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The farmers challenging the EU’s green agenda

The barns and milking sheds of Takis Kazanas’s farm are dwarfed by the majestic mountains that overlook the Thessalian Plain.

Cattle have been raised on this green expanse of land in northern Greece for millennia, but now regulators in Brussels are discussing rules that will lead to farms like his being treated as industrial plants, akin to steel mills or chemical works.

Should that change come into force, the farm on which the 66-year-old and his four sons manage 300 cattle and 230 acres of land will be legally obliged to cut greenhouse gas emissions and pollution levels. With ambitious climate targets to hit by 2030, Brussels is finally forcing farming to go green.

Kazanas already captures biogas from cow dung and, instead of using chemical fertiliser, spreads homemade manure over the land. “That’s what the EU says and that’s what I do,” says Kazanas, who started with 30 cattle in 1986. “Today, everyone blames cattle for methane production and pollution . . . I have a different opinion.”

He is one of many farmers growing tired of what they see as environmental diktats being handed down by a bureaucracy 2,500km away.

The sheer scale of the transformation that the European Commission is asking for in its Farm to Fork strategy — halving the amount of pesticides applied by 2030, cutting the use of fertilisers, doubling organic production and rewilding some farmland — would be remarkable even in less urgent times.

Yet it comes as the war in Ukraine has upended global food markets, and as farmers face a cut in subsidies in the Common Agricultural Policy, the €55bn-a-year programme that has underwritten Europe’s food security since 1962.

The EU argues that the agriculture sector is badly in need of environmental reforms. One senior EU official working on climate policy calls it “our problem child”.

The sector accounts for 11 per cent of the bloc’s total greenhouse gas emissions — a proportion almost as high as it was 20 years ago.

Nitrous oxides contained in fertiliser, as well as animal urine and excrement, are a significant part of the problem, with heavy nitrogen concentrations encouraging invasive species to swamp other plants, leading to the loss of biodiversity.

But the sector is very hard to regulate; the EU’s 9.1mn farms vary in type and scale, running from industrial concerns with thousands of “livestock units” — the measure for farm animals — to smallholders with a handful of vines and a few goats.

It also typically operates on very thin margins. There are organic producers surviving on local trade and pig farmers exposed to fierce international competition, where even a small increase in the price of feed can wipe out annual profits.

The turning point for many farmers came after Russia invaded Ukraine, right as the commission unveiled the Farm to Fork targets. Almost overnight, says a senior commission official, “the debate has changed”.

Now, the EU’s farmland is becoming a new battleground over its green ambitions. Nervous governments are scaling back the commission’s proposals, under pressure from an organised, well-funded farming lobby with close links to politicians.

The Dutch government recently paused work on a programme to shut farms to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, after the nascent Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) rode a wave of anger against the plans to triumph in provincial elections in March.

In recent days the governments of Poland and Hungary have temporarily halted imports of grain, dairy products, meat, fruits and vegetables from Ukraine after farmers complained about cheap imported Ukrainian food depressing prices.

The growing resistance poses a significant challenge to the EU’s aim to cut emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, in line with its international commitments. If Brussels cannot bring farmers on board, its pledge to hit net zero by 2050 may be at risk.

The bloc’s proposals are not suitable for a “wartime economy” in which farmers should be freed to produce, says Christiane Lambert, co-president of the powerful EU farmers’ union Copa-Cogeca. “The people making decisions about farming know nothing about it.”

Farmers fight back

For many farmers, opposition to the incoming changes is a matter of survival.

Tom Vandenkendelaere, a Belgian member of the European parliament, says the pressure on farmers is becoming unbearable: “It is the number of policies hitting them at the same time. We need to slow down.”

He says farmers feel vilified simply for doing their job by activists who accuse them of damaging the planet and blame meat-eating for climate change. “They feel their whole way of life is under attack.”

Boeren op een Kruispunt, an independent non-profit offering mental health counselling to farmers in Flanders, northern Belgium, has reported a 44 per cent increase in demand in 2022 compared with 2021, he says.

According to the French Institute for Health, farmers are three times more likely to commit suicide than other professionals. As Caroline van der Plas, leader of the BBB, told the Dutch parliament this month: “People who provide our daily food . . . are dismissed as animal abusers, poisoners, soil destroyers and environmental polluters.”

EU policymakers argue the measures are in the interests of farmers in the long run. The increase in gas prices has driven up the cost of fertiliser and chemicals. Decades of intensive farming has leached nutrients from the soil so more has to be used to achieve the same output.

“It’s a myth to say either you have more nature or you have more food,” argues one EU official. “The major fundamental threats to food security include climate change and biodiversity loss.”

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment and fisheries commissioner, agrees. “What is very important to me is to understand that those environmental proposals never go against the farm. They are for [farms] because without nature farming is not possible.”

“It is a significant change for our farmers, but inevitably they will have to be part of the solution,” he adds. “Maybe that won’t happen overnight.”

But an industry that already feels its back is against the wall is unlikely to give in.

The number of farms in the EU has shrunk by more than a third since 2005. While the average farm has got bigger, farm income has remained consistently low, at about €20,000 a person.

Bram van Hecke, who works on his family’s dairy farm near Ostend in Belgium, says he and his father and brothers feel squeezed between the environmental demands of politicians and those of supermarkets who do not want to pay for it.

“If you go to a bank saying I want to invest but my income will halve they are not going to give you a loan,” he says. “Producing more is a viable business, while being extremely environmental might harm your business.”

Van Hecke, who is also head of Flemish young farmers group Groene Kring, says an EU directive to tackle nitrogen pollution that requires farmers to use GPS to record muck spreading and not farm within 5 metres of water costs his farm €10,000-€15,000 annually.

“The average land price in Flanders is €63,000 per hectare — we lose about 4 hectares to the nitrates directive. You can do the maths,” he adds. “The government is saying we are going to increase your costs but there is no vision for helping increase income.”

At a macro level, that might be the point. Agronomists say that parts of Europe are cultivated too intensely. In 2021, the EU exported €197bn-worth of agricultural products to countries such as China and imported €150bn, generating a surplus of €47bn.

Krijn Poppe, an agricultural economist in the Netherlands, is in favour of a rethink. “Exports should not be at the expense of climate and nature,” he says. “In some regions, like the Netherlands and Flanders, farming’s environmental footprint is too big.”

Citizens in these “city states”, as he calls them, also want recreation areas, nature reserves, clean water, housing and transport.

The answer, says Poppe, is returning to a time when consumers paid higher prices for less intensively reared food. “In the 1980s, the Dutch consumed less protein, and 40 per cent was animal based, 60 per cent plant based. Now we eat more and the [protein-to-plant] ratio is 60/40.”

Poppe says some farms will inevitably disappear since many are too small to compete. “An economist who looks at total welfare would probably see no problem,” he adds. “A politician who wants to protect farmers’ jobs will have a more negative opinion.”

Little wonder that farmers themselves see this as an existential moment. Franc Bogovič, a fruit grower and member of the European parliament from Slovenia, says the plan for a 50 per cent cut in pesticide application by 2030 — one of the targets set out in a hotly contested directive currently under negotiation by EU lawmakers — would wipe out much of his production. “I have been in this sector for many years and I have never felt such a big objection to a policy,” he says.

He is especially upset that the new regulations came after a massive overhaul of the CAP to encourage green production took effect in January. The CAP, which subsidises farmers, has shrunk over the years and money is increasingly funnelled to environmental projects and side businesses rather than to food production. “They are trying to go beyond the agreed CAP, which only started this year,” he says.

“People are afraid of the future and how they will continue. People will be in big trouble if they must cut their vineyards, their orchards, their meat production, which was financed by loans five years ago. You need 20 years to get your money back.”

‘Why does Brussels hate us?’

Despite the backlash, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has not slowed the pace of policymaking since the Ukraine war started. “Farmers are asking, ‘Why does Brussels hate us?’” said Vandenkendelaere.

One theory is von der Leyen needs support from the Green party in the German coalition to secure a second term. Another is that she believes agriculture — particularly livestock farming — is damaging the planet.

“The commission is convinced that the transition to a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector, in line with the European green deal and its Farm to Fork and biodiversity strategies, is fundamental to food security,” von der Leyen’s spokesman Eric Mamer says, declining to confirm whether she ate red meat or dairy products. “The president’s personal nutrition choices . . . have no influence on the commission’s proposals,” he says.

Brussels has made some changes since the war in Ukraine started, he notes. It has allowed farmers to plant animal feed crops on the 10 per cent of land that has to be left uncultivated in order to recover, a condition of getting subsidies. It also suspended rules requiring the rotation of crops.

But it is national governments that have slammed the brakes on. European Commission proposals can be amended by the 27 member states and issue by issue they have blunted its ambition.

The blanket cut in pesticides has been sent back to the commission for a fresh impact assessment. Ministers complained that instead of considering the starting position of each country, it imposed the same proportionate cut on all. The Netherlands, which already uses much more pesticides than Poland, for example, would still be able to.

They also took issue with the plans for only taking into account the amount of chemical applied, not its toxicity.

For the industrial emissions directive revision, which will oblige bigger livestock farms to comply with clean air and water regulations that apply to heavy industry, the commission admitted in February that it had got its numbers wrong when launching the proposal last year.

It set the threshold for compliance at pig, poultry and cattle farms with at least 150 livestock units (LSU), claiming only 13 per cent of Europe’s commercial farms would be affected, but its calculations were based on farm data from 2016. When it reran the study with data from 2020 it emerged that six in 10 poultry and pig farms would be included.

A law to create legally-binding targets to reverse environmental decline, also proposed as part of Farm to Fork last year, is being resisted as it would inevitably lead to the loss of agricultural land. Some drained peatland, for example, would be soaked again. The aim is to cover at least 20 per cent of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 with nature restoration measures.

Separate legislation last year to reduce deforestation was also opposed in countries such as Sweden and Finland, which won concessions to ensure they could continue to exploit plantations.

In June, the final part of the Farm to Fork package arrives, a law that will oblige countries to monitor and improve the condition of their soil.

Some 16 EU agriculture ministers signed a letter to Brussels in January complaining that the policies could lead to the “abandonment of agricultural and forestry land in the union”.

“This in turn, will most likely have a negative impact on food security, supply with renewable raw material (for wood construction or the bioeconomy) and renewable energy sources, such as locally available biomass,” the letter said.

‘Farmers need help too’

Some believe the best way to deal with opposition is to buy it off.

EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has already called for more CAP funding because inflation — which hit almost 10 per cent in the eurozone last year — has eroded its real value. The CAP “is only 0.4 per cent of EU gross domestic product to ensure food security, environmental security and climate security”, he argues.

The private sector agrees. FoodDrinkEurope, which represents manufacturers, has written to von der Leyen calling for some of the billions in subsidies for the green transition to go to agriculture.

“The EU Farm to Fork strategy is not properly resourced or equipped to deal with today’s market realities and future pressures,” it wrote.

Several governments have made the same call, pointing out that increased interest rates raised the price of the investment needed.

Back in Greece, Georgios Georgantas, the agriculture minister, says farmers like Kazanas need support if they are to continue feeding Europe. With climate change already affecting yields, “we need to keep farming at the current levels”, he says, “or even increase it”.

To achieve this, Athens has created a €525mn fund to help young people take up farming. “The EU needs to go through the green transition. But this has created pressure on farmers,” he adds. “Other industries are getting help. Farmers need it too.”

Data visualisation by Chris Campbell

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