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Farmers demonstrate on the occasion of an EU agriculture ministers meeting, in Brussels, on March 26.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/Getty Images

Agostino Petroni is a journalist, author, and a Pulitzer Center grantee based in Andria, Italy.

As my father and I drove through our family’s organic vineyard in southern Italy this past August, he turned his head away from the window in distress and asked me to keep driving. Like in many other Italian farms, our organic grapevines had been attacked by downy mildew, a fungal disease that dries up plants and fruits. The fungus has been present in Europe since 1878, and farmers have learned how to live with it, but the incessant and unusual rains of the spring of 2023 made it explode across the region. It attacked all our plants. What was left was an eerie graveyard of rows of dried-up vines and raisins hanging. My father had lost a year of work.

Agriculture is tough. You invest capital and work long months in the hope that the stars will align and you’ll have a healthy harvest. However, extreme temperatures and increasing plant pests and diseases due to climate change and globalization, combined with falling sale prices, an open market letting in cheap imports, and increasing costs, can make the efforts of Europe’s farmers seem pointless at times.

When a combination of these factors occur, subsidies can prove crucial in keeping EU farms alive and its citizens well-fed. The EU has attempted to cut some of those subsidies, leading to mass protests by farmers across Europe. However, farmers are not just protesting subsidy cuts, but also a series of EU efforts to encourage sustainable and healthier practices to fight climate change and pollution.

The protests began in the spring of 2023 in Bulgaria and Poland because of the inflow of cheap Ukrainian grain imports that were allowed to enter the EU after Russia’s invasion. Then they expanded to France, Greece, Portugal, Germany, Italy and other EU countries for various reasons. Some governments tried to cut diesel subsidies, others to reduce nitrogen emissions – and many sought to make European agricultural practices more environmentally sustainable. The European Commission has, for instance, proposed reducing the use of pesticides and planned to require large farms to keep a small percentage of land uncultivated to help biodiversity recover.

Over the past few months, tractors – the symbol of the farmer’s revolt – have sieged Europe’s main cities. Hundreds blocked Paris highways; 3,000 converged in the centre of Berlin; and some showed up at Sanremo, Italy’s popular televised music festival. Europe’s far-right political parties fuelled the protests with incendiary comments, capitalizing on the anger and discontent to draw more support from farmers as the EU heads toward parliamentary elections in June. Farmers outside of Europe have taken note – Quebec farmers also worried about their finances and government regulations have adopted similar tactics at recent protests.

While it’s easy to argue in favour of fighting for subsidies vital to safeguarding Europe’s ability to feed itself, farmers’ opposition to doing their part for the energy and climate transition can only be described as short-sighted. It’s true that a lack of subsidies could threaten the EU’s future, making it reliant on imports and creating upward pressure on food prices if farms go under, but a failure to transition efficiently to sustainable practices to aid in the battle against climate change would also be devastating.

Marta Messa, the secretary-general of Slow Food, an organization based in Italy that promotes local food and traditional cooking, said recently that it’s not a question of agriculture versus the environment. “Farmers rely on nature; farming needs a healthy environment to prosper.” She reminded us that a great part of European soil is in poor shape and needs to recover so that cultivation will still be possible. Slow Food is calling for a rethink of agricultural policies, which it says have favoured high-yield industrial farms at the expense of the environment and smaller producers.

Some of the underlying issues have been brewing for decades, since the early days of the European Economic Community. In 1962, the EEC released the first common agricultural policy (CAP) to support farmers’ improvement in productivity and ensure a steady supply of affordable food. Europe had just emerged from two world wars and was living through the Cold War, so ensuring people could eat was crucial. At that time, the majority of EEC’s budget went to CAP, which supported the creation of larger and more productive farms.

Over the years, as production proved steady and more states joined the union, the share of the EU’s total budget for agriculture decreased from 65.5 per cent in 1980 to about 23.5 per cent in 2022. Over time, war became a faraway memory, and increased access to ex-Soviet states and other Asian countries created new markets for producers. We lived in an era of prosperity and interconnectedness.

But then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Agricultural support was reduced to contribute to Next Generation EU, a European Commission economic recovery package that sought to break the economic stagnation the pandemic caused and steer the EU toward a greener and more technological future.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022, the EU was suddenly reminded of the importance of producing its own food. War is back on the continent, dampening some imports and exports. To show solidarity with Ukraine’s efforts to fight Russia’s invasion, the EU banned the import of agricultural products such as wood, spirits and high-end seafood from Russia, as well as the export of food products such as high-end wines. Meanwhile, the flooding of Ukrainian grains into Europe to help their war efforts has negatively affected EU producers.

European farmers are also worried about negotiations around a trade deal between the EU and South America’s Mercosur trading bloc. Farmers fear that cheap meat and grains would flood the market and slash prices, similar to what happened with Ukraine grain.

The war in Ukraine has had other harmful effects on EU farmers. Energy prices skyrocketed after the invasion, and in the sweltering summer of 2022, my father had to think twice before turning on his electric-powered well to water his olive trees. A good part of that year’s olive-production revenue went to paying the electricity bills so that the fruits could grow in the first place.

The daily costs farmers face have been increasing steadily: gas, fertilizers and machinery. Many can’t make ends meet. At the same time, the prices farmers receive for their products have been decreasing. In 2023, according to data analyzed by Politico, prices fell by around 9 per cent on average. (Olive oil prices have spiked this year, but only because horrible droughts have hit the Mediterranean and production has dropped in countries such as Spain and Portugal.)

Here’s the dilemma: People want to buy cheap food that is climate and environmentally friendly, but the two are at odds right now. Organic food comes at a higher price because farmers who produce it without the aid of chemicals are giving up part of their production, driving up the costs.

As financial problems hit farms around the bloc, diesel subsidies for farm vehicles proved to be a lifeline. When cuts were announced, thousands of tractors blocked Berlin’s traffic and many more flooded EU capitals. Protests were so intense that governments cancelled or watered down the proposed cuts.

However, farmers should not forget that agriculture is accountable for about 12 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. A variety of factors, such as the use of nitrogen and potassium fertilizers and animal manure, contribute to the emissions.

We are currently transitioning toward a more data-driven type of agriculture that reduces the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and electric vehicles will gradually replace diesel vehicles. Agriculture producers will have to make these changes, but at the moment, without significant incentives – a new tractor can cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of euros – it’s too early, and telling farmers to give up subsidies that are key to running their farms seems unfair.

A few months ago, European farmers erupted in anger when the EU proposed cutting chemical pesticide use in half by the end of the decade to help mitigate soil degradation and harm to biodiversity. Indiscriminate use of pesticides is deeply affecting wild populations of bees and insects around the continent, while fertilizer runoffs are poisoning rivers and seas. Farmers pointed to the nightmare that unfolded in Sri Lanka, which suddenly went organic in 2021, leading to a collapse of the food supply.

A sudden ban on the chemicals would reduce yields in Europe, too. Pesticides can help reduce the spread of invasive pests and diseases such as Xylella fastidiosa, a foreign bacteria that was detected in southern Italy in 2013 and has killed 21 million olive trees in my home region of Puglia. Pesticides should not be considered the ultimate evil – they only become so when they are indiscriminately overused. In southern Italy, it is not uncommon to see small-scale farmers spreading more of a specific chemical on their lands because they think that “more is better,” when often, it’s quite the opposite.

Member states must invest in education and communication efforts to change farmers’ minds. The EU’s plan to cut pesticides by half by the end of this decade might seem drastic, but it’s the only way forward. Introducing the rule gradually might help farmers adapt, give them time to switch to better-performing products, and help them understand new methods that need fewer chemical products.

If there is a way forward for farming, it is linked to precision agriculture, a technique using data collection and interpretation to determine irrigation and fertilizer needs and reduce pesticides. Ultimately, this would protect the environment and EU citizens’ overall health, because those chemicals end up on our plates, too.

Farmers also protested the new EU rule limiting the release of subsidies to farms larger than 10 hectares, unless they kept 4 per cent of their farm land uncultivated. Again, this was a move from the European Commission to foster biodiversity, which was met with farmers’ outrage as well. But the EU request was not a big ask, and it should be applied. Leaving land uncultivated protects biodiversity and the soil, making it more fertile, which in the end benefits farmers, too.

However, in January and February, after the widespread farmers’ protests, the European Commission scrapped the plan to reduce the use of pesticides on EU lands, and delayed the rule on fallow land for a year. This shows how protest deeply affected politics in the bloc. (The European Parliament elections in June might have played their part in the concessions.)

Environmentalists and climate activists say this is a big lost opportunity, and that these concessions will bite back in the years to come. Already, farmers in Spain and Portugal face water restrictions after last year’s serious droughts, while wildfire destroyed one-fifth of Greece’s farm revenue.

But European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that in the long term, more will need to be done to reduce pesticides and tackle climate change. It’s only fair and right because in the end, farmers are not just food producers; they are also the guardians of Europe’s countryside. They should act in the best interest of preserving the environment, too.

Going fully organic, like my father did 30 years ago, can be risky. In a harvest season like the one in 2023 when my father lost everything because of downy mildew, our neighbours who sprayed chemicals every other day managed to get something out of their vineyards. But at what environmental and economic cost?

Producing in an environmentally sustainable way is the right path, but it comes at a cost to farmers. Those who do take this path and push forward the green transition need to be protected, aided and heard.

Being a farmer means shepherding a piece of land for an infinitesimal fraction of the Earth’s age. But many farmers don’t view their work from this perspective – and granted, some cannot afford to. Respecting their lands by taking a more environmentally friendly approach goes against the goal of maximizing farmers’ profits no matter what. But that is short-sighted, as we run toward a precipice – and if you live on a farm, you can sense that we are approaching it very quickly.

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