Labeled Climate Culprits, European Farmers Rebel Over New Standards (2023)



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Asked to cut herds, move or even shut down to help meet E.U. environmental goals, agricultural workers say too much is demanded of them. Their anger is reshaping the political landscape.

Labeled Climate Culprits, European Farmers Rebel Over New Standards (1)

By Monika Pronczuk and Claire Moses

Monika Pronczuk and Claire Moses traveled across the Netherlands to speak to farmers and others affected by E.U. efforts to tackle climate change.

To meet climate goals, some European countries are asking farmers to reduce livestock, relocate or shut down — and an angry backlash has begun reshaping the political landscape before national elections in the fall.

This summer, scores of farmers descended on the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, to protest against new E.U. rules aimed at restoring natural areas and cutting emissions that contribute to climate change. Farmers have protested in Belgium, Italy and Spain, too.

The discontent has underscored a widening divide on a continent that is on the one hand committed to acting on climate change but on the other often deeply divided about how to do it and who should pay for it.

Those like Helma Breunissen, who runs a dairy farm in the Netherlands with her husband, say that too much of the burden is falling on them, threatening both their livelihoods and their way of life.

For almost 20 years, Ms. Breunissen has provided the Dutch with a staple product, cow’s milk, and she felt that her work was valued by society, she said. The dairy sector in the Netherlands, which also produces cheeses like Gouda and Edam, is celebrated as a cornerstone of national pride.

But the sector also produces almost half the Netherlands’ emissions of nitrogen, a surplus of which is bad for biodiversity. Ms. Breunissen and thousands of other farmers bridle that they are now labeled peak emitters.

“I was confused, sad and angry,” said Ms. Breunissen, who manages a farm of 100 cows in the middle of the country. “We are doing our best. We try to follow the rules. And suddenly, it’s like you are a criminal.”

A Sense of Betrayal

For many farmers, the feelings run deep. The prominent role of agriculture was enshrined in the European Union’s founding documents as a way of ensuring food security for a continent still traumatized by the deprivations of World War II.

But it was also a nod to national identities and a way to protect competing farming interests in what would become a common market. To that end, from its outset, the bloc established a fund that, to this day, provides farmers with billions of euros in subsidies every year.

Increasingly, however, those subsidies and the bloc’s founding ideals are running up against a new ambition: to adapt to a world where climate change threatens traditional ways of life. Scientists are adamant: To fulfill the bloc’s goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and to reverse biodiversity losses, Europe has to transform the way it produces its food.


In the Netherlands, the government has asked thousands of farmers to scale back, move or close. The authorities set aside about 24 billion euros, about $26 billion, to help farmers put in place more sustainable solutions — or to buy them out.

Wilhelm Doeleman, a spokesman for the Dutch Agriculture Ministry, said farmers were not the only ones affected. “The government has also imposed measures in the sectors of construction, mobility and industry,” he noted.

“But,” he acknowledged, “the biggest challenge lies with the farmers.”

For Ms. Breunissen, who is 48 and works as a veterinarian in addition to her duties on the farm, none of the government-proposed options seem feasible. She is too young to quit and too old to uproot her life, she said, and the authorities have not provided enough support and information on how to change what she now does.

“There are so many questions,” she said. “The trust in the government is completely gone.”

A New Political Force

The disappointment of farmers with establishment parties is feeding new political movements — and in some places has made rural communities a ripe new constituency for far-right nationalist parties and others.

Although only nine million out of almost 400 million voters in Europe work in agriculture, they are a vocal and influential bloc that attracts the sympathy of many on a continent where a nation’s identity is often tied to the food it produces.

A host of new groups are vying to displace traditional parties. They include the Farmer Citizen Movement, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, which was established four years ago.

The party has just one seat in the 150-member Dutch House of Representatives, but it swept regional elections in March, and polls predict it will do well in national elections in November.


Caroline van der Plas, the party’s co-founder, used to be a journalist in The Hague covering the meat industry, and she has never worked in farming. But she grew up in a small city in a rural area, and she said in an interview that she wanted to be “the voice of the people in rural regions who are not seen or heard” by policymakers.

She and her party have talked down the need for drastic steps to cut emissions, saying the reductions can be achieved through technological innovation. Policies should be based on “common sense,” she said, while offering no concrete solutions.

“It’s not like science says this or that,” Ms. van der Plas said, referring to how theories can change. “Science is always asking questions.”

Parties like the Farmer Citizen Movement are making headway, analysts said, by presenting the issue of ecological transition as part of the culture wars.

Referring to that phenomenon, Ariel Brunner, the Brussels-based Europe director of the environmental charity BirdLife International said, “There is political manipulation.”

But, he added, “it is feeding on real grievances, and a real sense of hardship.”

Sharing the Responsibility

Many farmers say they are not resistant to addressing the problem of climate change, and they note that their livelihoods are more directly affected by it than those of many others. But they say the burden should be more evenly spread.

Geertjan Kloosterboer, a 43-year-old farmer with 135 cows in the east of the Netherlands, is the third generation to work his family’s farm. He said that four of the past six summers had been extremely dry.

“There is something changing,” he said. But, the question, he added, was: “What can we do about it together?”

Mr. Kloosterboer said that he was willing to innovate but that the government was asking too much, too quickly. “Tell me what I have to do, in order to do the right thing,” he said.


The Agriculture Ministry said that it had provided business counselors to advise individual farmers. But it acknowledged that because the country would be ruled by a caretaker government until a new coalition is formed after the elections in November, for the moment, the way forward remained unclear.

Sitting at her kitchen table on her farm, surrounded by paintings of cows and a reproduction of “The Milkmaid,” by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, Ms. Breunissen said she felt that all the attention was centered on urban zones rather than rural areas and that there was no space for “this type of life.”

“If you want to change anything, you have to all together decide to consume less,” she said. “It is not just about the farmers.”

Monika Pronczuk is a reporter based in Brussels. She joined The Times in 2020. More about Monika Pronczuk

Claire Moses is a reporter for the Express desk in London. More about Claire Moses




Labeled Climate Culprits, European Farmers Rebel Over New Standards? ›

Labeled Climate Culprits, European Farmers Rebel Over New Standards. Asked to cut herds, move or even shut down to help meet E.U. environmental goals, agricultural workers say too much is demanded of them.

Why are farmers blamed for climate change? ›

This is a cycle that spirals: by growing one crop, farmers work the land harder, depleting its resources, producing more carbon, and contributing to climate change.

What is the new climate law in Europe? ›

The Climate Law includes: a legal objective for the Union to reach climate neutrality by 2050. an ambitious 2030 climate target of at least 55% reduction of net emissions of greenhouse gases as compared to 1990, with clarity on the contribution of emission reductions and removals.

How did climate change affect farmers? ›

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of heavy precipitation in the United States, which can harm crops by eroding soil and depleting soil nutrients. Heavy rains can also increase agricultural runoff into oceans, lakes, and streams. This runoff can harm water quality.

Is the European Green Deal legally binding? ›

Parliament adopted the EU Climate Law on 24 June 2021, which makes legally binding a target of reducing emissions 55% by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050.

Is farming the biggest contributor to climate change? ›

In 2021, greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector accounted for 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have increased by 7% since 1990.

Do US farmers believe in climate change? ›

Over two-thirds (67%) of the farmers believed that climate change is occurring due to anthropogenic activities. Half (50%) of the farmers disagreed that climate change is happening due to natural changes.

What are EU climate mandates? ›

Under the European climate law, EU countries must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. Their goal is to make the EU climate neutral by 2050.

What's in the new climate law? ›

The new climate bill strives to promote methane penalty, with a $900 fee for exceeding the federal limit through 2024 – and an increased fee of $1,500 by 2026. There will be tax credits for those who implement carbon capture and storage systems into their business models.

What is the European climate law lex? ›

WHAT IS THE AIM OF THE REGULATION? The regulation: establishes a framework for achieving climate neutrality within the European Union (EU) by 2050 (that is, a balance of EU-wide greenhouse-gas* emissions and their removal regulated in EU law);

Which country is affected the most by climate change? ›

Chad. Chad ranks as the world's most climate-vulnerable country on the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation Initiative Index, which examines a country's exposure, sensitivity and capacity to adapt to the negative effects of climate change.

What are the largest contributors to climate change? ›

Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun's heat.

What will happen to Earth in 2030? ›

But by the 2030s, as temperatures rise, climate hazards are expected to increase all over the globe as different countries face more crippling heat waves, worsening coastal flooding and crop failures, the report says.

Who is responsible for the European Green Deal? ›

The European Commission has adopted a set of proposals to make the EU's climate, energy, transport and taxation policies fit for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. More information on Delivering the European Green Deal.

What is the EU plan for 2030? ›

With the 2030 Climate Target Plan, the Commission proposes to raise the EU's ambition on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030.

What is the EU Green Deal in a nutshell? ›

The European Green Deal is a package of policy initiatives, which aims to set the EU on the path to a green transition, with the ultimate goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. It supports the transformation of the EU into a fair and prosperous society with a modern and competitive economy.

How is farming causing climate change? ›

Dominant sources of agricultural greenhouse gases (GHGs) include carbon dioxide (CO2) from tropical deforestation, methane (CH4) from livestock and rice production, and nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertilizing or burning croplands. Agriculture is responsible for about half of global methane emissions.

Why farming is bad for the environment? ›

Agriculture is the leading source of pollution in many countries. Pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic farm chemicals can poison fresh water, marine ecosystems, air and soil. They also can remain in the environment for generations.

Who or what did farmers blame for their problems? ›

Many farmers blamed railroad owners, grain elevator operators, land monopolists, commodity futures dealers, mortgage companies, merchants, bankers, and manufacturers of farm equipment for their plight.

What did farmers blame their economic problems on? ›

They generally blamed low prices on over-production. Second, farmers alleged that monopolistic railroads and grain elevators charged unfair prices for their services.


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