Farm to (negotiating) table

15th February 2024

Erin LynchErin Lynch

For months, remarkable footage of the ongoing farmers’ protests across Europe has slipped in and out of mainstream news channels in the UK. Immense in scale, fervour and impact, the protests represent some of the key tensions at play in the climate movement. How can we make sustainable food systems and climate-friendly agricultural practices, while ensuring those running these operations aren’t left behind? Mass demonstrations have taken place in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Romania and Greece since late-2022, but the latest wave over the past few months has caused a particularly big headache for policy-makers across Europe, many of whom are facing elections this year.

While each country’s agricultural sector has its own unique grievances, similarities echo across the protests in each country — farmers feel frustrated at red-tape, over-regulation and dwindling profits as supermarkets sell produce at cutthroat prices. Many recognise the importance of regulations regarding land-use, pollution and pesticides, but they also feel like they’re having to unfairly shoulder the burden of the climate transition more than other sectors.

Some of the many causes behind the protests include extreme weather, tariff-free trade with Ukraine, and inconsiderate policy-making. In France, protestors have dumped manure in front of government buildings furious at cheap imports, lack of subsidies, and increased production costs. In Germany, the key issue seems to concern reduction of tax exemptions - particularly those related to diesel use for agricultural purposes.

Comparatively, the UK has been quiet - leaving some commentators wondering why Britain’s farmers weren’t revolting. Is it Brexit? Britishness? The Gulf Stream? Over the past week however, action has intensified both at home and abroad and one would expect them to continue as elections loom.

On 8th February, 3,000 farmers gathered in Carmarthen to protest the Sustainable Farming Scheme. The Scheme is the Welsh government’s latest proposal which says that for farmers to be eligible for payments, farms must ensure that 10% of land is planted with trees and that 10% of land is treated as wildlife habitat. Frustrated farmers who already feel on the brink of financial collapse say these targets are unworkable.

A day later, traffic in and around the Port of Dover was disrupted as a group of Kentish tractors congregated to protest government trade deals for less regulated food than UK agricultural regulations allow. Signs on the tractors read ‘No more cheap imports’ and ‘No to [New Zealand] lamb’. The Dover protest was organised spontaneously and, inspired by actions abroad, its leaders have suggested willingness to do more.

Farmers’ protests are certainly no new or unique phenomenon, but they are perhaps considered to be rarer and more muted than other forms of protest or strike, at least to the general public. This is understandable since farmers tend to be more geographically isolated. Still, there seems to the common eye to have been a remarkable uptick in the past few years.

Perceived Unfair Trade Deals

The protesting farmers, who were dispersed from the Port of Dover last Friday, hoped to raise awareness of the unfairness they felt British farmers were subjected to. Jeffrey Gibson, from Yew Tree Farm in Kent, expressed frustration that supermarkets were selling British produce at prices that were ‘cheaper than the cost of production.’

We produce crops to the highest standards in the world, but have to compete with imported foods containing illegal chemicals and the government does trade deals with those countries

Two main trade deals were cited by the Dover Protestors — Ukraine and New Zealand.

Following the New Zealand - United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement made in February 2022, Kiwi lamb is now available for prices far cheaper than consumers are used to. Gibson and others find this understandably frustrating.

We’re getting a lot of produce from around the world that would be illegal to grow in this country. We produce the best stuff to the highest standard. We just want a level playing field.

For many, this has made a bad situation worse. In 2022, researchers from the food campaign group Sustain found that UK farmers made on average less than 1% profit from the food they produce. To fix this, Sustain called on ministers to force supermarkets to publish more information about their supply chains, and for the government to put in place regional structural funds to invest in supply chain infrastructure. Not much has changed. Half of British fruit and vegetable farmers fear they’ll go out of business within the next 12 months, with 75% of that cohort reporting that supermarket behaviour is a leading factor.

Another key factor is the war in Ukraine. Following the outbreak of war in 2022, the EU suspended import duties, quotas and trade defence measures for imports from Ukraine to try and support Ukraine’s economy. The UK similarly removed all tariffs of Ukrainian imports under the UK-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement. Agricultural products have long been Ukraine’s most important export - totalling $27.8 billion in 2021 — 41% of their entire export portfolio, with sunflower meal and oil major products within this group.

Soon after the EU suspended import duties, it became apparent that this might cause an issue for neighbouring countries. Poland, which shares 535 km of border with Ukraine and became the principal port through which exports would be sent, became the first country to react.

Traditionally, Ukrainian grain has been shipped to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But owing to the trade deals with the UK and EU, as well as export issues through the Black Sea, much of this grain was diverted westward. Since Ukraine is not part of the EU, its agricultural produce has not been subject to the same regulatory restrictions as EU-derived produce, so many argue that what is emerging from Ukraine is not up to the same standard as that which is produced within the EU (or UK).

In February 2023, Polish farmers gathered near Dorohusk close to the Polish-Ukrainian border intending to block the import of grain. The protestors were aggrieved that cheaper, lower quality and less regulated Ukrainian grain was being secretly sold in the Polish market and that Polish businesses were exporting ‘healthy Polish grain’ overseas, leaving Poles eating grain with ‘unauthorised chemical agents’. This is entirely plausible, as a significant percentage of Ukrainian grain was actually grown for industrial purposes.

The Polish Protests quickly spread across other borders while simultaneously escalating domestically. In what must now be considered the quintessential symbol of the protests — tractors gathered en masse to block a railway line connecting Poland to Ukraine. This strategy has since been deployed all the way from Dover to Bucharest.

By mid-April last year, Poland and Hungary were able to impose import restrictions on Ukrainian grain. Under pressure from these countries, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, the EU accepted a temporary import ban for the entire union, which lasted from May until September. The Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian governments however announced their own bans on Ukrainian grain to protect their farmers.

Tensions remain, with protests continuing across eastern and western Europe. Ukraine has subsequently filed lawsuits at the World Trade Organization (WTO) against Poland, Slovakia and Hungary over their respective import bans, arguing the bans are in violation of international obligations. Blockades across Europe continue, with farmers blocking motorways, railways, checkpoints, and occasionally resorting to more extreme protest tactics such as spilling grain. Polish farmers began a 30-day strike on 9th February demanding measures to combat production cost hikes, reduced profits, and unfair competition, with a ‘total blockade’ planned for the 20th February.

As pressures mount on the European Commission to provide farmers with a better deal, UK legislators are waking up to the pressure building here too. The NFU says that imports of Ukrainian poultry meat to the UK increased by 90% over the first 11 months of 2023, compared with the same period in 2022. Last Thursday, the UK announced that it would extend its tariff-free trade with Ukraine until 2029, with the exception of eggs and poultry, which are extended until 2026. Ukraine has also agreed to match the UK’s approach — meaning that British businesses can benefit from tariff-free exports to Ukraine.

How can farmers be better supported?

One of the common grievances expressed by protesting farmers is the role of supermarkets in selling cheaper produce rather than locally-grown. One thing retailers could do is improve the labelling information they provide consumers, which may help consumers make more informed choices about the things they purchase.

The bulk of the responsibility however, rests on the government. Another issue highlighted by the protestors in Dover was the Government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, the first component of the Environmental Land Management programme that rewards farmers in England for practices which help produce food sustainably and in support of the environment. The SFI Scheme was launched in 2022 for farmers and recently underwent updates. The government has been accused of breaking its promise to replace the funds provided by the EU’s common agricultural policy with a £2.4bn budget on agriculture, following an analysis of data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) which shows an underspend of £227m between 2021-2023.

The frustration felt by farmers about unfair trade deals and inadequate government support has undoubtedly been aggravated by the ongoing chaos provoked by extreme unpredictable weather and novel climate events. Minette Batters, president of the NFU reflected on 2023 as a year defined by unprecedented challenges, emphasising how the farming community has faced years of unsustainably high production costs and crop losses caused by extreme weather. This is certainly a key factor. Record temperatures in the summer of 2022 caused widespread fruit and vegetable crop failure across the country. Droughts have also severely impacted livestock — increasing the costs associated with looking after them and preventing heatstroke.

The fundamental issue that unifies most of the protestors is that the farming community is deeply struggling. When we think about food systems and the journey towards net zero, it is essential we keep in mind the millions of lives that are profoundly impacted when agricultural policy is changed. These protests are helping us remember that.