.
“To now be using farmers’ protests to further backtrack on environmental measures—such as the derogation on fallow land at the EU level and the pause on the plan to cut pesticide use in France—is deeply cynical, to say the least,” writes Bourgin.
“Governments need to address the real issues faced by farmers: fair incomes, workers’ rights, and the shift towards local and agroecological food systems.”