Farmers from Holland to Spain are marvelling at the logic, or illogic, behind recent national and EU policies that are harming the agricultural industry. Amidst their wonder, they are also understandably angry.
In Holland, animal farmers are facing the spectre of having to meet extremely demanding nitrogen runoff standards—as high as a 95% reduction—or close their farms.
In Spain, the EU has denied farmers long-standing subsidies for growing much-needed sunflowers, on the grounds they don’t comply with new protein crop subsidy criteria—although Spanish farmers had previously received support to grow sunflowers as a protein crop, since the seeds provide protein supplements for animals.
In Poland, Spain, and Italy too, agriculturalists have mounted their tractors to express their discontent.
The dissatisfaction is not new. Farmers have been protesting intermittently for the last several years. Those who feed Europe and beyond are facing not only rising costs to bring their products to market but also changing regulations, political tides, and even public opinion, all of which often seem to contradict the reality of both how we grow food and consume it.
Farmers in Lorca, Spain, stormed a city council meeting last spring, fearing the local government was about to enact regulations that would have closed their businesses. Most of the farmers in the area run farms that can have anywhere from one thousand to many thousands of pigs, cows, or chickens raised closely together mostly in barns. Because of the awful stench they can generate, and due to general concerns about ecological impact, animal welfare, and food quality, these packed barns are the oft-demonised, modern ‘megafarms’ or factory farms.
But they feed us, contribute to Europe’s GDP, and are the logical response to current market conditions.
Politico accurately describes the plight of a Spanish farmer in Lorca, who runs a pig farm with a little over a thousand pigs, a relatively small operation in comparison to some neighbouring farms:
Artero’s piglet-fattening operation is typical of Spain’s modern “integrated” production system. He receives both piglets and their feed from the same company and feeds them until they reach the weight demanded by the slaughterer. Times have changed on this dusty third-generation farm. When Artero was a child, his family kept just 20 pigs, and tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke of his childhood.
“This system is not the one I most like, but it’s the one we have to accept,” he said. “We depend on the big supermarket chains and it’s them who tell us what we have to produce and how to produce it.””
Except that not everyone is willing to accept it: Holland is a case in point, as the government recently enacted strict nitrogen legislation that it admits will force at least some farms to drastically change how they operate, perhaps to the point of extinction.
Here, I could go off on a diatribe about inflexible technocrats with ecologists whispering in their ears, and personally, I have no doubt that there are technocrats and ecologists in the halls of the Hague, the EU, and many other institutions, who truly want to see megafarms shut down, even if it causes human suffering. At the same time, not all the blame should be put on today’s technocrats. They weren’t the ones who started the Revolution that made Spanish farmer Artero cry.
For the last seventy years, agricultural policy in Europe and elsewhere has been driven toward efficiency and increased production. On the one hand, this is nothing new. Farmers have always sought to make their work more effective. On the other hand, it was revolutionary—the ‘Green Revolution’ of post-war era advances in chemistry, genetics, and machinery. Chemical companies like Monsanto developed the synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides which allowed farmers to solve age-old agricultural challenges with a spray bottle, or a spray tractor, as the case may be. A deeper understanding of plant genetics made it possible to breed ultra-productive crops and to also make them more resistant to perpetual threats like drought and disease. Antibiotics and vaccines allowed for larger animal herds, kept in close spaces. Larger, more diverse machinery made it easier to work larger tracts of land.
The government backed the agricultural companies in popularising these developments among farmers, as the horror of famine still lingered in the collective memory, particularly in Europe. Policies rewarded ever increasing productivity through direct subsidies, even to the point that the United States and Europe had to flood poor nations with their excess-subsidised crops.
Much of the research that fuelled the revolution was also state-funded. Norman Borlaug, the American plant geneticist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing the highly productive dwarf wheat now grown around the world, was a professor at the University of Minnesota, a public research university in the United States. In Holland, Wageningen University was the incubator for many of the new techniques in production, breeding, and pest control that have turned tiny Holland into a global agricultural superpower.
Meanwhile, human life became increasingly urbanised. Populations moved from the country to the city, and over time the frequent trips on foot to small, niche businesses—the fishmonger, the greengrocer, the butcher—have been replaced by the weekly shopping chore done in the family mini-van at the one-stop-shop supermarket, nowadays often a multinational company.
The results of this revolution are both fascinating and often beneficial: Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize because his new ear of wheat saved millions of people around the world from starvation; Dutch agriculture, particularly fruit and vegetable cultivation, is rightly world-renowned. Advancements in agricultural techniques in the Netherlands have allowed them to reduce resource inputs, such as water, while multiplying crop yield.
Regarding global markets, they have been both a blessing and a curse. The EU boasted an agricultural trade surplus of €43 billion in 2021. The international market allowed this to happen, since such a yield relies on imports of certain essentials, namely ingredients for synthetic fertiliser from Russia, and soybeans from North and South America. The fertiliser, for which natural gas is a major component, is essential to crop productivity, and soybean, one of the most protein-rich legumes, has become the most efficient way to feed animals. Now, however, with sanctions on Russia, these crucial agricultural components have become either a scarcity or expensive or both, and soon may follow the crops and animals that depend on them. Europe simply can’t grow soybeans as easily and cheaply as the Americas, and has not developed an adequate alternative. Nor does it have an adequate, domestic supply of fertiliser nutrients. To maintain the high productivity that makes it a net agricultural exporter, European farmers rely on imports that are increasingly expensive.
Acertain strain of conservative thought always understood the dangers of the Green Revolution. In the United States, cultural critic Wendell Berry has been the voice of scepticism for decades. He points out that the Green Revolution destroyed communities while farmers lost their autonomy, and hence, their freedom. In the revolutionised system, farms had to be larger to be profitable, undermining “small hold” farms and the communities they populated. Modern inputs, from fertiliser to seeds, make farming easier and more productive but must also be purchased every season from the corporations that make them, adding to farmers’ production expenses and making them dependent on those companies. The situation was worsened with false claims of safety: though governments and chemical companies stood by the wholesome value of their products, critics realised that some fertilisers and pesticides posed threats to both nature and man.
Relying on subsidies comes with a price. As Spanish farmers have experienced recently, what Brussels giveth, Brussels taketh away.
Ecologists too were sceptical, their science developing parallel to the revolution. Wendell Berry, for instance, is not only a farmer and cultural critic, but also an ecologist. Ecology was, on some level, a reactionary movement. Now though, it has become heavily intertwined with progressive ideologies and can be as narrowly focused and technocratic as anything. As a science, it, too, relies on data and views problems though the often too-narrow view of the microscope in the lab.
An ecologist friend once shared a telling anecdote. Deep in Indonesia, I think it was, a ‘traditional’ community continued to rely on an oracle to decide how to regulate the common irrigation system that watered their crops. Then a team of first-world ecologists promised them that with their scientific knowledge they could improve the irrigation system. The villagers agreed to let them try. Sadly, the first-world scientists failed, and when they left, they had also ruined the traditional irrigation system, leaving the villagers helpless.
At this stage in the revolution, such ecological technocrats have ascended to the halls of power across Europe. Going into effect in 2023, the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which sets agricultural subsidies and eats up almost a third of the EU budget with €291.1 billion for its implementation, is aligned with the Green Deal, meant to reward farmers for helping the EU achieve various climate goals and push farmers to ‘green’ up their farming.
Just like the revolution’s first iteration, today’s comes with benefits. Emerging farming techniques are countering some of the negative environmental effects stemming from past decades’ push to mass farming, and are lowering farmers’ production costs in the long-term.
But the upside comes with a downside, because technocrats will be technocrats. Consider, for instance, the CAP’s focus on crops to increase plant protein production. In its effort to get farmers to grow more plant protein, the EU is funding research to develop protein crops suited for European conditions—to find a substitute for imported soybeans. I personally know of two such research projects, one of which seems particularly promising for Europe’s arid Mediterranean climate. But that same plant-protein policy has worked to deprive Spanish farmers of a perfectly reasonable subsidy for sunflowers, which is alarming, given the current situation. We can assume, as with any government program, systemic arbitrariness comes with its application.
Inconsistencies are inevitable when policies are imposed from the top down, which is most certainly the case with ‘Green Revolution 2.0.’ In February, the World Economic Forum hosted a panel discussion on food systems that featured Hanneke Faber, president of the foods and refreshment division of Unilever, Netherlands, Jürgen Vögele, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, and Rodrigo Santos, Member of the Board of Management and Head of the Crop Science Division at Bayer. While it is advantageous to have the support of large political entities, who have the means and economic motivation to make strides in technological innovation, this approach leaves the little guy, the average farmer, at the mercy of government puppet masters.
Bleak as it seems, all is not yet in the hands of the global elites. There are still opportunities in this stage of the revolution that conservatives can capitalise on, principally in the strange Green-Conservative alliance that occasionally proves politically fortuitous. Within both the Right and the Left, for example, there are advocates for getting rid of farm subsidies. Some farmers I have talked to from my years reporting in agriculture have hinted at such an idea. Still, it is challenging. Though direct payments to farmers have decreased in recent years, an analysis from the conservative think tank Open Europe shows that there is little political appetite to thoroughly slash agricultural subsidies, and at the moment most farmers rely on them, though evidence also exists that farming can be more competitive without them.
All this to say that should Spanish and Dutch farmers win their current battles against the nitrogen and protein czars, they will still have a long fight ahead, and conservatives will need to be creative, consistent, and coherent in lending them support.