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Why are farmers so angry? Why are ‘flights over food’ prioritised?

  • by JW

“The unfairness of Dublin Airport seeking to grow passenger numbers by 25%, while farmers must cut their emissions by the same amount.” [Irish Farmers Association]


Last summer, Irish farmers were pressured to cull up to 200,000 cows to meet climate goals. Last month, these ‘frightened’ farmers protested in Cork: ‘We’re going out of business – I can’t survive’. And two weeks later in the UK, tractors gathered at Parliament in a farmer go-slow protest.

The effect of farmers being so angry is that they are forcing policymakers to act across Europe: 

European policymakers have scaled back rules to protect nature, drawn up limits on the import of tariff-free Ukrainian grains and scrapped new legislation limiting pesticide use as farmers’ protests resonate with voters ahead of elections. From Poland to Portugal, farmers have won remarkable concessions in response to waves of street action, reshaping the European Union’s green politics months ahead of European Parliament elections. Environmental activists and analysts say the policy backsliding illustrates the considerable political influence of farmers as mainstream parties seek to impede the far right and nationalist parties’ hunt for votes in rural areas.

Beyond all this anger and black-and-white posturing, the same farmers protesting last month in Ireland brought their tractor protest to Cork Airport:

Chair of Cork Central the Irish Farmers Association Mathew Hurley said that the tractor convoy is heading for Cork Airport to highlight “the unfairness” of Dublin Airport seeking to grow passenger numbers by 25%, while farmers must cut their emissions by the same amount. “As a nation, are we prioritising flights over food? It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Farmers would like to expand and keep growing their business as Dublin Airport would,” he told Agriland.

Or, as the Irish Farmers Journal put it, this was an IFA farmer protest at the airport over the ‘hypocrisy in policy’:

Speaking ahead of the protest, Alan Jagoe, a member of the IFA dairy committee, said the protest was aimed at highlighting the hypocrisy of policy.“Dublin Airport is looking to expand by 25%, whereas Irish farmers are being asked to reduce emissions by 25%,” he said. “Dublin Airport says it going to create economic impact in Ireland by growing sustainably, but there is no recognition of the economic impact of family farms in rural Ireland,” Jagoe said. “Dublin Airport says it can grow sustainably by sourcing alternative fuels from biofuels produced by farmers but if dairy farmers, livestock farmers, use the same crops, we are said to be [greenhouse gas] emitters. The hypocrisy in policy is ridiculous. This is not anti-aviation, we’re all for more economic activity in the country but our only indigenous industry should not be sacrificed to enable this,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Frankfurt, Heathrow and Schiphol, climate activists plan days of actions at European airports

Finally, a recent piece from Alex Chapman in the New Economics Foundation looks at flights, farmers and food:

While the motivations of Europe’s protesting farmers are wide ranging, including tough economic conditions and issues with local taxes and regulations, a unifying complaint has been the EU’s Green Deal climate policies. A particular source of ire has been its measures to cut fertiliser and pesticide use, but other important climate measures have also been in the firing line, including tree-planting rules. In Wales, farmers have objected to a proposal which will replace EU policy, which will require them to increase the amount land they dedicate to trees and wildlife habitat from current levels up to 20%. Some farmers argue that these measures are damaging to their livelihoods – although in the Welsh case, the government has gone to great lengths to listen to farmers and address their needs.

The protests are not without their contradictions: the protestors rail against climate-saving measures while the climate crisis itself squeezes the productivity of farming in the UK and across Europe. They’ve also drawn out political contradictions: Rishi Sunak attended a protest with a fringe group of Welsh farming protestors while simultaneously decrying other forms of peaceful protest as ​“mob rule”. Given Sunak himself holds the keys to ensuring farmers are properly compensated for their stewardship of the land (even in Wales), the protestors’ ire seemed somewhat misdirected. Yet, when a group of Irish farmers rolled their tractors up outside Cork Airport with their ​“Flights over food” banner, I found myself sympathising with the their frustration over a different contradiction.

Cork’s farmers saw it as unfair that the EU’s Green Deal meant they were asked to ​“take a hit” for the climate, when the airport next door was slated for a free pass to expand its capacity from 3 million passengers to 5 million. Welsh farmers chose to direct their frustration at the Senedd, but might also have driven an hour east to the gates of Bristol Airport. The airport has been given permission for an expansion which will cause climate damage equivalent to putting over 100,000 new cars on the road.

While elements of the ​“no farmers, no food” campaign have been captured by right-wing and reactionary groups peddling conspiracy theories, these groups are playing on genuine concerns. In the UK, farm income varies hugely across types and sizes of farm but, particularly among smaller operations, many farms are not particularly profitable. The extent to which climate policy represents a threat to the profitability of farms is a topic of heated debate, but there is a genuine risk posed to farmers from poorly thought-out climate interventions.

Our collective mission to slash carbon emissions to net zero will only be successful if power holders ensure that people on lower incomes — a group which does include some farmers — are not financially punished. Risk and potential loss of income should only fall on those with the broadest shoulders. The shift to a clean, green economy requires that the public buy into the national mission. But this buy-in will not just come from the actual fairness of climate policies themselves – which should be non-negotiable – but also through people perceiving or feeling that those policies are fair.