Farmers across Europe are struggling and are hitting the streets to protest. But when politicians and big agriculture lobbies blame Europe’s green legislation, they are not only misleading farmers, they are risking their survival.

Greenpeace Belgium activists put up posters reading “Who profits off farmers? Shhh… let’s not talk about it” on the headquarters of the European People’s Party in Brussels and other interest groups and political parties upholding a food system that penalises small and medium-scale farmers.

Farmers’ anger is legitimate and we share it. In just 15 years, the EU has lost close to 40% of its farmers, almost exclusively small and medium farms, who have either gone out of business or been bought up by increasingly large competitors.

 The problem is the way the food and farming system functions in Europe. Among the many difficulties farmers face, three stand out. EU subsidies, regulations (or lack thereof), and market dynamics are all geared to benefit the biggest players.

First, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy rewards the largest landowners and the most industrialised farms, as the majority of funds is distributed on the basis of farmed hectares. Second, powerful retailers and food companies are able to impose low prices on farmers. Third, agrochemical multinationals squeeze farmers at the source by raising the price of things they need, like hybrid seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and animal drugs. This pushes smaller producers out of business, as only industrial farms can survive selling at low prices, while bearing higher costs. The message to family businesses is: get big or get out!

Talks for an EU-Mercosur trade agreement add to the pressure, with farming as a potential EU bargaining chip for access to the South American market. A deal could open the door to imports of large quantities of beef, responsible for massive deforestation and forest degradation.

Farmers have also been plagued by the impact of the climate crisis. Droughts currently drive around €9 billion in annual economic losses across the EU and UK. Extreme heat and drought, wildfires, floods and storms have ravaged European farmland. These are also devastating the natural systems farmers depend on, like bees and other pollinators. Small and medium farms, which are already struggling to stay afloat, can be wiped out by a single weather event. 

Betraying farmers

Instead of welcoming measures to improve ecosystems on which farmers largely depend, certain politicians and big agriculture lobby firms have made nature protection and the EU Green Deal an easy scapegoat. Far-right and conservative politicians in particular are instrumentalising farmers’ discontent and point the finger at environmental regulation. But sending angry farmers the message that green rules are to blame, while supporting a system that only works for a small percentage of giant market players, is nothing short of betrayal. 

The European Commission’s first response to farmers’ protests was to grant, for the third year in a row, a derogation to CAP requirements to leave a tiny percentage of arable land fallow. This not only causes significant harm to ecosystems and could push prices down further by increasing production, it diverts attention from the real systemic reforms that farmers desperately need.

None of the major green deal rules have been implemented and the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy objectives achieved – even though they would have benefited farmers. If EU rules on the ‘sustainable’ use of pesticides had been adopted, with financial and structural support for farmers, they could have reduced dependence on agrochemicals. This would have been good news for the health of farmers, as well as their wallets. Instead, the Commission’s second response to the protests has been to withdraw plans to cut pesticide use.

The updated industrial emissions directive, aimed at limiting pollution from factory farms, could have helped mitigate the climate crisis, but ended up fuelling it by loosening rules for the largest pig and poultry farms and ignoring cattle completely. The plan to introduce  legislation for a “sustainable food system” was dropped before it was even tabled by the Commission, and the promised update of animal welfare conditions was abandoned.

The most powerful farming lobbies and their EU confederation, Copa-Cogeca, have been decisive in determining which EU rules are strengthened and which are weakened. Despite their claims to represent all farmers, they have often taken positions that defend the interests of a minority of farmers: the largest and most powerful players, who can thrive in a strikingly unfair food system. 

Many politicians continue to support the largest agribusinesses and frame the crisis as “farmers versus nature”. It’s a false dichotomy that tragically hurts the vast majority of farmers. It deliberately shifts the focus away from the root causes of the problems farmers face and makes their situation worse until only the biggest farms are left. Farmers and nature are allies – it is market dynamics, misguided subsidies and a lack of proper regulation that present farmers with a desperate choice between unsustainable industrial production or bankruptcy.

Marco Contiero – Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director

This article was published as an opinion piece in the EU Observer on 8 February 2024.