Are farmers' protests a threat to the EU's green targets?

A person drives a tractor as people gather for a protest by German farmers, on the day of the 16th Global Forum for Food and Agriculture during Green Week agriculture fair in Berlin, Germany January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Nadja Wohlleben

A person drives a tractor as people gather for a protest by German farmers, on the day of the 16th Global Forum for Food and Agriculture during Green Week agriculture fair in Berlin, Germany January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Nadja Wohlleben

What’s the context?

With protests by farmers raging from Germany to Greece, EU policymakers have agreed concessions on long-standing environmental goals

  • Struggling EU farmers angry over high costs, regulations
  • Protesters say green targets add to their difficulties
  • Climate change impacts take heavy toll on agriculture

BRUSSELS - Europe's farmers are angry, staging tractor blockades and noisy rallies from Spain to Belgium to protest an earnings squeeze they blame partly on green policies such as pesticide bans and nitrogen emissions curbs.

One of farmers' main complaints is high business costs - in part from the expense of complying with EU environmental targets aimed at cutting planet-warming carbon emissions and protecting nature. They also say price pressures and increasing competition from imports are hitting their income.

The wave of protest comes as floods, droughts and wildfires linked to climate change take an increasing toll on Europe's harvests, compounding the agricultural sector's problems.

As the demonstrations spread and put governments on alert, farmers have won concessions on meeting long-established environmental targets contained in the European Union's Green Deal.

Why are farmers protesting, and where?

Farmers' have stepped up protests across Europe in recent days, blocking a border crossing between Poland and Germany, throwing bottles at police in Brussels and rallying in Madrid to demand action on cheap supermarket prices, trade deals, red tape and environmental protection targets.

In Brussels, protesters clashed with police as agriculture ministers met to discuss the crisis in the agricultural sector. Belgian farmers called for a fair revenue and an end to unfair competition from trade deals.

Countries neighbouring Ukraine, like Romania and Poland have seen farmers' protests scale-up in recent weeks. Farmers are angry over cheap imports from Ukraine. The EU decided two years ago to waive duties on Ukraine's food exports due to the Russian invasion.

Farmers in France, the EU's largest agricultural producer, stormed an agricultural fair in Paris over the weekend as President Emmanuel Macron visited the annual event.

German farmers kicked off the year with a massive demonstration over the coalition government's decision to phase out a tax break on agricultural diesel as it struggles to balance its 2024 budget and decarbonise the economy.

Last year, protesting farmers in the Netherlands and Belgium took aim at government plans to limit emissions of nitrogen in what European media dubbed the "nitrogen wars".

Relatively large numbers of livestock and heavy use of fertilizers have led to levels of nitrogen oxides in the soil and water that violate EU regulations.

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Are environmental policies to blame for farmers' woes?

Agriculture accounts for 10% of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions and the bloc's landmark Green Deal includes a raft of legislation to reduce emissions as well as hit sustainability targets - changes which require significant investment.

Under the Green Deal's Farm to Fork strategy, farmers would have to halve pesticide use by 2030, reduce fertilisers, double organic farming and rewild landscapes to increase biodiversity.

Farmers want more financial and technical support to comply with such policies, saying the measures are raising their costs, burdening them with bureaucracy and putting them at risk of falling foul of the rules.

At the same time, other factors have weighed on farmers' incomes in recent years - from the COVID-19 pandemic to fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As well as driving up the cost of fuel and fertiliser, the war has led to increased competition from Ukrainian grain imports - another big complaint among East European farmers.

Price wars between supermarket chains at a time when many consumers are reining in spending have also been blamed for hurting farmers' profitability.

Do farmers' protests threaten the Green Deal?

Europe's green policies have faced a growing backlash in recent months, and environmental campaigners fear a resurgent far-right could seek to sink more Green Deal regulations if it performs strongly in the European Parliament election in June.

Following weeks of fierce protests farmers have won concessions from the bloc - including a delay to rules on set-aside land to increase biodiversity, and the removal of a goal to cut farming emissions from the 2040 climate roadmap.

This is in addition to previous policy u-turns when EU lawmakers rejected a plan to reduce the use of pesticides in November, and the bloc's Nature Restoration Law faced fierce opposition - finally winning a vote by the EU parliament on Tuesday.

As the June election draws near, governments are wary about growing support among farmers for far-right parties, which have sought to capitalise on the protests as they campaign on an anti-EU, anti-climate policy platform. 

Germany's far-right AfD party, hoping for major gains in a string of state elections this year, has portrayed the farmers' protests as a symptom of wider dissatisfaction with the current ruling coalition and climate policies.

However, the head of the country's DBV farming association has expressed concern that far-right activists may exploit the protests for their own ends.

This story was updated on Feb. 27 with details of latest protests and concessions on targets.

(Reporting by Joanna Gill; Editing by Helen Popper.)

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