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From protests to policy: What is the future for EU agriculture in the green transition?

Agriculture / COMMENTARY
Stefan Sipka , Marialena Stagianni , Brooke Moore

Date: 14/02/2024
Amidst a rolling wave of farmers’ discontent and raging food crisis, the EU must ensure that its short-term reactions to address the well-being and food security of farmers are aligned with the long-term ambitions of the European Green Deal.

Europe’s green backlash and the food crisis

Tractors swarmed the streets of Brussels as farmers protested ahead of an EU leader Summit on 1 February. The protests centered on the high volume of policy changes, including sustainability-related agriculture targets and opposition to a Latin American trade deal facilitating beef imports into Europe. The demonstrations in Brussels add to a series of farmers’ protests that have swept Europe in recent years, which started in the Netherlands in 2019. In January, German farmers were rallying against potential reductions in agricultural subsidies, while 2023 saw various protests including farmers in France protesting the Nature Restoration Law and in Spain against a water conservation plan. While rooted in localised grievances, the protests appear to be a symptom of a wider food crisis, manifested in rising costs of agricultural production, increasing food prices, and political upheaval, and driven by geopolitical, sustainability, and socio-economic factors.

The contemporary food inflation is driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Ukraine is a major exporter of food and animal feed to Europe and the world, the war has crippled global food supply chains which were already disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU's external support to Ukraine has also intensified concerns among EU farmers, sparking fierce opposition in some Eastern European countries over fears for domestic agricultural competitiveness. In response, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland decided to maintain their initial unilateral restrictions against Ukrainian foodstuffs. Despite these measures, protests have erupted among Eastern European farmers, including recent incidents where Polish farmers dumped Ukrainian grain at the border, highlighting the complexity of ongoing tensions within the agriculture sector.

Beyond immediate war-driven crises, climate-induced droughts and floods, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss undermine Europe’s and global food production and security in the long run. At the same time, the EU’s agriculture is responsible for approximately 11% of the EU’s total domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The recent green backlash can, therefore, be partially seen as a lack of understanding of the importance of the Green Deal and failure to find consensus on measures needed to green European agriculture. More broadly, it is indicative of a need to align the EU’s short-term responses to the ongoing food crisis with long-term commitments under the European Green Deal.

EU’s policy reactions vis-à-vis the Green Deal

The EU’s response to the food crisis has prioritised short-term food security and productivity over sustainability. In response to the Russian invasion, the EU temporarily relaxed environmental conditions under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to enhance food productivity. This involved measures such as allowing farmers to cultivate fallow land initially designated for nature restoration and suspending rules on annual crop rotation – measures that compromise long-term food security by jeopardising biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Despite these concerns, the Commission proposed on 31 January to extend derogations concerning protections for sensitive products against Ukrainian foodstuffs imports and exemptions on fallow land rules. Moreover, in a meeting between Belgian farmers’ representatives and EU leaders, President Von der Leyen pledged to tackle agricultural concerns through the Strategic Dialogue on the future of EU agriculture, which was officially launched on 25 January. Furthermore, the Commission released climate targets for 2040 with lower ambitions for the agricultural sector compared to an earlier draft, including the removal of a 30% emissions cut for the sector.

Even without the ongoing green backlash, the EU’s ambitions in the agriculture sector are not fully aligned with the Green Deal objectives. This is notably the case with climate and environmental conditionalities that farmers need to meet to receive subsidies under CAP 2023-27. CAP falls short of sufficient environmental requirements, as demonstrated by its continued subsidisation of industrial livestock farms with a significant carbon footprint. Moreover, CAP lacks cohesion with other EU initiatives, particularly on conditionalities for subsidies, such as CAP’s requirement to leave 4% of fallow land for biodiversity versus 10% under the European Biodiversity Strategy. Looking beyond CAP, there are currently no carbon reduction targets for agriculture, while the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), ensuring limited emissions allowances for industry and energy sectors, does not apply to agriculture.    

Political resonance of the green backlash and the food crisis

The green backlash and the food crisis have resonated at the political level. The European People's Party (EPP), for example, has begun positioning itself as the “party of European farmers and rural communities”. Political resonance is particularly clear in Parliament’s division over two proposals: the Nature Restoration Law and the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR). The EPP opposed the strict environmental criteria of the Nature Restoration Law and, while the policy passed with a small majority, the outlook was weakened vis-a-vis EPP's influence. Similarly, SUR, a policy focused on the use of harmful pesticides, faced rejection by the Parliament, marking a significant win for farmer lobby groups. Since its rejection, Von der Leyen additionally announced the withdrawal of SUR, labelling it as "a symbol of polarisation”. Meanwhile, the Legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems, intended to embed sustainability elements within all food-related policies by the end of 2023, has yet to see fruition.

In addition to direct implications for upcoming elections, the protests reflect discontent with green policies - a sentiment picked up on by the far-right, which has positioned itself as an ally for such grievances. With polling indicating a surge of far-right support, these protests, though only a part of the equation, highlight a pressing concern for EU cohesion at this critical juncture. As the election influences the Commission’s policy agenda for the coming years, it also effectively determines the trajectory of the green transition in agriculture.

Aligning short-term responses with long-term commitments

The EU’s responses to the ongoing food crisis and related green backlash demonstrate the importance of aligning short-term measures with long-term commitments. The Russian war strengthened the discourse of food security and productivity while downplaying the long-term commitments to greening European agriculture. Although connected to the Russian war, the ongoing green backlash appears to be a symptom of a deeper misunderstanding among policy-makers, farmers, and civil society regarding the legitimacy and adequacy of green measures in agriculture.

In the run-up to the EU elections, concerns over farmers’ livelihoods in the wake of rising inflation and new sustainability requirements must be taken seriously. With that said, it must be stressed that food producers differ in terms of scale and type of agricultural production and that around one-third of the EU’s budget is allocated to farmland and rural areas mostly in the form of subsidies. Therefore, the EU should re-assess how CAP funds can be better used to ensure that European agriculture is crisis-proof and sustainable, while safeguarding farmer livelihoods. At the same time, the EU's agenda for agriculture must be fully aligned with the objectives of the Green Deal, particularly for CAP post-2027 and the EU’s 2040 climate ambitions. 

Beyond financial considerations, there is a need for a more systemic dialogue on the importance of greening agriculture to ensure that the EU’s long-term commitments are not crippled by potential crises of the future. The strategic dialogue launched by the Commission in January 2024 can serve that purpose provided that it unfolds on a continuous basis - before and after the elections, in an inclusive way. These dialogues should also be coupled with an effective EU communication strategy on why the greening of agriculture matters. Acknowledging the polarisation and discontent within the sector, the Commission should critically consider the outcomes of the strategic dialogue with key stakeholders on policy solutions for a more sustainable agriculture sector that brings farmers along.

Furthermore, a thorough analysis of public resistance and related challenges arising from proposed legislation should be conducted by the Commission prior to the proposal of new regulations and the revision of CAP. At the same time, the EU must resist the populist pressures aimed to reduce the Union’s ambitions to make our agriculture system sustainable. It must remain decisive and ensure that the green transition in agriculture is achieved successfully, yet inclusively, thereby protecting food security in the long run.  

It is without a doubt that agriculture stands as one of the EU’s most essential sectors, yet it also comes with considerable environmental challenges. Failing to green this sector could jeopardise not only the success of the EU Green Deal, but the viability of European agriculture. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure the alignment of short-term crisis management in agriculture with the EU's long-term climate and environmental goals.

Stefan Sipka is a Senior Policy Analyst and Head of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre.
Brooke Moore is a Policy Analyst in the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre.

Marialena Stagianni is a Programme Assistant in the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre.

This Commentary is part of the EPC project “Managing the crises of today and tomorrow”, organised with the support of the European Climate Foundation.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
Cesar Manso / AFP

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