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How rioting farmers unraveled Europe’s ambitious climate plan

Road-clogging, manure-dumping farmers reveal the paradox at the heart of EU agriculture.

A large tractor with burning tires in the background
A large tractor with burning tires in the background
Farmer protests in Nîmes, France, in March. According to reports, large tires were set on fire during the blockade.
| Luc Auffret/Anadolu via Getty Images
Jan Dutkiewicz
Jan Dutkiewicz is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He has published widely about food and politics in both academic journals and publications including Vox, the Guardian, Wired, and the New Republic.

In February 2021, in the midst of the deadly second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Grégory Doucet, mayor of Lyon, France, temporarily took red meat off the menus of the city’s school cafeterias. While the change was environmentally friendly, the decision was driven by social distancing protocols: Preparing one hot meal that could be served to meat-eaters, vegetarians, and those with religious restrictions rather than serving multiple options was safer and more efficient. 

Inside this story

  • Why farmers all over Europe are protesting
  • How agriculture fuels Europe’s environmental crises
  • How farm subsidies became entrenched in European politics
  • Why Italy banned cell-cultivated meat
  • Why European leaders are buckling to agribusiness on climate policy

The response from the French agricultural establishment was hysterical. “We need to stop putting ideology on our children’s plates!,” then-Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie tweeted. Livestock farmers clogged Lyon’s downtown with tractors and paraded cows in front of city hall, brandishing banners declaring, “Stopping meat is a guarantee of weakness against future viruses.” An impromptu coalition of livestock producers, politicians, and parents unsuccessfully petitioned the city’s court to overturn the change. 

It may have seemed a tempest in a teacup — a quintessentially French squabble. But it was a microcosm of European agricultural politics, reflecting the great paradox of European Union (EU) farmers’ relationship to the state. 

On one hand, farmers are wards of the welfare state, dependent on national governments and the European Union for the generous subsidies and suite of protectionist trade policies that keep them in business. On the other, they are business people who balk at regulations, restrictions, and perceived government overreach. The tension between these positions regularly erupts into farmer revolts when governments attempt to regulate food or farming in the public interest as it might any other industry. EU politicians, meanwhile, often feel the need to kowtow to agribusiness because of its ability to mobilize protesters and voters alike.

This year, it has become clear these protests have the power to transform Europe’s future. 

This past February, three years almost to the day after Doucet’s school lunch announcement, roads around Lyon were again blocked by farmers raging against the French government and the EU. It was one surge in the wave of protests that has swept through Europe in recent months, set off by a litany of demands, including continued subsidies and no new environmental regulations. In short, all the benefits of government with none of the governance. 

In Paris, farmers traded blows with police at the country’s Salon de l’Agriculture trade fair. In Germany, they tried storming a ferry carrying the country’s economy minister. In Brussels, they rammed through police barricades with tractors. In the Netherlands, they lit asbestos on fire alongside highways. In Poland, they massed along the Ukrainian border to prevent the import of cheap grain. In Czechia, they paved Prague’s streets with manure

The protests have come as the EU seeks to pass a slate of laws as part of its Green Deal, a sweeping climate plan that includes checking the worst harms of industrial agriculture, which takes up more than a third of the continent’s landmass and contributes disproportionately to its ecological footprint. That agenda is colliding with Europe’s longtime paradigm of few-strings-attached welfare for agribusiness. 

Agribusiness interests have been working to foil the Farm to Fork strategy, the crown jewel of the Green Deal meant to overhaul Europe’s food system, since its inception in 2020. This year, with the specter of right-wing populism looming over upcoming European Parliament elections (part of the EU’s legislative branch), farmers’ protests across the continent have succeeded at not only stalling new sustainability reforms, but also undermining existing environmental regulations. Now, plans to make Europe a global leader in sustainable agriculture appear to be dead on arrival.

A truck sprays manure onto the street in front of a sleek office building; much of the street is already covered.
Farmers dump manure on streets in the EU quarter of Brussels in March.
Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images

How European agriculture got this way

Despite its centrality to European politics and policy, agriculture is a very small industry within the bloc’s economy, making up about 1.4 percent of the EU’s GDP and no more than 5 percent of GDP in any of the Union’s 27 countries. The sector is also one of the biggest recipients of EU funds, with subsidies to farmers and investment in rural development consuming about a quarter of the EU’s budget, on top of often generous national subsidies. 

Meanwhile, European agriculture’s environmental footprint is vastly disproportionate to its economic contribution. It uses a third of all water on the increasingly arid continent. It’s responsible for 10 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, including much of its methane and nitrous oxide, both highly potent greenhouse gases primarily released by animal agriculture. It accounts for about a quarter of global pesticide use, which has been linked to soil and water contamination, biodiversity loss, and a slew of impacts on human health. 

Of course, we need to eat, and food needs to be produced. But Europe’s monocrop- and livestock-intensive agriculture system is anything but sustainable.

Yet the EU continues to pour massive amounts of money into subsidizing an economically negligible sector that is responsible for many of the continent’s environmental problems and that, off the back of those subsidies, organizes to prevent environmental regulations or even conditions on those very subsidies.

Chart showing EU agriculture contributing 1.4 percent of the continent’s GDP, using 24% of its budget as subsidies, emitting 10% of its greenhouse gases, and using 31% of its freshwater and 39% of its land

Many countries around the world generously subsidize food production — including, famously, the United States, where agriculture makes up less than 1 percent of GDP and punches far above its weight politically. But much of the US ag sector’s billions in annual federal payouts comes in indirect forms like subsidized crop insurance, including more than a third of the $24 billion it received in 2021 — and these subsidies make up a much smaller share of the industry’s contribution to GDP relative to agriculture subsidies in the EU. In Europe, decades of government policy have integrated food production into an extensive state welfare framework where, on paper, the good of farmers is equated with the public good.

That system emerged from the ruins of World War II, when shoring up farming and food security became an existential policy imperative on the devastated and often starved continent. 

Post-war policies were designed to secure the food supply, provide farming families with a stable income, and stimulate rural economies in the interest of the public good. European agriculture policy became its own welfare system defined by subsidies and protection from foreign competition.

It worked. By 1950, agricultural production in Western Europe had recovered to pre-war levels. When the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the EU, formed in 1957, agriculture was central to the discussions, as economic integration would require dealing with the problem of highly subsidized and protected farming in member states. 

The answer was the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), launched in 1962, a centerpiece of EEC and later EU policy. An extension of national-level agricultural welfare policies, the goal of the CAP was “to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture.” 

In other words, rather than using policy to build agriculture into a viable competitive business, the goal was to protect agriculture from the market and commit to a long-term policy of keeping farmers in business. CAP was “from the outset a public policy reflecting highly subjective political ‘preferences,’ not rational commercial interests,” economic historian Ann-Christina Knudsen argues in her book Farmers on Welfare: The Making of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy.  

For decades, CAP has been the EU’s biggest budget line. As recently as the 1980s, it made up about two-thirds of the Union’s budget. While bouts of trade liberalization and the rise of other priorities have steadily reduced its relative size, about a third of the EU’s 2021-2027 budget was earmarked for CAP.  Over 70 percent of this money is distributed as direct payments to farmers. 

Since payments are primarily based on farm size, the biggest farms get the lion’s share of that money. Over half of the EU’s 9 million farms produce less than 4,000 euros of products per year and make up a combined 2 percent of Europe’s farm production, while the top 1 percent of farms — those that bring in over 500,000 euros — control 19 percent of all farmland and are responsible for over 40 percent of output. The top 0.5 percent of farms receive over 16 percent of all CAP payments.

Lavish subsidies have helped make Europe a net exporter of agricultural products, with early concerns about food security long since displaced by a global thirst for Irish whiskey and Dutch beer and hunger for Irish butter and French cheese. 

Coupled with decades of government policy incentivizing industrial production methods that favor big operations, such as factory farming and large-scale monocropping, CAP has served to push Europe’s farmers to get big or get out. Between 2005 and 2020, the EU lost over 5 million farms, virtually all of them small operations sold by retiring farmers or those simply unable to compete with their larger neighbors. 

Large farmers, in turn, have organized into powerful political interest groups that aim to dictate agricultural policy to their governments. Farmers and their political allies pack the EU’s agriculture committee. Lobby organizations like Copa-Cogeca, which represents large farmers’ unions across the EU, and CropLife Europe, a pesticide trade group, pressure governments to entrench the status quo, including maintaining CAP as an ever-open spigot gushing taxpayer money. 

And where governments are seen as truant in delivering on their promises, cities and nations can be brought to a standstill by blockades of tractors, helping galvanize public opinion and push politicians into acquiescence.   

Europe’s turn toward environmental protections is clashing with farming interests

Today, the growing importance of environmental goals in EU politics has driven a wedge into the sometimes contentious but mostly cozy relationship between farming interests and governments.

While EU subsidies do come with some environmental strings attached, such as requirements to protect wetlands or engage in soil-friendly crop rotation, these are often poorly enforced and noncompliance is common. In Europe, much like in the US, agriculture is governed with a lighter touch compared to other industries, a paradigm often known as agricultural exceptionalism.  

In the Netherlands, for instance, farms have for decades been granted a derogation on nitrogen emissions, allowed to emit more than any other industry. This meant that, over the years, dairy farms and heavily fertilized crop fields leached nitrogen into the soil and water, poisoning rivers and wetlands. 

In 2019, the Dutch government sought to close the loophole and buy out livestock farmers unable to comply with the restriction. Farmers launched a series of protests marked by the now-ubiquitous use of tractors to block roads and public spaces in a show of force against government bureaucrats. Many felt aggrieved that government, by pushing the resource-intensive industrial farming that had made the Netherlands into an agricultural powerhouse, had helped create the very environmental problems now being blamed on farmers.

A small black-and-white calf with ear tags in each ear is seen in a crate behind metal bars.
A two-week old calf on a dairy farm in Hazerswoude, Netherlands. Livestock farmers have been protesting the Dutch government’s efforts to limit polluting nitrogen emissions from farms.
Peter Boer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cities across the country ground to a halt, and the protesters formed a new political party, the far-right-aligned BoerBurgerBeweging (the Farmer-Citizen Movement, or BBB). Last year, it won the country’s provincial elections in a landslide on the back of rural votes as well as broader anti-government and anti-EU sentiment, controlling 20 percent of seats in the Dutch senate.  

It was a portent of things to come.

2019 was also the year the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, proposed the Green Deal, which aims to achieve net zero emissions across the EU by 2050 through emissions reduction across all industries, renewable energy and electric vehicle adoption, and reforestation programs. Farm to Fork, the food system component of the plan, calls for dramatically reducing pesticide use and food waste, and promoting more sustainable dietary choices through product labeling and school lunches; independent modeling suggested it could cut agricultural emissions by up to 20 percent and halve biodiversity destruction. 

Environmental policies are broadly popular with the European electorate, and that plan was arrived at through the EU’s highly bureaucratic — but nonetheless democratically deliberative — process. But because it originated with the European Commission, whose members are unelected, it was seen by some as being mandated by unaccountable functionaries. Farmers bristled at the idea of being told to devote some of their land to biodiversity and nature restoration. Growers of monocrop products like grains and grapes for wine balked at drastic pesticide reductions. The pesticide industry and its lobby saw its profits threatened. 

But most impacted would be livestock, the sector least able to meet stringent environmental or animal welfare standards. Animal agriculture makes up 40 percent of European agricultural production, releases more than 80 percent of the continent’s emissions from agriculture, and receives more than 80 percent of CAP subsidies, according to a recent study using data from 2013.

Immediately, the agricultural lobby began petitioning politicians to delay or do away with the proposed rules, starting with the proposed pesticide reduction measures. At first, EU politicians held in their support for reforms, voting in 2021 to implement Farm to Fork. But as Covid-19, with its disruption of food supply chains, dragged on and Russia invaded Ukraine, raising the specter of a food shortage, ag lobby groups gained new ammunition to fire at what they framed as the Green Deal’s attack on food security and the livelihood of farmers. Attacks on pro-Green Deal politicians escalated, including threats of violence against its staunchest supporters. Bit by bit, political support for Farm to Fork began to erode.

By the end of 2023, before most of Farm to Fork had even been implemented, many of its core initiatives were already watered down or abandoned, including pesticide reduction mandates and farm animal welfare improvements. Also declawed was the nature restoration law, which would require EU member states to restore 20 percent of degraded habitats to preserve biodiversity, by calling on farmers to plant tree and flower strips along the edges of fields, for example. Industrial beef and dairy operations were also granted an exemption from industrial emissions targets despite being among the food system’s biggest emitters, responsible for most agricultural methane emissions. 

Throughout, political allies of agricultural lobbies like the right-wing European People’s Party have celebrated these wins over the specter of “NGO environmental dictatorship.” 

Farming interests are blocking the development of sustainable alternatives

The same groups pushing against environmental regulation in the name of keeping the government out of business have few compunctions about turning to governments to thwart their competition. Meat producers in particular are threatened not only by environmental regulations that would affect them most, as the food system’s biggest emitters, but also by meat alternatives that have the potential to cut into their market share. 

Cell-cultivated meat, a novel technology that can harvest animal tissue from stem cells rather than slaughtered animals, has not yet received regulatory approval for sale in the EU and remains largely theoretical. That did not stop politicians in Italy, under pressure from agricultural lobby groups, from passing legislation last November banning not just the sale of cellular agriculture products, but also scientific research into the technology. 

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, a member of the country’s far-right ruling party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), declared cultivated meat a threat to Italian culture and civilization. Soon thereafter, members of the Italian delegation to the EU, joined by representatives from 11 other countries, called on the Council of Europe to “ensure that artificially lab-grown products must never be promoted as or confused for authentic foods,” ostensibly in the public interest. 

Farming lends itself to populism, which often acts as a cover for cold business calculations. The cultivated meat ban reveals that agricultural lobby group demands are generally about realpolitik rather than a principled position about state intervention — no different from any business that aims to protect its bottom line. Political scientist Leah Stokes, in her book Short Circuiting Policy, has described such policy fights as “organized combat” between interest groups, which tends to favor powerful incumbents over new constituencies aiming to build political support for social or economic change. In Italy, an entrenched and politically well-connected agricultural lobby had the power to write its preferences into policy while proponents of cellular agriculture did not, allowing them to nip potential competition in the bud. 

Something similar is at work in the unraveling of the EU’s green agenda. Proponents of environmental legislation, while technically having science and public support on their side, were either unprepared or lacked the heart for a fight with the battle-tested farming lobby. 

All that took place before Europe became engulfed by protests. Then came the tractors. 

Last December, a proposed cut to diesel subsidies (used to power tractors and other farm machinery) in Germany, which had more to do with the country’s budgetary crisis than with environmental regulations, sent aggrieved farmers into the streets. Dozens of other protests erupted around Europe stemming from particular national issues. But as they grew, they coalesced into a generalized grievance about the failure of government and the EU to sufficiently support farmers, with new environmental policies offering a particularly easy target for ire.

Alan Matthews, an Irish economist and preeminent expert on the CAP, recently argued that part of the problem is the changing social capital of farmers: “Instead of being seen as heroic producers of a vital commodity, they are increasingly described as environmental villains and climate destroyers. ... Instead of taking responsibility for these problems, farmers often adopt a defensive position of denial.”

The protests have brought farmers of all stripes to the streets, big and small, organic and conventional. Despite their differences and the historic exclusion of small farmers from EU policymaking, most of Europe’s farmers share a common interest in maintaining subsidies and reducing regulation. 

They also raise some valid points about the contradictions in EU policy, such as in their calls for more protection from foreign competitors that produce with lower standards than in Europe, including livestock produced in jurisdictions with no animal welfare protections or raised using growth stimulants banned in Europe. But this argument is undermined by farmers’ calls to weaken those very standards. 

By late February, when a massive protest by farmers from across the continent ran amok through the EU quarter of Brussels, politicians across the continent were buckling to farmers’ demand. At the EU, even the watered-down version of the nature restoration law that had passed a vote in EU Parliament despite protests was stalled — perhaps indefinitely — as states including Belgium and Italy withdrew their support. 

But perhaps most worrying has been the willingness of EU politicians to weaken already existing environmental standards, including loosening environmental conditions and reporting requirements for all farms smaller than 10 hectares.

These decisions may have also been motivated by upcoming EU elections. Many Europeans support the farmers’ cause, and as the Dutch case showed, the protests have the potential to galvanize voters to support parties seen as “pro-farmer.” With widespread concern about large gains for right and far-right parties in the EU Parliamentary elections next month, even ostensibly pro-Green Deal politicians, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, have been forced to act appropriately deferential to the protesters. 

Ursula von der Leyen, a blonde woman in her 60s, speaks into microphones in front of the EU flag.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the European Parliament on February 6, the same day that she recommended shelving a plan to cut pesticide use as a concession to protesting farmers.
Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Sooner or later, climate change will force a reckoning with farming practices

The latest progress report on the EU’s quest for carbon neutrality, released by the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change amid the protests in January, showed little improvement, especially in agriculture. It called for reductions in production of meat and dairy, higher consumer prices of highly emitting foods, more incentives for farmers to embrace green practices, and, as a political hint, more ambitious policy plans. In short: the opposite of the situation on the ground. 

Arriving at a viable agricultural policy that marries support for farmers, green goals, and liberal trade policies is a difficult balancing act with few clear-cut solutions. It is unlikely that these could be achieved without continued state and EU involvement in shaping how food is produced in Europe through some mix of protectionism, policy nudges, and regulation. CAP, in one form or another, isn’t going anywhere. 

But to the extent that it remains primarily a subsidy program, there is no reason why conditions on meeting strict climate and environmental targets should not be massively strengthened, rather than weakened, and enforcement ramped up. And there is no reason not to use policy to steer production away from highly polluting industries like meat and dairy toward less harmful ones. 

To be in favor of more sustainable farming is not to be against farmers; it is to be against unsustainable farming practices. To allow these two to be conflated is to lose the fight, as the EU is currently doing. After all, to the extent farmers see themselves as businessmen, a sign of business acumen is making a profit within regulatory and market constraints. 

One thing is certain: Bowing to the demands of special interests whose only interest is maintaining agricultural exceptionalism only precipitates a sooner reckoning with environmental crises, which will force farming to change whether farmers want to or not. The EU, however, seems to be taking marching orders from a parasite of its own creation, abandoning the very notions of public good that led to the creation of its agricultural policies in the first place.