It is unfortunate, especially for the farmers, that their protest does not shake the current agricultural system, but only breaks some environmental and climate rules. Suddenly agribusiness is back at the table.
Karel VerhoevenChief editor
Today at 03:00
Every farmer who speaks airs different grievances, but ‘let us do it anyway’ always shines through. Farmers toil to feed the people, but ‘politics’ in Brussels would make it impossible for them. The rules with which Europe and Flanders in particular govern agriculture are quickly referred to in many media as ‘rules’. The image of a meddling government full of bureaucrats who harass farmers can count on sympathy. Politically, the farmers are in awe because they are at the forefront of a broad distrust of the system. They are the rural areas that feel left behind. They are also the tradition, they ’embody our fundamental values’, as the French Prime Minister said this week. Their machines may be impressively high-tech, a tractor of less than 100 hp is not on the street, but in the idyll that travels with them from the far corners of the country, a blushing farmer’s wife caresses mischievously rooting pigs in the middle of a blossoming orchard. They draw on the power of nostalgia.
Their role as freebooters of the people undoubtedly surprises the farmers as well. In recent decades, farmers have been distrustful. That’s why there were so many rules. Too many farmers inject their animals with antibiotics and growth hormones. They spread manure at night and early in the morning. Chemicals deplete the soil. Pigs and chickens suffered in cages that were far too small. And the farmers still saw black snow. They were themselves prisoners of the agribusiness that Europe organized. They could only go in one direction, bigger, more intense, more chemical. That brought happiness to few.
It is therefore bitter, also for the farmers, that their call ‘let us do it’ does not shake the system, but breaks ‘rules’, such as the requirement to leave 4 percent of land wild. This measure, like the nitrate directive, the habitat directive or the water directive, is intended to make intensive agriculture more sustainable. With these rules, Europe is putting the brakes on the agricultural model that it finances so generously, but which without brakes is heading straight into the ecological abyss. Agriculture has become a bureaucracy bursting with tensions. There was little to be earned from it anymore. The climate crisis is now hammering home this point.
So the farmers are right that things have to be different. Many complain that their children will no longer be able to pursue the trade. If they take this sigh seriously, they will not end up scrapping rules, but saving their country from exhaustion, drought and floods. They can only do this in an agricultural model where they earn enough through agriculture that generates profit by regenerating and not by depleting. The drama of the farmers’ protest is that the organizations that are now negotiating on their behalf, such as the Boerenbond, became rich with intensive agriculture, and therefore have no interest in a different model, but even more so in fewer rules.