Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Europe Succumbs to the Farmers’ Revolution

Finally, Europe has succumbed to the farmers’ revolution, with the European Parliament elections around the corner. The main motivation for this turnaround by the European Commission was not to put an end to the throwing of cow dung and burning fodder at the doors of the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels, but rather the fear of the expansion of the extreme right. Before being elected to a second term next week, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen withdrew a draft law to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by half before 2030, while pledging to continue consultations on the matter.
In doing so, she spared the European Parliament embarrassment and facilitated her own re-election process. In the wake of farmers’ demonstrations and the smoke of protest fires in more than one capital, the European Parliament approved earlier this week a watered-down version of the Nature Restoration law, which requires the rehabilitation of 20 percent of natural sites and ecosystems, turning them into protected areas before the end of the current decade.
Both reducing chemical pesticides and reclaiming nature were an essential element of the agricultural section of the Green Deal, which was launched by the European Union in 2019. The agricultural strategy in the Deal aims at building a carbon-neutral agricultural sector by 2050, and to make agriculture and food production more environmentally friendly at all stages, under the farm-to-fork slogan, while protecting ecosystems and preserving biodiversity.
Backing down was not solely aimed at defusing the explosion sparked by street protests against the rise in fuel prices, the strict environmental measures that some considered extremely burdensome and obstructive to the economy, and cheap imported agricultural products that compete with local production. This turnaround, in essence, is an expression of growing concern about the further rise of the far right before the European elections next June.
In fact, right-wing extremist parties, that question the feasibility of European Union policies, to the extent of demanding exit from the EU in some extreme cases, are advancing today in 8 of the 27 member states. It is natural for EU enthusiasts to consider this a terrifying development, made possible due to the right’s exploitation of the pressure caused by the influx of immigrants on the economy and local communities, and the impact of high inflation rates on daily life. Populist rhetoric and right-wing party agendas focused on holding national authorities, and EU bodies in general, responsible. This found welcoming ears, especially with millions of immigrants and asylum seekers spreading beyond major cities, to become a majority in some small towns, thus threatening their social fabric.
The Farmers’ Revolution reached its peak with the emergence of the Farmer-Citizen movement in the Netherlands, which began with protests against the use of ammonia in fertilizers, which is the major cause of nitrogen emissions, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. The protest movement soon turned into a major political force, winning many seats in local councils and parliament, and allying itself with extremist right-wing parties, while expanding to more countries, not the least of which were France and Germany. Here we can understand the cause of alarm, for farmers who historically supported Christian Democrats and centrist parties, which makes their shift to the extreme right a real threat to reverse the traditional balance. Further complicating matters, the majority of the farmers’ movement supporters started switching alliances from their independent groups to populist parties, instead of returning to the centrist parties, in which they had lost confidence.
The roots of the problem go back to short-sighted policies pursued by governments over the past few decades, as they encouraged the establishment of large farms and the expansion of some products, including livestock, supported by financing facilities, with a focus on export. It is noteworthy that the vast areas allocated for growing fodder necessary for the production of meat, most of which is intended for export, have replaced essential crops consumed by humans, such as wheat and potatoes, forcing countries that historically produced these crops to import them for local consumption. When the same government coalitions later instituted policies that imposed restrictions on some products, farmers viewed this as a coup that put their investments at risk.
Appeasing the farmers may put a temporary stop to roadblocks and the burning of piles of straw and fodder outside government headquarters, as well as at the doors of the European Union headquarters itself in Brussels, but the problem will not end there. What is required are realistic compromises that preserve the rights of people and nature, combined with far-sighted policies that do not change according to prevailing circumstances.
In contrast to backtracking on environmental policies, which amounted to surrender, scientific achievements did not stop. The European Space Agency chose the advanced Dutch Tango satellite system to monitor emissions of greenhouse gases from their sources, especially methane and carbon dioxide. This is a system capable of measuring emissions from power plants, coal mines, oil and gas fields, factories, farms, landfills, all the way down to home chimneys, with unprecedented precision. Its use will allow for monitoring compliance with regulations and standards governing emissions, with the aim of giving support and exemptions or imposing penalties according to the results, as well as reducing fraud.
This innovative system was developed in cooperation between universities, and scientific research centers alongside industries, with the support of the ministries of economy, climate, and education. Drawing on artificial intelligence technologies, it will be possible to use the system to predict air quality and climate change, thus helping to take proactive measures, based on the collection, correlation, and analysis of accurate satellite data.
In thriving societies, science does not stop when politics fail. What is required is for scientists to communicate the results of their research clearly to all segments of society, so that government officials and people in general, including farmers, know the risks, caveats, and alternatives, in order to be able to set public policies on a scientific basis. Only a dialogue that balances scientific facts, economic realities, and people’s lives, is capable of coming up with balanced and positive compromises that are not subject to populism.