Wopke Hoekstra, the EU’s new climate commissioner, hasn’t given Europe a passing grade when it comes to its sustainability efforts. In late October, he emphasized the need to accelerate emission reductions to hit the EU’s ambitious 2030 targets.
Hoekstra already has a particular sector in his crosshairs, noting that progress on cutting emissions in agriculture—a sector currently responsible for 11% of the EU’s total emissions— needs to be significantly ratcheted up. The question of how to reconcile the agricultural sector’s needs with climate goals remains a highly contentious one, as exemplified by the furious debate over the divisive Nature Restoration Law. The legislation, finally passed by the European Parliament in a knife-edge vote, sets binding targets across various ecosystems to mitigate human-induced environmental damage. Pushback came from political groups like the EPP, who argued that the law would threaten farmers’ and fishers’ livelihoods, disrupting long-established supply chains by reducing the amount of arable land available to farmers.
It’s clear that for European agriculture to fall into line regarding emissions, farming will need to change dramatically—yet there are concerns that the agricultural sector is not facing sufficient support to help it weather this coming storm.
Agri-food is one of the most important policy areas for Europeans across the continent. Brussels has a vested interest in getting its policies right for all European farmers and citizens— unfortunately thus far its scorecard isn’t a roaring success.
Getting policy right for the agri-food sector
The precedent of placing what some would say is insurmountable pressure on farmers can be traced back further than the Nature Restoration Law. Indeed, the long-running debate over nutritional labelling has left food producers across Europe concerned that their livelihoods might be at stake if politicians in Brussels misstep.
The EU has yet to agree on a unified front-of-pack label, partly due to the shortcomings of the Nutri-Score system, once considered the frontrunner for a bloc-wide label. Initially touted as a tool to promote healthy eating, Nutri-Score has faced criticism for penalizing traditional foods like olive oil and cheese, which could disadvantage farmers in favour of corporations capable of reformulating products for better scores.
Nutri-Score’s backers, in response to the widespread critique of its algorithm, have modified several times the way Nutri-Score scores foodstuffs—sparking even more confusion among consumers who can make little sense of the ever-shifting labels while leaving farmers in limbo about how their products will be classified. Given the extremely thin margins on which many agri-food producers operate, this uncertainty can have devastating effects.
The debate over the imposition of a bloc-wide label like Nutri-Score is just one solid example of the Commission struggling to come up with agri-food policies that don’t inadvertently hurt farmers or consumers. One doesn’t need to look far for further examples—the Farm to Fork strategy is littered with proposals which could seriously complicate an already-fraught picture for European agriculture.
As climate change escalates, farmers are already feeling the pressure as yields drop—however, they have fewer options to help them, particularly given Brussels’s push to restrict the pesticides and herbicides which made the agricultural revolution possible. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the number of farms in the EU has shrunk by more than a third since 2005—even less so when coupled with the fact that while the average farm has gotten bigger, farm income has remained consistently low, at about €20,000 a person.
European sustainability policies—already on the books or in the works—threaten to exacerbate the crunch for farmers. For example, the plan to cut pesticide application by 50% by 2030 could have a serious impact on crop yields, with one estimate suggesting that European wheat yields alone could fall by 15%, turning the bloc into a net grain importer. Farmers are already feeling the impact of the EU’s directive to tackle nitrogen pollution, which requires farmers to use GPS to record muck spreading and not farm with 5 meters of water. As one Belgian farmer explained, complying with the directive costs his farm between €10,000-€15,000 annually; given that in waterlogged Flanders, the average land price is €63,000 per hectare, the nitrates directive has imposed on many farmers a cost that is almost impossible to earn back.
These environmental initiatives, while well-intentioned, are a hard sell to the agri-food industry, as they seem to increase costs without offering ways to boost income. “Farmers are asking”, Belgian MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere underlined, “Why does Brussels hate us?”
The future of farming
The problem, Vandenkendelaere explained, is that farmers feel that they are facing a deluge of policies that could curb their yields and their competitiveness. “It is the number of policies hitting them at the same time”, Vandenkendelaere stressed. “We need to slow down.”
Carefully picking and choosing which policies to pursue would be a good first step in rebuilding trust with Europe’s agricultural sector. Dropping those like the imposition of a bloc-wide nutritional label similar to Nutri-score, which could have significant deleterious impacts on the agri-food industry with little benefit to the European population as a whole, might free up some bandwidth to proceed with vital environmental policies.
But this alone will not be enough. Even those environmental policies which are essential to slow the relentless march of climate change will come at a biting cost for European farmers—a cost which in many cases they will be unable to afford. As farmer and MEP from Slovenia Franc Bogovič recently emphasized, “… People will be in big trouble if they must cut their vineyards… their meat production which was financed by loans five years ago. You need 20 years to get your money back.”
To support Europe’s farmers through the EU’s green transition, a comprehensive strategy is needed that marries environmental objectives with economic sustainability. Investment in sustainable farming technology research, financial incentives for eco-friendly practices, and a support network for knowledge exchange are crucial. These measures could help farmers adapt to sustainable agriculture demands while maintaining economic viability.
While the EU’s climate goals are commendable, they must not overlook the serious headwinds Europe’s agricultural sector is already facing. A nuanced approach that supports farmers through subsidies, technology, and community networks will be essential to achieve a balanced and fair transition to a greener agricultural future.