Beyond Band-Aids: Just Transition, Farmers Protests and Our Broken Economy  

With the European elections looming, many are concerned about the tendency for right-wing groups to seize justified grievances – such as those voiced by farmers – and twist them to support questionable political ambitions. Like many sectors essential to the green transition, farming is plagued by a failure to provide decent incomes and sustainable livelihoods, as well as a safe and healthy environment for workers. It is a reality that faces us all; the present economic model simply does not deliver for people, nor for the planet.

The Just Transition agenda, a core EU priority, would ensure that the green transition leaves no one behind and addresses farmers’ concerns fairly. As EU countries and civil society representatives gathered last week at a two-day high-level EU Conference on the topic of Just Transition, isn’t it time to move from policy discussions to action on the ground for farmers and the economy as a whole?

Farmers’ discontent: a failing agri-economic model 

The widespread protests across Europe sparked a wave of media frenzy, bringing farmers’ hardship to the political fore and soliciting rushed – and often misguided – responses from governments and the European Commission, including the rolling back on several Green Deal proposals. Though the majority of headlines simplified the debates around green measures to a farmer vs environmental legislation narrative (ignoring the many farmers in favour of greener agricultural policy), other media delivered a more nuanced approach, stressing the difference of interests and opinions between farmers, farmer unions and their agribusiness counterparts

Alongside several other NGOs, we have warned of the dangers that false farmers-versus-the environment narratives present for farmers, the environment and democracy at large. Many farmers suffer under the current food and farming model. We stand with them in calling for a shift to an environmentally, socially, and economically just system. Several farmers unions are equally concerned with this U-turn on green measures and refute the mainstream media collusion of green rules as ‘red tape’. 

As a trade union representing agricultural workers, we defend the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy. We believe they can help us make the sector more sustainable and, from a social point of view, they should be an opportunity for dignifying the sector”.

Enrico Somaglia, Deputy General of European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) 

The EU’s current food and farming system, with its overarching 60+ year-old Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), has been failing most farmers and nature for decades, with periodic ‘reforms’ by the Commission and EU governments resulting in nothing more than piecemeal technical adjustments that fail to address core issues, all the while pandering to the interests of agribusinesses and large landowners.  

“Low incomes and a lack of future prospects for the vast majority of farmers is at the root of this discontent, which is largely linked to the neo-liberal policies the European Union has pursued for decades.” 

The European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) 

Besides the CAP, which is due for another reform in 2027, at stake is a market-based agricultural model that dictates the prices of farmers’ produce, rewarding retailers with large profit margins while most famers’ incomes are squeezed. Underpinning this system, are free trade agreements, like the current EU-Mercosur deal with South American countries, which is expected to boost beef imports from Mercosur countries. This would mainly reward big agribusinesses and negatively impact European farmers and the environment by allowing the import of food products not subject to the same standards EU farmers are required to meet. 

A system at breaking point 

At the core of farmers’ recent uprising is a sector in deep crisis. The economic reality of farmers, further exacerbated by the climate and ecological crises, is of key concern. As the Guardian points out, what unites farmers in their protests are “falling sale prices, rising costs, heavy regulation, powerful and domineering retailers, debt, climate change and cheap foreign imports.”  

While European farmers are in the limelight, we should not forget about other silent victims of this unfair and unsustainable system seasonal migrant workers employed on farms and in supply chains. There is a sizeable body of evidence documenting modern slavery in the sector, with workers forced to work in inhumane conditions while being paid below the minimum wage threshold. A 2018 European Parliament study concluded that women are at a particular risk of exploitation in this sector. This speaks to an overall model that is failing most workers along the production and distribution chain while causing great environmental and climate harm. 

Farming is not the only sector in crisis in today’s turbulent economic context. The healthcare and education professions (to name two crucial sectors for the green and just transition with a predominant female workforce) are in a perpetual state of crisis across Europe. Healthcare workers and teachers are commonly made to work long hours, under extreme pressure, whilst struggling to make ends meet. Many of these professions, which provide essential services for people and the planet, are at breaking point, plagued by a lack of staff retention, stress and burnout, as well as in-work poverty. At the root of the problem is the perpetual search for profitability and productivity driving our economies, seeking to derive ever greater economic output from fewer units of labour input, combined with critical rates of under-investment into public services. The economy is no longer working for most people nor the planet. To resolve this, we need to address the structural injustices and imbalances of power and resources between North-South countries and between the richest 1% and the rest of the population. While we resolve these issues, it is crucial to rethink work as part of a move to a wellbeing economy and re-value key professions whilst applying a social and gender-just lens. 

The solutions to shift to a truly sustainable food system rooted in green and fair farming are manifold. These include, first and foremost, an overall shift to agroecology underpinned by truly green and just reforms of the CAP subsidy system, a revision of free trade agreements, as well as fair prices for farmers’ produce supported by a stronger regulation of middle-chain actors involved in manufacturing, retail, distribution and marketing. To ensure such a transition is just and effective, policy makers must fully embrace a food systems approach to support policy coherence and true sustainability – as was outlined in the Farm to Fork Strategy. Even though the pathways to sustainable and fair agri-food systems are clear and unequivocally supported by evidence, the question remains: how can we counter the powerful industrial and economic interests hindering this transition? 

Critical juncture: a Just Transition for people and planet 

Originating from trade union and environmental justice groups in the U.S., the Just Transition concept has gained traction in recent years up to the point of making its way into European policy-making. Just Transition is now featured as a prominent priority of the Commission’s agenda and is one of the three key priorities of the current Belgian Presidency. Hence, on 4-5 March 2024, the Presidency brought together national and civil society representatives for a two-day conference on the topic. As expected, the farmers’ protests came up several times and served as an illustration of how urgently social justice concerns need to be integrated into the current green transition agenda at the EU level. As Sandrine Dixson-Declève from the Club of Rome pointed out, Europe’s obsession with competitiveness and growth is what may prompt the failure of the European Green Deal. Instead, pricing and economic constraints must be addressed at their core with measures such as a tax on wealth and windfall profit and redirecting harmful subsidies. 

The European Just Transition Alliance, which we are a member of, advocates for a wider definition of the concept, calling on an overall system-change of our economies via work and welfare systems, to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis while redressing long-standing social inequalities. For instance, this includes the need for a holistic and cross-sectoral EU Just Transition policy framework, adapted governance structures, as well as adequate public investment into the green and social economy through an EU transformation fund supported by well-designed redistributive tax and climate policies. 

The Just Transition policies need to tackle all dimensions of socio-economic inequalities, fully appreciating and addressing the impact of the transition along axes of gender, race, ethnicity, age, migrant status, disability, and other factors, and applying an international lens”

Patrick ten Brink’s address at the EU Just Transition Conference on 5 March 2024. 

The appetite for Just Transition policies across Europe is growing. Half of Europeans think that climate and environmental policies are not sufficiently coupled with Just Transition policies, while 88% agree that green reforms should leave no one behind. To ensure widespread public adoption of these policies, it is essential that all dimensions of socio-economic inequalities are tackled. This would help avoid the mistakes made by previous regressive green policy changes, such as those that sparked the Gilets Jaunes protest movement in France following tax-hikes on diesel. In the current economic context, policymakers must address underlying economic disparities when designing future Green Deal policies, which must be socially progressive at their core or, else, risk further raising public discontent. 

We need a real change in agricultural policy that puts farmers at the heart of policy-making and gives us prospects for the future

European Coordination Via Campesina. 

The ongoing farmers’ uprising precisely calls for a change in policy-making that addresses farmers’ core concerns and promotes both civil and social dialogue. To counter the agri-business and far-right forces who aim to block meaningful change, all actors across civil society, farmers’ groups, and trade unions must put their differences aside and unite their voices in support of a fairer and more ecological food and farming model. Now, more than ever, is the time to move from policy discourse to taking action to facilitate a just transition for farmers, people and the planet.