Farmers protest against tougher environmental rules, rising costs and lack of recognition
European farmers are taking to the streets in huge numbers. Not only in Belgium but also in Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, they are expressing dissatisfaction with stricter environmental regulations, rising costs and a lack of recognition.
Agricultural challenges in Europe are multifaceted, resulting from political inaction, economic pressure and environmental degradation, Jeroen Candel of Wageningen University explains in an article for the ARC2020 platform. "While many politicians seem surprised by the scale of these protests, the warning signs have been visible for years."
Candel says European farmers are caught in a web of regulations and market forces that increasingly limit their autonomy and ability to earn a fair income. "Meanwhile, governments and agricultural interest groups have often chosen to postpone solutions, opting instead for short-term fixes that fail to address the underlying structural problems."
For example, Candel points to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which helps farmers provide high-quality, affordable food for EU citizens. "While successive rounds of reform have attempted to address environmental concerns, they have often failed to deliver meaningful change," he says.
The same goes for the 2009 directive on the sustainable use of pesticides, which member state governments and the agrochemical industry have long ignored. "The lack of sustainable alternatives was subsequently used as a pretext to derail the proposal for stricter pesticide legislation, perpetuating a cycle of environmental degradation and public health risks."
And then there's compensation for farmers' work. Although Europe has been spending a lot of money on agriculture for years - about a third of the European budget goes to agriculture - a pot of hundreds of billions of euros a year seems insufficient.
"Without European support, farmers would face even more serious problems," Hendrik Vos of Ghent University told De Standaard. "In many cases, they have only survived thanks to these subsidies."
Drone video shows trucks and tractors gathering at the E40 highway in Aalter, blocked by a farmer protest, 31 January 2024 © BELGA VIDEO KURT DESPLENTER
However, most EU money goes to big agribusinesses. Around 80 per cent of agricultural funds went to 20 per cent of beneficiaries, leaving many small farmers with just enough to stay afloat. The focus on large-scale farming has led many farmers to invest and take on large debts.
In addition, farmland is becoming extremely expensive, forcing young farmers to take out even larger loans and turn to intensive farming. The fact that large, well-capitalised companies such as the Belgian supermarket chain Colruyt are also buying up farmland adds to the tension.
“Farmers feel that they have to make an enormous effort to receive European funds while at the same time struggling with debts to keep their businesses profitable. This has led to great discontent," says Vos.
This discontent culminated in the Green Deal - which aims to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050 - and the Nature Restoration Law, which seeks to improve biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems.
"For too long, farming organisations have suggested that a certain type of livestock farming could continue. Farmers have continued investing in an unsustainable business model, and now Europe says it won't continue to pay for it," summarises Vos.
"These farmers are now stuck with their debts. From their point of view, understandably, they're protesting. But from Europe's point of view, it's also understandable that they want to push for the Green Deal and make farming more sustainable. All the problems with agricultural policy are now coming to the surface."
Illustration video shows farmers gathering for a protest at the Kallo lock near the Port of Antwerp in Beveren, organised by general farmers union ABS on Wednesday 31 January 2024 © BELGA VIDEO ROBBE VANDEGEHUCHTE
At the same time, climate change is an increasing challenge for farmers. In Belgium and the Netherlands, nitrogen emission and water quality requirements make farmers despair. Spanish farmers are grappling with a prolonged drought severely restricting water use on their fields. In Germany, farmers have been blocking motorways since early January, partly in protest at the removal of subsidies for agricultural diesel.
A major farmers' demonstration has been announced for Thursday in Brussels while heads of EU governments are meeting in the Schuman district for a European summit. Major traffic disruptions are expected, especially in the morning.
© BELGA PHOTO JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE