Press review (Dis)Equality

Agro-industrial oligarchy and sustainable agriculture: the European farmer protests

Who are they and why are they protesting? European agriculture, an industry that involves around nine million workers, is in deep crisis, bringing thousands to the streets across Europe, with similar demands but various motivations.

Published on 8 February 2024 at 15:19

The European agricultural sector is on the warpath. "Contagion or coincidence?" Lola García-Ajofrín asks in Spain's El Confidencial: "The images from Romania are very similar to those from Germany, where in early January tens of thousands of people blocked the highways with their tractors. In that case, the protests were against a series of cuts in farm vehicle and fuel subsidies. The protests also resemble those in Toulouse (France), and Ireland, where farmers marched with cows, or those in Poland, and Belgium [...]. Earlier, in the Netherlands, farmers went so far as to found a party and gain parliamentary representation. Since the Dutch tractor protests broke out just over a year ago, agricultural protests have occurred in more than 15 EU countries, according to monitoring by the think tank Farm Europe."

According to 2020 data from Eurostat, there are about 8.7 million farmers in Europe, only 11.9 percent of whom are under 40 years old. This figure represents a little over 2 percent of the electorate for the upcoming European elections. Since restructuring due to the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), the number of farms in the EU has declined by more than a third since 2005, explains Jon Henley, Europe correspondent for The Guardian.

A Politico.eu map shows where protests have taken place and (briefly) for what reasons."In 11 EU countries, producer prices [base price farmers receive for their produce] fell by more than 10 percent from 2022 to 2023.Only Greece and Cyprus have seen a corresponding increase in farmers' sales revenues, thanks to increased demand for olive oil," writes Hanne Cokelaere and Bartosz Brzeziński.

Henley In The Guardian writes that "besides feeling persecuted by what they see as a Brussels bureaucracy that knows little about their business, many farmers complain they feel caught between apparently conflicting public demands for cheap food and climate-friendly processes." For many, it is not climate compliance that is causing the agricultural world to suffer, but "competition between farmers and the concentration of farms," as Véronique Marchesseau, farmer et secretary-general of the French leftist union Confédération paysanne, explains in Alternatives Economiques. At the same time, adds Nicolas Legendre, a journalist specializing in the topic, interviewed by Vert, there is also a "visceral anger from part of the agricultural world toward environmentalists (and environmentalism in general), fueled by certain agro-industrial players."

While the press has a tendency to report on a "movement," the agricultural world is not monolithic. The mobilisation of European farmers emerges from a sector that is diverse in not only the modes of production, but also in worldview, political orientation, income level and social class.

In Reporterre, a site specialising in ecology and social struggles that we often feature in Voxeurop, we learn that in France the average area of a farm is 96 hectares. Arnaud Rousseau, leader of FNSEA, the majority union of French farmers, owns a 700-hectare farm. Why would I mention Rousseau? Because, to return to the question of movements - who they represent, and who is represented - it is important to mention when a leading voice of a protest movement is that of an agribusiness oligarch. A portrait/investigation by Amélie Poinssot for Mediapart clarifies the political dimension: "He is the head of a giant of the French economy: Avril-Sofiprotéol, a giant of so-called seed oil and protein crops, founded by the trade union. It is no less than the fourth largest agribusiness group in France."

As Ingwar Perowanowitsch explains in taz, "there are powerful agricultural holding companies that receive up to 5 million euro in subsidies per year. And there are small family farms that receive a few hundred euro. There is animal husbandry and cultivation. There are conventional and organic farmers. Some produce for the world market, others for the weekly market." The German newspaper quotes a farmer from Leipzig, who works for a cooperative farm, who decided not to demonstrate in January due to the infiltration of the far right, and because he did not feel represented: "the farmers' association defends the interests of large companies that produce for the world market and not those of small-scale agriculture."

Farmers and violence: double standards

For Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, "many of the farmers' concerns are legitimate", as Le Soir reports, in the wake of demonstrations that saw thousands of farmers in Brussels light fires and throw eggs at the European Parliament building on 1 February. In El Pais Marc Bassets writes that "power fears them. The majority of the population looks at them with distance and respect."

This is an attitude that finds its peak in France, where the difference in treatment of protesters at the hands of police is flagrant. Europe has denounced the excessive violence of the police, first and foremost toward the Gilets Jaunes, but also various  demonstrations around the country (against pension reforms, or during the riots in the banlieues), and finally the use of 5,000 grenades against the "ecoterrorists" in Sainte-Soline.

In recent days farmers have not only blocked roads and highways, or poured straw and manure, but also detonated a bomb in one building, and set fire to another. But no one is talking about "agroterrorism," and the police have never intervened. Quite the contrary, in fact. As for the minister of the interior, Gérard Darmanin, he abandoned his usual martial tone by expressing on TF1 his "compassion" for the farmers and stating that "you don't respond to suffering by sending CRS [riot police], voilà."

"Since World War II, public authorities have tolerated from farmers what they would not tolerate from other social groups," historian Edouard Lynch, an expert in rural studies, tells Libération. Moreover, not all farmers are equal: "Even within farmer movements, the state targets minority groups, as shown by the repression of demonstrations against the mega-basins in Sainte-Soline," in Western France, Lynch continues. On Arrêt sur Images, Lynch adds, "One can see today [in the face of these demonstrations] how the violence we have witnessed in recent years is the result of the strategies of the forces of law and order. [...] The violence of social movements is provoked by the keepers of the peace: decisions are made to move toward confrontation in order to stigmatise the opponent." Behind this, he explains, is a kind of national mythology of the "good farmer who feeds the nation."

Lynch is echoed by Thin Lei Win in Green European Journal: there is "a positive European-wide image of farmers as custodians of rural traditions and cultural heritage, as well as providers of our livelihood. This means that a much larger part of the electorate sympathises and identifies with them."

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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