The hottest farmers' debate

July 31, 2023

European summer is predicted to be marked by record heats, evidently linked to climate change. Already, southern European countries are bracing for severe droughts leading to harvest losses and even food shortages (e.g. Spain). From a global perspective, climate change keeps on pushing more and more people into food insecurity, as the latest UN report states. At the same time, it is known that farming, if done right, can increase carbon capture, improve the quality of water resources, and increase biodiversity. On the upside, the European lawmakers have just passed the Nature conservation law to protect nature and fight climate change in an unlikely and razor-thin vote. The bill faced a lot of resistance from farmers, as it aims to reclaim former peatlands currently exploited for agriculture. Once more, this piece of regulation has pitted environmentalists against farmers in a fierce battle. A battle that has shown to shake European politics over the past years, with landslide victory in regional politics of the agrarian party in the Netherlands as the most striking example. But as climate change and nature degradation are a main threat to food production in Europe, what underlines this opposition from farmers?

Agri-environmental schemes have so far been voluntary in the European Common Agricultural Policy, whose budget accounts for a third of the EU budget, and showed low adoptation by farmers. What the CAP funding really prioritized over the past decades, was greater output. Now that the impacts of climate change have caught up with Europe and its food production, new environmental regulations such as the recently passed bill are suddenly forcing farmers to change their ways. This has led to enormous resistance from farmers, who have been forced to ramp up their production for decades, transforming their farms into bigger ones, mostly at cost of the environment through intensive farming practices.

Instead of retaining the farmers vs. environmentalists dichotomy, research shows that those European farmers who are unengaged with ecological practices are mostly so because of the supply chain they are embedded in. These farmers are mostly dictated by the ‘productivist’ agenda of the supply chain parties, with ongoing power concentration on the buyers’ side increasing farmer’s dependency. Finally, Europe is experiencing food price volatility due to shocks earlier in the chain, mostly due to the increase of gas prices, further affecting farmers disproportionally. Farmers are not fundamentally pitted against environmentalists, but need to see the nature-friendly practices to be reflected in the prices. Similarly, consumers think the EU should help to lower prices of sustainable foods and increase the prices of the unsustainable ones. Again, the problem of environmentally friendly food is back on the plate of EU policy makers. An unavoidable step is to curb the power of Big Food, whose claim to speak for farmers is questionable, in order to enable farmers to transform into more sustainable ones.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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