Farmers protesting in Brussels in February 2024.

“Greenlash”: The truth behind the farmer protests 

Across Europe, thousands of tractors have trundled their way into capitals as farmers demonstrate their outrage and share their grievances. The result? A “greenlash” against the European Green Deal (EGD). But this is far from a win for farmers, who are among the first to feel the harsh impacts of the biodiversity and climate crises. The truth behind the protests and political own goals? Toxic lobby relationships, political self-interest, a failing food and farming system, and social injustice. Samantha Ibbott reports. 

Fewer farms, high costs, and low pay 

Europe’s farmers are facing serious challenges and Europe’s current food and farming system is failing them – and by extension the rest of us. The number of farms in the EU has been in steep decline for decades. In the last decade alone Europe has lost 3 million farms. Yet the amount of land used for production has remained largely unchanged as the remaining farms expand in size, sucking up the vast majority of the money from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s enormous agricultural budget (approximately €55 billion a year) which makes up around one-third of the total bloc’s budget.  

Why do these larger farms receive most of the money? Under the current CAP, untargeted, area-based payments lead to 80% of payments going to just 20% of farms, those that are largest and richest. In turn, small to medium-sized farms receive little support from the CAP. With the average age of a European farmer sitting at 57, the pressure on young farmers is increasing, placing the future of EU agriculture on shaky soil (60-70% of which is in poor health, due to poor management practices, pollution, climate change and urbanisation). For decades the CAP has encouraged farmers to produce more for less.

Many farmers work extremely long hours, and yet the average farm income remains significantly below the average of the rest of the EU economy and many are falling into debt. In 2020, around 50% of French farms had a debt level of €400,000 or more, while only 3.2% are less than €50,000 in debt. And to what end? Certainly not for to ensure that consumers have access to healthy and affordable food.

In 2017, unhealthy diets led to 950,000 deaths in Europe, with a further 16 million citizens experiencing an increased ‘burden of disease’ attributable to poor diets. Moreover, recent inflationary pressures hiked food prices up across the continent and forced many Europeans into food poverty. You would think farmers could have benefited from this, but instead the price they received for their produce fell on average by almost 9% between late 2022 and late 2023. Where did the money go? Big agri conglomerates like PepsiCo, Nestlé and the likes, absorbed the profits and even continued to ride the wave long after it was necessary, resulting in Carrefour pulling products from the shelves.  

On top of this, farmers are stuck in a system that demands the use of intensive and unsustainable practices. One of these is the application of synthetic inputs that are not only expensive but are also destroying ecosystems and harming farmers and farm workers’ health. The price of fertilisers and pesticides skyrocketed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But instead of helping farmers to transition to agroecological practices which work with natural systems and not against them, therefore reducing the dependence on synthetic inputs and fuel, the latest CAP and European governments (through their ‘CAP Strategic Plans’) have mostly opted for “business-as-usual“.

Not only does this continue to inflict avoidable costs on farmers, but it also damages the health of farmers, farm workers and their families. Several studies have found that the risk of childhood cancer is higher among children of agricultural workers and children living near farms.  

No wonder so many farmers are taking to the streets.  

Euractiv map

Toxic relationships 

Knowing all this, it beggars belief that politicians and policymakers across Europe are doing little to address these multiple daunting issues. Instead, national governments and the European Commission have announced a series of shortsighted and alarming measures that completely fail to address the root causes of farmers’ grievances. Following the protests in Brussels earlier this month, the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen scrapped the widely supported pesticide reduction law, calling it a “gift to farmers“. Seeing as farmers are the first to feel the negative impacts of pesticides, both financially and through their health, this is a truly poisonous gift. Perhaps it was a gift to someone else

Today many farmers are gathering in Brussels once again, hoping that this time their voices will be heard. “Europe does not seem to understand what is at stake and is coming up with proposals designed to appease the strongest”, the Walloon farmers’ federation FUGEA stated ahead of the protests denouncing the Commission’s proposals to abolish measures to protect the environment and biodiversity. So, who are “the strongest”? 

Take your pick. Big farming lobbies that defend the interests of large landowners (those top 20%) whilst claiming to speak on behalf of all farmers. Big-Agri industry with unjustifiable sway over influential conservative MEPs, which saw MEPs holding eight times more meetings with private lobbies last year than with civil society. The many private sector and middle-chain actors, such as large retailers and food processors, who stand to gain from the status quo.  

It is highly concerning to see politicians and policymakers bend to the wishes of those who stand to gain from a system that harms farmer livelihoods, as well as damages human and environmental health. The political will to push past these forces is lacking to the extent that even the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has bowed to the pressure.  

No nature, no food 

But science doesn’t lie. Farming depends heavily on healthy ecosystems to produce food and yet the agricultural sector is the main driver of biodiversity loss in Europe. EU soils are in poor health, in the last three decades insect populations have gone down by 70-80%, and there are half a billion fewer birds in Europe than 40 years ago. On top of the impacts of biodiversity loss, climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather events which further endangers food production and availability.  

The European Green Deal is not to blame for farmers’ grievances. In fact, it presented a major opportunity to support farmers. The foundations of the EGD are based on science, but as we near the end of this Commission’s term, the EGD has fallen short of addressing the challenges identified and is still missing a number of core components (the pesticide reduction law, a sub target for agriculture under the climate target for 2040,the Sustainable Food System Law and now the water resilience initiative). The truth is, it’s easier to blame green policies that are essential for the transition, even those that haven’t seen the light of day yet, than address the real issues and stand up to lobbyists.  

With the European elections on the horizon, Europe cannot afford to be hoodwinked by far-right politics (which aim to harm EU law and target the core briefs of the union) or succumb the interests of a powerful few. If lawmakers truly want to protect farmers and provide consumers with healthy and accessible food that doesn’t cost us the Earth, then they must listen to science and support farmers in a coherent and unified shift to agroecological practices that provide genuine social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Without socially progressive policies that tackle underlying economic inequalities lawmakers risk hurting farmers more.