Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Why are farmers protesting around the world?

My media feed is full of farming protests everywhere from India to Poland. So why aren’t British farmers getting involved? 
February 28, 2024

Why are farmers protesting around the world? My media feeds are full of farmers blocking ports and piling up manure. 

There is a common thread that unites them. They are frustrated with restrictive government legislation, rising costs and decreasing prices. But the battleground in each country also has its own distinctive slant. So, let’s take a world tour…

In India, farmers protested in 2020 and 2021 against the government, calling for minimum price guarantees for their grain sales. Farmers in India were already struggling with low incomes—and there was a high rate of suicides (more than 10,000 farmers and labourers in 2020). The laws were repealed in November 2021, but with other demands unfulfilled, protests began again on 13th February this year.

In Germany, government policies to ban the use of the world’s most widely used and (in my view wrongly) contested herbicide, glyphosate, have stirred protests. Removing access to this herbicide—one relied on by many regenerative farmers who are reducing diesel-hungry tillage—increases the need for fuel, which is itself increasing in price as tax discounts are removed.

In France, a nation not unfamiliar with industrial action, protests flared up in January this year. The demonstrators found an impressive number of ways to cause a nuisance, from setting tyres ablaze to dumping manure in front of government buildings and spreading soil on highways. The protests were against red tape from both their own government and the EU, and ultimately brought senior ministers to visit farms and make concessions. Incidentally, when the UK was part of the EU, a senior member of the National Farmers’ Union told me that French farmers were a powerful force in Europe, who knew that when politicians saw tractor tyres on fire on the Champs-Élysées they would take note.

Spanish farmers held a huge rally on 8th February. “They’re drowning us with all these regulations,” one attendee said. The sentiment is echoed by Belgian farmers, who are angry about low food prices reducing income. Polish farmers are objecting to the relaxing of import controls allowing Ukrainian grain to flood the market, while the Greeks are angry about the lack of compensation they’ve received for losses from disaster and disease. The Romanians are furious about the low government compensation they’ve received for rising fuel prices, and Lithuanian farmers are protesting on a number of issues, including for a minimum “above cost” price for milk.

French farmers are a powerful force in Europe

Very little has happened, however, in the UK, barring a meagre gathering of Scottish farmers and crofters objecting to a lack of political engagement with farmers during beaver reintroductions. 

Very little, that is, until recently. On 2nd February, more than 1,000 Welsh farmers gathered in Welshpool market, frustrated by government plans to introduce constraints on holiday lets and to insist that 10 per cent of farmland be covered by trees. Welsh government analysis says this last policy alone would cost 5,500 jobs and cause a £200m loss to farmers. In recent questioning, officials for the Welsh government didn’t seem to understand the decrease in value of land when trees are planted—or have a plan to compensate farmers. It’s hard not to feel sorry for farmers trying to protect their livelihoods, steward their land and maintain their business when faced with challenges from their own government.

In England, however, with the recent launch of the “Sustainable Farming Incentive”, environmental schemes generally seem to be fair. A Merseyside farmer and NFU Cereals board member asked farmers via a social media post: who would they swap places with in Europe? He was implying that English farmers are in a better position than their neighbours.

However, a recent UK campaign group called “No Farmers, No Food” has attracted 57,500 followers on X; on 9th February, farmers caused traffic jams around the port of Dover, protesting against cheap imports produced under lower standards. But perhaps we’ve learnt from the Just Stop Oil protests that disrupting daily life for hardworking Britons is the fastest way to lose support. According to one survey, 2024 might be a year in which half of Britain’s fruit and vegetable growers go bankrupt. So, perhaps our protests are still to come.