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The metropolitan elite has ignored farmers for too long

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Paris and Berlin brought to a standstill; Polish farmers hurling eggs at EU buildings; Bulgarians calling for the agriculture minister to resign. The modern farmers’ uprising travels by tractor, not ox cart. But its message to metropolitan elites is centuries-old: don’t ignore the people who toil on the land to produce your food.

It is testament to how far political leaders and opinion formers have lost touch with agriculture that so few seem to have seen this coming. Governments that want to tackle climate change seem not to have thought through the effects on an industry that is facing rising production costs and falling global food prices.

The Dutch government had to make concessions on a nitrogen ban, after a hastily convened farmer’s protest party took 16 Senate seats. Brussels is panicking about the radical right exploiting these issues in the June elections to the European parliament. In Britain, Rishi Sunak has become the first prime minister to address the National Farmers Union conference since Gordon Brown in 2008. Some rural Conservative seats have already swung to Liberal Democrats in by-elections, and the polls suggest that many more will follow.

The challenge for governments is to balance the need to reduce carbon emissions with the desire to maintain cheap food production, and the demands of bourgeois conservationists who want to take land out of production and rewild it, or plant trees.

It’s legitimate to ask big landowners who have benefited disproportionately from subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy to reduce pollution. But food production cannot be taken for granted. Policymakers must accept that extreme weather exposes farmers to more uncertainty, and manage the demands on land strategically. Last year’s EU Nature Restoration Law — which pledges to set aside 20 per cent of the bloc’s land and coast for natural restoration — was seen by some farmers as a dismissal of their stewardship of the countryside.

The anger at the loss of subsidies should not drown out what seems to be a deeper fear that a whole way of life is under threat. Smallholdings across Europe are going bankrupt. The countryside is ageing, with younger generations wondering if they can handle the psychological strain of an industry where financial worries can crush mental health. In France, suicide rates are 20 per cent higher among farmers than the national average.

The media rarely portrays any of this. Films about poverty tend to have gritty urban backdrops, not rolling hills. The only documentary I’ve seen that truly exposed the reality in England was Molly Dineen’s The Lie of The Land, which opened my eyes to the brutality of what I had imagined to be a romantic bucolic life. A third of agricultural land in England is farmed by tenant farmers whose leases can be terminated at short notice.

When livelihoods are at stake, green issues get pushed aside. But there shouldn’t have to be such a stark trade-off. The war in Ukraine has exposed the risks of being overly dependent on imports. Perhaps nutritious food should be regarded as part of our critical infrastructure. In her valedictory speech as president of the NFU, Minette Batters pointed out that UK landowners who installed solar farms received index-linked payments for 20 years; but those who produced crops had no such luxury.

When I talk to UK farmers I hear people who regard themselves as stewards of the countryside, but feel they are portrayed as vandals. Who would like to do more regenerative farming, if they could afford it. Who have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world, but watched the Johnson government sign free trade deals to import more food prepared in less humane conditions.

The UK’s Brexiters urged farmers to leave the EU on the wholly mythological basis that they would continue to receive more than £2bn a year in subsidies. They vaguely assumed that outside the EU, taxpayers could stop supporting farmers to grow food, and pay them instead to carry out environmental improvements like planting hedgerows and trees, or conserving carbon in soil. But the new payments are a muddle of complex schemes dreamt up by ministers and officials who have never got closer to farming than pulling on a pair of wellies for the cameras. Whitehall’s notion of “diversity”, after all, doesn’t include the agricultural labour force.

In an increasingly urban world, the metropolitan political classes treat the countryside as a playground. Rambler groups insist on the right to roam, but there has been a rise in littering and out-of-control dogs attacking sheep. Animal lovers are outraged by badger culls, but don’t know how to save cattle from TB. We Londoners won’t even pay a fair price for milk, although the dairy farms whose fields we claim to love are going bankrupt under supermarket pressure. Celebrity landowners take land out of production to greenwash their jet-setting lifestyles.

The question is not so much about who will exploit these protests, as whether farmers have legitimate grievances. What can be done to allay their fears and what timescales for change are realistic? We need to think much more about what level of food security we want to achieve and what we are prepared to pay for it.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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