Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: How conspiracists have co-opted a farming movement

No Farmers No Food has legitimate grievances to fight for, but I worry about the association with conspiracy 
March 20, 2024

Last month we took a world tour of farmer protests, discussing the causes and the catalysts. This month, we look at the third “c” of the protests… conspiracy.

In the latter part of February, there was a series of protests in Wales against the latest government proposals for agricultural funding. The least popular of these was a requirement to return 10 per cent of farmland to woodland and manage a further 10 per cent as “habitat”— a blunt instrument of a policy proposal where a scalpel is required.

At the front and centre of these demonstrations has been the latest protest group here in the UK: No Farmers No Food. On a recent car journey across East Anglia, I saw numerous yellow signs bearing the slogan in villages, on motorway bridges and on farm gates. The farming press, countryside media and mainstream publications have been digging into the organisers behind this group.

On 23rd February, a group of farmers protested under the No Farmers No Food banner at the seat of the Welsh government, the Senedd, in a highly publicised event. Rishi Sunak also attended to show his support—or, some might say cynically, to criticise the Labour-led Welsh government in an election year.

You would, expect then, to find headlines talking of farmers unifying, speaking truth to power, gaining public support and raising awareness of their plight. Not so for the Observer, which led with “Sunak Stands with Net Zero and Climate Conspiracy Group at Farming Protest”. Seemingly more column inches (or, truthfully, social media feeds) were dedicated to the founder of the group, James Melville, than to the cause itself.

Melville is the son of a farmer, and a communications specialist who says that he wants to help our farming industry. But he also uses his considerable influence on GB News, Al Jazeera and X, where he has nearly half a million followers, to challenge accepted wisdom on climate breakdown, share conspiracy theories about net zero and make claims about Covid that have been refuted by fact checkers. The No Farmers No Food social media accounts have posted on subjects ranging from limiting solar farms to challenging net zero goals. Supporters replying to posts from the group often share popular conspiracy theories.

Martin Williams, from Herefordshire, was one of the first farmers contacted by Melville to join a No Farmers No Food WhatsApp group: “It was absolutely toxic,” he says, “bloody awful… They were fighting amongst each other about Covid, anti-vaxx, uprisings against the WEF. They wanted to riot.”

There is no doubt that the industry is under huge pressure at the moment throughout the UK and across sectors, from horticulture to fisheries to dairy farming. The risk is that an organisation with a great message but whose founder has the media presence of Melville will continue to attract those with extreme and unusual views, amplifying those messages at the expense of important demands for the farming community.

Melville is a communications specialist who must understand that the best thing he can do for this campaign is to distance himself from it. There is a cadre of excellent farmers making up part of the No Farmers No Food leadership who could and would continue with clear and effective communication.

Whenever Brexit and farming is discussed on social media, I see comments saying that farmers voted for Brexit and should simply deal with any negative consequences. When pushed, people who make those comments tell me that they know all farmers voted for Brexit because of the signs they saw in farmers’ fields—“Well I didn’t see any ‘Vote Remain’ signs in fields around here,” as it’s commonly put. I respond by saying that the picture is more complex than that. On the whole, farmers voted in line with other demographic characteristics, like age.

In politics, perception is reality, and a cloud of conspiracy risks conflating key messages about the future of food production and environmental stewardship with a smorgasbord of nutty views. I, for one, don’t want to spend the next 10 years as an agricultural apologist unravelling this.