Across France, Italy and Belgium last week thousands of farmers descended on capital cities to express their deep discontent with the European food system.
The scenes were dramatic. Parked tractors brought traffic to a standstill in Paris, and on Thursday burning piles of hay and debris sent up huge, dark plumes of smoke in Brussels. The protests show no sign of slowing down and are expected this week across Italy, Slovenia and Spain.
Farmers’ demonstrations have been portrayed as a revolt against net zero, by the media and far-right groups.
This is the message received by governments – and they are acting on it. So far, the farmers have won key concessions, with the EU decision on Tuesday to drop its plans to cut pesticide use, hot on the heels of the same move by France on Friday, despite numbers of birds and pollinators plummeting in Europe.
Yet the reality on the ground in Brussels last week was more mixed. While Europe’s largest farming union, Copa-Cogeca, paints environmental measures as an enemy to farmers’ prosperity, an analysis by Carbon Brief has found that a fifth of farmer concerns were not on green issues, relating instead to high production costs, food pricing and trade-related concerns.
Other groups of farmers came out onto the streets of Brussels with a different message. They say the EU should see the protests as a sign to do more, not less, to protect the environment.
“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 who belongs to the European chapter of La Via Campesina (ECVC).
Ody travelled to Belgium with over a thousand farmers connected to Via Campesina – and other allied national smallholder farmer groups from Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany – to protest last Thursday.
Via Campesina and its smallholder allies also insist that ambitious action to address climate breakdown and biodiversity loss must go hand in hand with tackling other farmer concerns – such as low pay. Difficult working conditions, they say, are also at the root of the frustrations of many who showed up to demonstrate.
Big Agri vs EU Green Reform
The position of Via Campesina stands in contrast to those of other powerful groups, which also attended the protest in Brussels and others across Europe.
Copa-Cogeca, which enjoys privileged access to many of the EU’s key decision-makers, has taken an aggressive stance on EU sustainable farming policies proposed through the bloc’s Farm to Fork. It has also undertaken lobbying to derail key EU-wide measures such as a nature restoration law which was only narrowly approved by EU lawmakers at the end of last year, full of loopholes.
The group’s political legitimacy has rested in part on a claim to represent 22 million farmers and their families across the EU, which a recent investigation from Lighthouse Reports found to be exaggerated. Many smallholder farmers interviewed by Lighthouse Reports and others have said Copa-Cogeca does not represent them.
Policy experts say the farming system needs to become more sustainable to safeguard food production and address climate impacts. Intensive, industrial farming from larger operations currently drives much of the sector’s emissions, as well as harming soils and causing a vertiginous fall in populations of bees, birds and butterflies.
Copa-Cogeca’s recent demands have included the rollback of an important environmental provision in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – the subsidy scheme which supports European producers. The provision would require farmers to leave four percent of their land free for nature in order to protect and rebuild biodiversity.
This week, the EU announced it would postpone the incoming CAP biodiversity clause, in concession to protests across the bloc.
On Friday, the French government pledged to halt a measure to halve pesticide use by 2030, following sustained lobbying from industry-aligned union FNSEA on the measure over the last several years.
Tuesday’s decision by the EU commission to drop a bloc-wide measure aimed at slashing pesticide use was met with praise from a triumphant Copa-Cogeca, which, in a post on X (formerly Twitter) called the regulation a “top-down proposal” that was “poorly designed,” but with dismay from environmentalists who said the move would hurt farmers in the longer term.
It was clear on the ground in Brussels on Thursday that the CAP debate was on farmer’s minds. Copa-Cogeca affiliates and independent farmers both expressed frustrations.
“We don’t have enough money to compensate for this four percent of the surface where we can’t produce,” said Mélanie Favereaux, from the Féderation des Jeunes Agriculteurs (FJA), which represents young farmers in Belgium and was responsible for some of the blockades last week. She stressed that her worries did not stem from anti-environment sentiment but from income pressures.
A representative from a powerful Italian regional group affiliated with Copa-Cogeca, Coldiretti, which has recently been accused by smaller Italian farmers of betraying their interests, said her group would be pushing for the CAP measure to be withdrawn by the EU and not just postponed.
Ody, from Via Campesina, told DeSmog that small farmers also believe the CAP system should be reformed – but in a different way. She argues that the EU should bring in market regulation to ensure a minimum price and stable income for farmers, as was the case under the CAP until the subsidy system was reformed in 1992.
Via Campesina also argues that, rather than eliminate green rules, CAP grants should be redistributed better to the benefit of smaller, family-owned farms, which perform better on biodiversity and productivity than larger operations, according to a 2021 global study.
Under current rules, the amount of CAP subsidies a farm receives is tied to its size. This means that the lion’s share of EU’s financial support goes to larger farms and landowners, with the biggest 20 percent of farms absorbing 80 percent of the CAP, a sum equal to around a third of the EU’s annual budget.
Ody shares the income worries of Coldiretti and young farmer’s group the FJA. But she insists that the CAP should be used to incentivise the transition to more climate friendly farming.
“We are put into an impossible situation,” said Ody, because “to produce in an ecological way does come with a cost.”
The EU’s free trade agreements were another key concern in Brussels, highlighted by small and large-scale farmers alike, who feel European producers are forced to compete with cheap imports.
“It’s right to talk about the climate,” said a local producer from the Belgian municipality of Ath, who gave his name only as Jean. “But they shouldn’t be targeting us, they should be looking at industry – and products that come in from abroad.”
His concern about green measures principally stemmed from a sense of unfairness and double standards. “Importing from Australia, I don’t believe that can be as sustainable as they say,” he said.
Mélanie Favereaux also brought up trade, arguing: “We are not against protecting the environment, but we think it’s not fair if we import products from outside Europe and then they don’t respect the environment like we do, for example by using pesticides we are not allowed to. It’s difficult for us to survive in this environment.”
Belgian farmers’ view that green reforms will make Europe dependent on imports that are produced to lower standards is an argument that has been consistently pushed by the agribusiness lobby.
Pro-Green and Pro-Worker
Ody said trade issues cut to the heart of the debate around the current crisis, but that it was not a reason to roll back green policies.
“There is a contradiction between producing cheaply to be competitive on international markets on one side, and being asked to produce in an environmentally friendly way,” she said.
“In Copa-Cogeca, faced with this choice, they say okay, let’s get rid of the environmental measures so that we can be competitive. And some farmers think okay, if we are obliged to compete in global competition, we can’t have these rules.
“But we at Via Campesina say – why do we continue to be obliged to compete at a global level? And that is the big divide between farmers’ organisations currently in Europe.”
The EU is continuing to pursue trade agreements. It’s currently in the final negotiating stages of a major new deal with Latin American countries such as Brazil.
Ody says the trade system is ripe for reform. She points to an ongoing crisis at the WTO, the trade body that regulates trade agreements, which currently lacks sufficient judges to monitor its dispute settlement circuit due to the U.S.’ refusal to nominate one under both Trump and Biden.
Researchers have pointed to this deadlock as a key development. They say it could usher in wider changes to how trade agreements work, and move the WTO away from the current liberalised regime that has reigned over many decades.
Via Campesina is particularly concerned about EU-Mercosur, which Greenpeace Europe has called “nightmare for nature”. Many smallholder farmers on both sides of the Atlantic oppose the deal, which was also brought up by farmers in Brussels last week. Favereaux told DeSmog she saw it as unfair and “dangerous” for her business.
Much of the reporting on farmers protests across the EU has focussed on the actions of the far-right, which has tried to weaponise the protest.
As protests in Germany kicked off in January, Deutsche Welle reported on “deliberate attempts by right-wing extremists to use farmers’ anger for their own ends,” while others such as Politico and the Guardian have noted the same trend.
In Brussels, far-right activists were assembled alongside the farmers. There is some evidence that a thinktank linked to Hungary’s authoritarian leader Victor Orban has helped to orchestrate, and possibly finance, some of the action.
Elsewhere in Europe, in the Netherlands, far-right parties have capitalised on farmers’ discontent to make electoral gains.
While Ody agreed there was a real “danger” to the far-right co-opting farmers, she also emphasised that farmers were a very mixed group.
“The farming sector is like the rest of the society,” she said. “You’ve got 99 percent of the people who are working, trying to make a living, and they can be right-wing, left-wing, whatever,” she said.
Ody’s view was shared by Felipe van Keirsbilck, Secretary General of the Belgian workers’ union CNE, who attended the protest to show workers’ solidarity with small food producers. He called the crowd “really divided, really mixed.”
The far right are not the only interests weighing in and capitalising on the unrest. A 2023 investigation by DeSmog showed how companies with a commercial interest in slowing moves to more nature-friendly farming have actively sought to win over key politicians deciding on green reforms in recent years.
DeSmog found the industrial farming industry overall had an average of two meetings a week with key decision-makers in Europe’s ruling party, the European People’s Party (EPP), since 2020, as the EU negotiated flagship reforms to protect nature and climate.
Industry tactics, including from farmers’ unions, have also taken more novel approaches, including organising Alpine hikes for key decision-makers on green reforms, and renting free office space.
One group that has targeted EU decision-makers is French union FNSEA. The group has also become dominant in debates around the farmers’ protests, and has been accused of co-opting smaller farmers’ concerns.
In recent weeks its president, Arnaud Rousseau – who also is the boss of the major agricultural commodities trader Avril Grouphas – met with disapproval after pushing the group’s talking points on TV even when speaking about protests organised by non-affiliated FNSEA farmers who have a different agenda.
FNSEA is a regional affiliate and key ally of Copa-Cogeca. The group has been accused by campaigners at groups such as Corporate Europe Observatory of representing the interests of large businesses’ interests over those smaller producers.
Like Copa-Cogeca the group has been an aggressive lobbyist against Europe’s green measures, referring to the Farm to Fork as a “degrowth strategy.”
Environmentalists have also pointed to the fraught relations between farmers groups in Italy as signs of a much more fractured movement than is often acknowledged. Several groups – including one named the “Betrayed Farmers” have taken a stance against Coldiretti – a Copa-Cogeca affiliate, saying they don’t feel represented by its positions.
Ody sums up: “The farmers’ protests and anger is legitimate. But they have been using this in order to protect their own interests as big businessmen.”
Editing by Hazel Healy