Uncertain Times: European Farming Protests Reflect Anxieties and Uncertainty on Environmental Policy 

The past few months have been rife with farming protests - from France to the Netherlands, Westminster to Wales. Tensions between farmers and European governments are running high; over trade deals, market volatility, policy clarity and the environmental transition.

Here, we discuss some of the key factors at play in these farming protests, and highlight some critical gaps that government and policymakers ought to address to ease anxieties across the sector…

An overview of european farming protests

There are many concerns driving protests across Europe – differing pressures affect different farming communities and enterprises. Some are country-specific, whether the Netherlands’ plan to reduce nitrogen emissions, or the recent anger expressed at the Welsh government’s proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS), which is intended to replace EU funding post-Brexit. Its core areas of tension have been the requirements of committing 10% of the land to tree cover, a further 10% to wildlife habitat, as well as new restrictions on Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, amongst others. 

Despite these specific policies, there is much in common with the experiences of farmers across the continent. War in Ukraine has driven market volatility, exacerbated by rising input costs (such as fertilisers and seeds). Climate events are impacting crop performance, sometimes devastatingly so, and uncertainty has been created by the decline in EU funding schemes and the complex, still-emerging environmental policies attempting to mitigate agriculture’s impact on climate and biodiversity. All of this, alongside the additional need to constantly produce and contribute to food security, whilst remaining viable as a business. Without doubt, the converging pressures of climate change, economic uncertainty, public scrutiny and government policy have never weighed so heavily on the agricultural sector.

That farming protests are happening at scale, continent-wide, is indicative of the compounding pressures farmers feel. To many, it also offers an outlet to protest against the marginalisation of the food and farming sector and a sense that rural livelihoods are not taken seriously, nor the alarming figures of suicide, loneliness and isolation that often come with it.

Pressures 

Whether by the public, organisations, or governments, farmers are being asked to take on an increasing environmental and bureaucratic burden. Applying for agri-environment schemes is already a complicated process, with multiple stages and stakeholders required. To some, the additional bureaucracy on top of rising costs is a burden too many among the pressures of maintaining financial viability. Farming, after all, is a business, and often not a profitable one. Moreover, diversification can be complicated and time-consuming, with new ventures sometimes taking years to materialise financially. 

Yet perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the farming sector is the viability of emerging environmental policies, as the changes outlined in the 2021 Environment Act materialise. Government policy is pushing farming toward “public money for public goods”, where contributions to the environment are valued accordingly. There remains a huge gap to be filled by private sector funding in these natural capital markets, which are still to fully materialise or mature. Analysis by the Green Finance Institute estimates an additional £5.6bn a year until 2030 is required for the UK to meet its nature-recovery targets, leaving the farming sector pushed toward a future defined by uncertainty. Harmonising public and private finance to ensure farmers and land managers can achieve ecological and financial resilience is a complex but imperative task, and one which existing policy simply doesn’t adequately account for.

Image of a tractor from an European farming protest
Photo: doosenwhacker

Environmental Change

It is beyond dispute that agriculture globally requires a transition. It accounts for over 70% of land use in the UK, and therefore holds serious potential for addressing critical biodiversity loss and climate change. Resilience will be key for farms – they are, after all, on the frontlines of environmental change. Flooding, drought, soil erosion, pollinator loss and biodiversity decline all impact yield and profitability, as much as the long-term resilience of farms and the wider environment. Achieving longer-term sustainability is therefore critical, from whichever stance one takes. 

Our work at Land App is focused on exactly this – how can we help appraise future scenarios to maximise resilience, enhance ecological restoration, and ensure farmers and landowners are empowered in the process? In a recent conversation with the Food, Farming and Countryside Trust, Patrick Holden stated that “in the end, overcoming the transition challenge is all about money – improving the business case for the farming transition, and making it more profitable than the current approach.” – Patrick Holden, Sustainable Food Trust CEO in conversation with the Food Farming and Countryside Commission

It might not be entirely about money, but until the concerns of farmers are addressed to make the agricultural transition that is so critically required, protest and discontent will surely continue. What seems to be lacking is a meaningful evaluation at scale of what these policies mean for farmers, and a constructive dialogue toward achieving them. We simply must make rapid change in restoring biodiversity, protecting soils, and enhancing carbon sequestration. There will always be disagreement, too – achieving a ‘win-win’ scenario for all is rarely possible. But until governments drastically improve agri-environment scheme applications, and policy sufficiently values environmental enhancement, governments risk alienating the very agents of change upon whom they rely.  

author

Growing up on a regenerative small holding, the relationship between food systems and the natural world has long been an interest of mine. Focussing on land-use tensions and geo-politics at Oxford, and now an MSc in Sustainable Development with Exeter, my interests lie in how we can leverage policy and natural capital principles to encourage not only regenerative land management and food systems alongside investment in nature recovery, but ultimately how we can ensure social equity and robust governance at a systems level when designing environmental solutions. I’m drawn to the social elements of nature recovery and climate change adaptation, in particular the intersection of geopolitics, biodiversity economics and justice.
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