Europe’s farmers are fighting for the ability to continue to farm
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
While there is no single issue behind the angry farmer protests taking place across Europe, at its heart is a frustration felt among farmers that society, governments and special interests have denigrated them and their profession. Activists blame them for climate change, environmental pollution and unsustainability, when farmers see themselves as the stewards of the land. Green restrictions like the EU Farm2Fork strategy will make farming unprofitable and perhaps no longer even possible, designed by cosmopolitan zealots with no idea what is required to bring a harvest in. Farmers are fighting for the ability to continue to farm. Among other actions to stop alienating farmers, Government regulators need to speak up for the science and data when activist groups spread lies about the safety of conventional agriculture tools, rather than quietly letting the fearmongers undermine public trust in our farmers, writes EU risk and science communications specialist David Zaruk.
European leaders have received a symphony of protests over the last couple weeks as their capitals and offices have literally been shat on by angry farmers. It has made for entertaining (and horrifying) footage and wonderfully vague claims from European leaders on how to address the agricultural issues (which for them amounts to throwing more money at them). But it is hard to address their concerns if it is not clear what the farmers want or who is speaking on their behalf.
Opportunists and Heavy Machinery
The blockading of European capitals with heavy machinery, manure and other agricultural waste has offered a wide variety of bottom-feeders to come forward to speak on behalf of "our" farmers. Greenpeace and IFOAM are claiming that what the farmers want is more money so they can transition to agroecological farming practices. Really now! Sorry guys, nice try at coopting the issue, but the heavy equipment on the streets of Brussels and Paris definitely did not come from those small peasant farmers you represent.
Then there are those saying that the farmers are demanding the tools to farm more sustainably with more restrictions on agro-industrial technologies. These are calls coopted by the downstream value chain, processors and retailers, who have profited from price pressures and tariff-free imports while demanding green farming practices at home to improve their ESG scores.
Union reps I know, who have never visited a farm, have joined in the protests in Brussels trying to shape the narrative as a labour dispute. What the farmers need, they argue, is more financial security, better working conditions, protection from dangerous chemicals and more time off (maybe a guaranteed month-long summer holiday?). These darlings clearly have no idea what happens on a farm nor have they ever talked to a farmer (but I’m sure they have a nice garden).
All of this smells like the back rows of the Sermon on the Mount scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Very few understand, cannot hear but are quick to tack their issues behind some heavy machinery (and a tanker full of dung). They are all in for the protest and the opportunity to manipulate the message.
But what do the farmers want (and does it all boil down to simply giving them more money)?
What is the issue?
There is no one single issue. As every soil, every climate, every farm is different, so too is every farmer’s need. Most of the farmers in my network are horrified by the violence and the destruction. Others feel something has to be done. But if you were to ask each farmer what needs to be done, they would each say something different.
Some Dutch farmers remember seeing their parents being forced off the land in the 1970s and 80s and see similar confiscations going on today in the name of environmentalism. French farmers see restrictions on agricultural technologies affecting their ability to compete not just with Canadian, American and Argentinian imports but with Spanish farmers. Eastern European farmers see the free inflow of Ukrainian products as their major threat.
In short, our leaders are not doing enough to protect farmers. All regulations proposed by this present European Commission have been more restrictive to the most important part of the food chain. The Sustainable Use Directive is systematically removing all crop protection products and the Commission's Farm2Fork strategy has pitted policymakers directly against farmers' interests.
One of the key frustrations farmers feel is how society, governments and special interests have denigrated them and their profession. Activists blame farmers for climate change, environmental pollution and unsustainability when farmers believe they are the stewards of the land. They are tired of being condemned, attacked on their tractors and ignored by elected officials who feel they can do whatever they want to the rural communities.
The recent green restrictions like the European Commission’s Farm2Fork strategy will make farming unprofitable and perhaps no longer even possible but there was no real consultation with them. These irrational, broad-stroke policies were designed by cosmopolitan zealots who have no idea what is required to bring a harvest in. If farming were only about money, then all farmers should simply get their land re-zoned for residential subdivisions.
Their own farm unions have done a poor job representing them, acting more as bankers distributing subsidies than fighting for their ability to farm. Throwing more money at them is nice, thank you very much, but that is not the main issue. Many British farmers had confided that they voted for Brexit knowing full well the British government would never be able to compete with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support levels, but it was more about the ability to farm than the opportunity for better handouts. Most farmers don’t look at their land as a handout-generated profit centre.
Under-represented, disrespected and ignored, they have taken their issues to the streets and as it will still be a while for most until H24 will need to be planted, they could make life difficult for those who have ignored them for so long.
From my own network of farmers, the points that follow are what I am hearing are their issues. Unlike activist groups and opportunists, I don’t have any skin in this game so please don’t treat this as a case of one more opportunist spouting off personal interests in the name of people I do not understand.
Key Demands: The Ability to Farm
In short, all farmers are fighting for the ability to continue to farm. This entails:
Take reasonable regulatory measures that consider farming not as a collective to be harmonised, but as a multitude of circumstances that require the widest range of technical solutions.
Abandon politicised and farm-restrictive regulatory strategies like Farm2Fork and allow a reasonable amount of time for innovations to address other environmental concerns (like nitrogen emissions).
Take an evidence-based approach to crop protection tools and seed innovations (rather than emotion-based reactions to urban myths).
Protect farmers from activist interference in their practices (eg, vandalising irrigation ponds, assaulting farmers spraying their fields…). Increase the legal consequences for those activists destroying croplands.
Place minimum price controls on large retailers using cheap imports as loss leaders, putting competitive strains on rural markets supporting local production.
Stop uneven profit-taking through the food chain. A majority of the retail price should go to the farmers rather than to the processors, brands or retailers.
More investment in rural communities to make farming more resilient in the face of climate evolutions (eg, irrigation networks, flood mitigation measures).
Stop alienating farmers. Government regulators need to speak up for the science and data when activist groups spread lies about the safety of conventional agriculture tools rather than quietly letting the fearmongers undermine public trust in our farmers.
So throwing money at farmers is short-sighted and cynical. Farmers need, most of all, to be respected. Otherwise, EU leaders better get galoshes to protect their expensive shoes as they will continue to have to go to their offices knee-deep in shit.
David Zaruk is the Risk-Monger. He has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2000. A version of this article first appeared on the Risk-Monger website here, and is reproduced with the author’s permission.