A rumbling in the foothills

Europe’s attempt to wash its hands of dirty farmers.

Declan Rexer

April 19, 2024

There was a fictitious quality to the climate change discourse of the 2000s and 2010s. While conservatives denied climate change, liberals believed in it. That was what the matter consisted of: whether there was a matter at all. Now, however, we’re told that the rubber has met the road. The believers have triumphed and they’ve begun to legislate. Now the question is this: what will this movement, which grew popular as its goals remained vague, actually stand for? 

The climate legislation coming out of Europe offers early answers. The organizing principle of Europe’s climate future is cleanliness: clean air, clean water, clean energy. Nearly all aspects of civil society have been brought under legislation so that they accord with these ends. Member states now have legally binding greenhouse gas emission ceilings; homes and businesses must be retrofitted to maximize energy efficiency; all new cars registered in the EU must be powered by electricity by 2035. Indeed, the EU’s climate policies are so expansive and are taking shape so quickly that they might just alleviate the heightened anxieties of climate-minded constituents. Rest assured, something is being done—and fast. 

There is, however, a darker side of the cleanliness coin, expressed most powerfully in the bind placed on Europe’s small farmers. Disproportionately large greenhouse gas emitters for their contribution to GDP, small farmers now find themselves identified in government policy documents as entities with low economic yield and high opportunity cost—that is, as part of the climate problem. As the EU eyes its ambitious emissions goals, small farms are ripe targets. It doesn’t matter whether these farms are run as well as they could be; they are dirty by nature, and the continent has cleaning to do.

It’s hard to overstate the speed and scale of the changes forced onto Europe’s small farmers. In 2019, EU caps on nitrogen emissions forced the Netherlands to cut its livestock numbers by as much as a third, which the government planned to do by buying out nearly three thousand farms—over a quarter of those in the country. Officials insisted that these expropriations would be voluntary. The Dutch government earmarked 24 billion euros for the buyouts, more than it spends annually on its military, and introduced new retirement incentives for farmers. A farmer whose operation emitted significant amounts of nitrogen could expect to earn well over 100 percent of the value of his practice should he agree to forfeit both his own farm and his right to farm anywhere in the EU for the rest of his life. 

But farmers felt that the state was forcing their hand. Though technically allowed to continue their operations, farmers with heightened nitrogen emissions—mostly dairies—found themselves unable to pass along their “farming permit” to another private owner or to a successor. Banks, in turn, refused to grant loans to potential farm buyers, sending property values plummeting. As aging Dutch farmers considered their futures, government buyout often felt like the only option. 

From there, matters only got worse. Per EU regulation, every activity that produced nitrogen—construction projects, air transport, and the like—was required to buy out the licensed nitrogen emissions of some other Dutch enterprise. In most cases, those other enterprises were farms. Suddenly, the livelihood of the Netherlands’ overwhelming urban majority and the future of tech-driven Dutch industry depended directly on the closure of farms and the rural communities that depended on them. Schiphol Airport, one of the Netherlands’ primary transit hubs, reportedly began purchasing and shuttering farms so that its planes could continue taking off. 

City dwellers have long perceived farming as a historical inheritance out of step with the modern world. Through the Dutch nitrogen policy, these perceptions were literalized. To secure a future of service-driven industry and advanced urban living, the Netherlands needed to shed all nitrogen “redundancies.” For a prosperous Dutch future, agriculture had to go.

Prior to what the Dutch refer to as the stikstofcrisis (literally, the “nitrogen crisis”), the Netherlands—though a small country—had been the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural goods, behind only the United States. And though food products accounted for only a small fraction of the Dutch GDP, the nation’s history of agricultural industriousness and self-sufficiency were points of national pride. What’s more, Dutch farmers were often lauded for their success in small-scale and sustainable agricultural production. Indeed, from 1990 to 2019, Dutch farmers had already reduced their nitrogen emissions by nearly two thirds. The problem, in the eyes of the EU, was not that any one farm had done anything wrong; rather, there were simply too many farms altogether.

To farmers, the example of the Netherlands signaled a dangerous new bearing for European agricultural policy. If even the Netherlands, the EU’s proud agricultural-state-that-could, decided to shutter large swaths of farmland, what was in store for everyone else? 

English agriculture policy, though not bound by EU regulations, set off a second round of alarm bells. In 2020, a senior Treasury advisor told the UK government that farming was no longer “critically important.” Shortly thereafter, the country’s leadership announced that it would begin to phase out its old system of unconditional agricultural subsidies for English farmers. Moving forward, these farmers would only receive benefits relative to the sustainability measures they employed. Agricultural subsidies, which Britain’s farmers desperately need, could be redesigned to incorporate agriculture into the sustainable, climate change–resistant future.

The new policy betrayed a total reconfiguration of the British government’s agricultural priorities. Farm subsidies had originally been established to secure the income of an industry both particularly susceptible to variations in the weather and of critical national importance. Now, they would prioritize an environmental cause which farms could work to promote. In other words, the new agricultural ministry cared less for farms and farmers, and more for an end to which farms, with sufficient nudging, could become the means. 

Some of the sustainable steps the British government demanded might sound relatively harmless. For cattle farmers to continue receiving the same subsidies, they might now need to incorporate laying hens into their operation. Likewise, they might be required to leave a field to lie fallow, to plant trees, or to sell a certain portion of their product locally. 

But for farmers to certify that they had adopted these new measures would require paperwork, accountants, and the installation of monitoring and verification systems. Large farms had the capital, personnel, and management structures to accommodate these measures. Small farmers, however, already cash-strapped and overworked, only saw new burdens. Even worse, farmers had to demonstrate that their environmental policies had been successful. If the newly planted forest failed to grow or the winter cover crop failed to survive a first frost, farmers worried they would be left footing the bill without any subsidies whatsoever. Already operating at razor-thin margins, farmers saw in these new demands the evaporation of what little security they once had. 

For many, particularly small livestock farmers in the “fells”—foothills—of northern England, the changes were nearly impossible to implement. How could you sell locally when your rural community had all but packed up and moved elsewhere? How could a sheep farmer, making the most of the nonarable land on which his animals grazed, be expected to plant hedgerows or forests? How could the livestock farmer, already struggling to get by given cheap competition from abroad, be expected to intentionally leave further swaths of his farmland unproductive? 

Britain’s National Farmers’ Union estimates that the transition from unconditional to conditional subsidies will reduce the income of livestock farmers by an average of 60 percent by the end of this year. It comes as no surprise then that over half of British farmers polled in 2023 said that they felt “not at all positive” about their future in farming. Nor is it surprising that this pessimism about the future is most concentrated among the hill farmers of northern England; less than half of these farmers told pollsters that they were even “somewhat confident” that they could successfully respond to the changes required of them. 

UK political leadership has been careful to avoid calling for a reduction in the amount of working British farmland—and the number of British farmers—altogether. Agriculture is eager to prove that it has a place in Britain’s sustainable future and British policymakers are willing to entertain their efforts. But the closure of small farms no longer strikes the agriculture ministry as a nationwide threat. As one report from the Financial Times put it, summarizing the thinking of the UK’s Department of the Environment: “because 57 per cent of agricultural output comes from just 33 per cent of the farmed land area, it [is] possible to lose the least productive land with minimal impact on food production.” Indeed, such a scenario may even ease concerns over emissions and contribute to achieving pledged sustainability goals. 

These farm closures are not the inevitable product of changing times. They are the dividends of a change in government priorities. English farmers would be in a radically more secure position if they had continued to receive unconditional subsidies, or if the UK had not undercut livestock prices by opening the door to cheap foreign imports (which are not produced in compliance with many if any environmental measures). 

The turn against Europe’s farmers underscores the emptiness behind setting “cleanliness” as a political goal in the first place. EU climate regulations leave little room for British beef cows and Dutch dairies. At the same time, however, there’s ample European appetite for burgers and cheese. Indeed, European diets haven’t meaningfully changed at all, and they certainly aren’t required to by law. Meanwhile, the number of EU farmers over the last decade has fallen by one third, representing five million jobs, while foreign food imports jumped substantially, increasing by as much as 26 percent between 2021 and 2022 alone. The same food once produced domestically, it seems, is simply going to come from abroad.

Of course, switching to imported foods does not solve the environmental problem; it merely moves it outside the realm of what European governments choose to take responsibility for. Now food production and its environmental consequences are the responsibility of the Brazilian, Ukrainian, and Chinese governments—who are, conveniently, paying less attention to matters like greenhouse gas emissions. From the Dutch bureaucrat’s perspective, the matter is resolved: domestic methane and carbon dioxide emissions, those big bad statistics, go down. The world, however, remains just as it was—now just with a little less oversight from the standpoint of the British or European public.

No strangers to the smell of bullshit, farmers have met the government push against their livelihoods with fierce protest. In the wake of the stikstofcrisis, farmer protests have become a mainstay of the pastoral Dutch scenery. This past March, four years after the announcement of EU nitrogen ceilings, the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB), a new party created to represent the interest of Dutch farmers, experienced an unexpected electoral triumph. In parliamentary elections, it earned more votes than any other party in the nation. Right-wing parties—which have proved eager to go out of their way to declare solidarity with protesting farmers—have surged in the polls across the continent. Farmers’ existential anxiety has sparked reactionary politics that might yet prove capable of upending European liberal hegemony, and with it, progressive climate ambitions. 

The mass and motion of the European effort to combat climate change claims to be the crowning achievement of the climate movement. But the European model refuses the responsibility that true governance ought to entail. It surrenders political authority to the global market. It leaves the climate problem for somebody else to solve—or, more likely, to ignore. 

The movement to combat climate change, despite its apparent hold on the reins of continental governance, remains a fiction. It is clean in the sense that it washes its hands of the issue. Its current logic amounts to closing our eyes and expecting that the problems we face will go out with the light. Meanwhile, true responsibility requires a familiarity with the dirt. This is the weight of living on our planet. And no one knows this better than the farmers themselves, who bear it in all its weight, indeed, who bear it in their very being. Perhaps we ought to follow their example.

Declan Rexer is a second-year undergraduate in the University of Chicago’s Fundamentals program and a graduate of Deep Springs College. He is an assistant editor of The Harper Review.