Revolt in the countryside


Scenes of tractors blocking highways and streets in Europe’s main capitals have been on the news since last year’s end. In several countries, farmers protest against the bloc’s policies and regulations which, according to them, hinder food production due to excessive constraints and not offering adequate financial compensation.

There is widespread discontent among producers. The final straw came after the German government announced the end of the diesel subsidy for agricultural machinery and a cut in the tax exemption for vehicles used in production. Although these subjects were initially used to occupy the streets, the source of the producers’ dissatisfaction is much deeper and closely linked to the European Union’s (EU) environmental policy, which has a name and surname: Green Deal.

The Green Deal was presented to the world at the end of 2019 as the EU’s main decarbonization policy. One of its many goals is to place agriculture at the core of the European bloc’s environmental agenda and its international supply chains.

At the national level, the Green Deal hits European producers hard since it restricts the use of chemicals and pesticides, sets a target of at least 25% of organic production, and limits the use of antimicrobial agents in agriculture and aquaculture to 50%, among other norms. All this will be implemented by the year 2030.

At the international level, the Green Deal has an impact on the main food-producing countries, such as Brazil, with the so-called European Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), which encompasses 356 products from seven chains (rubber, cocoa, coffee, beef and leather, wood and paper, palm oil and soy) and requires, for instance, that the production area be free of deforestation and forest degradation after December 31, 2020.

The law also affects European producers since it applies to the import and transportation of products within the EU’s territory. This means that EU countries that export to the bloc are also affected. However, the impact on them is minimal, as Europeans do not produce in most of the involved chains. The crops are mainly grown in tropical countries. In fact, one of the European farmers’ demands is a reduction in food imports, an essentially protectionist practice given the low competitiveness of domestic production.

This attempt to undermine agricultural and livestock production in developing countries while benefitting rich countries using environmental allegations is not new. Fourteen years ago, a study titled “Farms Here, Forests There” was published, sponsored by the United States National Farmers Union, advocating an end to global deforestation by 2030 as a way of stemming the loss of competitiveness of US agribusiness regarding tropical producing countries such as Brazil.

This study’s main hypothesis was that developing more rigid international environmental policies would restrict the expansion of agricultural land in tropical countries, reducing the increase in the world’s agricultural product supply, and thus benefitting the American economy. The document included quotes such as: “Ending deforestation through incentives in the United States and international climate action would boost US agricultural revenue by an estimated US$ 190 to US$ 270 billion between 2012 and 2030.”

The idea behind “Farms Here, Forests There” is an extreme one, but it can be seen in several actions. EUDR is a less radical measure of this proposal.

The Green Deal’s intentions are good, but its structural foundation is unbalanced. When defining a policy that encompasses production, socio-economic development, and food security, it must be balanced in all its dimensions and not just the environmental one, otherwise, it will fail.

The Green Deal was apparently approved without a proper assessment of impacts on the bloc’s own citizens, including farmers. The dissatisfaction of European farmers has turned into a huge snowball that will define the bloc’s future in the next parliamentary elections next June. European farmers complain that environmental policies have labeled them “environment enemies.” This view that production and respect for the environment are opposite concepts is mistaken, and Brazil is evidence of this.

Brazilian producers have lived with restrictive environmental laws for more than two decades, and the country’s production has achieved record after record. For now, they do so without demonstrations but are aware the environmental services they provide to Brazil and the world must be paid in return with more and better support policies. Compared to the Europeans’ complaints, Brazilian producers bravely go through this scenario.

However, we must learn lessons from the Europeans’ troubles when it comes to balancing productive feasibility and environmental protection. We need to balance income generation in the countryside, productivity, and development with less impact on the climate. This is done with strategy and long-term thinking to ensure food security and sustainability in the country and the world.

The response to this is not to determine where farms and forests are. Rather, they should coexist and play their role for humanity, which is to feed the world with environmental responsibility. This is a challenge that everyone must face seriously.

Sueme Mori is the Director of International Relations at the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA). The article was written with the collaboration of Camila Sande, CNA’s International Relations Advisor.

Originally published on Broadcast