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Steak or survival: Time to reflect on the Europeans’ priorities

Stefan Sipka

Date: 30/05/0023
Today, the Dutch Farmer-Citizen movement (Dutch: BoerBurgerBeweging or BBB) is expected to win most seats in the Dutch Senate elections and should make us all concerned about advancing a sustainable agro-food system in Europe. The EU and member states must find new ways to safeguard the ambitions of the European Green Deal to face the existential threat posed by global warming and environmental degradation.

Because of intensive farming, a large livestock industry, and the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, the agriculture sector has a significant impact on climate and the environment. Agriculture accounts for around 10% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions of nitrate pollute our land, air, and water. As farming requires land, it often comes at the expense of natural ecosystems.

The EU has proposed measures to green European agriculture as part of a more expansive European Green Deal aiming for climate neutrality by 2050 coupled with zero pollution, resource efficiency, and nature restoration. However, as the EU and national governments try to walk the talk, the opposition to the green measures is growing. As a response to the food crisis brought on by the Russian invasion, the EU has suspended specific sustainability requirements – such as crop rotation and not farming fallow land - in the name of boosting food production. As a result, the new rules on the sustainable use of pesticides are being delayed. On a member state level, the Netherlands appears to be at the centre of this reaction to new sustainability measures in agriculture. As a leading global exporter of food, the political developments in the Netherlands resonate strongly in the EU.

A populist Farmer-Citizen movement emerged in 2019 to spearhead the political struggle against the greening measures. Last year, Dutch farmers staged a series of protests with violent outbursts against the government’s policy to cut nitrogen emissions in the farming sector and significant reductions in livestock. And today, the BBB is expected to become the largest party in the Dutch Senate with 15-17 seats, building on its overwhelming victory in the provincial elections in March. The growing political power of the BBB is surprising given that agriculture accounts for 1,5% of the Dutch GDP, and this sector employs around 2% of the Dutch workforce.

The latest political turnout in the Netherlands is a serious backlash to the EU’s sustainability ambitions in the agri-food sector. As this event comes one year ahead of the European Parliament elections, it risks boosting similar political voices at the EU level and halting the green transition in the agri-food sector, echoing similar growing scepticism about the green transition in other parts of Europe.

It is important to face this new challenge head-on. Unfortunately, there appears to be a failure on behalf of our governments to explain the importance of the green transition to farmers and citizens and ensure that every stakeholder is on board. While global warming and environmental degradation threaten the economy, society, and lives, there are trade-offs, as the associated costs are not equally distributed across different regions and populations. Therefore, the EU and member states must double their efforts to ensure the green transition is inclusive and just. Furthermore, they must become far better at communicating the urgency and the benefits of greening European agriculture if it is to turn the tide of the growing opposition to the green measures ahead of the European elections.

Stefan Šipka is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme at the European Policy Centre.

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