When Farmers Foment Political Revolution to Avoid Agricultural Revolution
Germany’s farmers are angry and they’re blaming the current German government (a fundamentally clashing coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Conservative Liberals), when the real culprits are Big Food and a rotten system ripe for a radical overhaul… for the good of the people, the health of the environment, and the benefit of the farmers.
Outbreak of The Farmers’ Protests
In the second week of January, 2024, farmers protested furiously in Germany. After getting up extra early to feed livestock, if necessary, they drove their tractors in masses to form rolling blockades of the highways and key intersections, making it hard for anyone to get to work. By the afternoons, they’d be parked somewhere in the city—occupying central squares and parking lots—holding up their signs. No Farmers, No Food, No Future! (And signs calling for the end to the current governing coalition.)
Day by day, via these major actions, the protesting farmers worked their way through the main cities of the various German states, starting and ending with a major tractor blockade in Berlin, Germany’s capital city, on the first and eighth days of protest.
What, you might wonder, has got the farmers’ barns so burning that, in addition to this, the week before the protests, acting on a hot tip, they descended en force on a frigid winter’s night to blockade and try to storm like a lynch mob the tiny car ferry that Robert Habeck, Green politician and Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, was taking from an island in the North Sea back to the German mainland?
The straw that broke the camel’s back—not that Germany’s farmers (and Europe’s in general) haven’t been pissed off already for a while—is the country’s current budget crisis. Because of fundamental disagreements between the progressive majority and conservative liberal minority of the current coalition government, the coalition’s only feasible means of plugging the unexpected 17 billion euro hole in Germany’s federal budget is massive spending cuts to key programs that will infuriate everyone and may tank an already faltering economy.
For instance, investment in the green energy transition took a massive hit. Instead of the government continuing to fund desperately needed refurbishment of the national rail infrastructure out of the federal budget, that will now be funded by privatizing stakes the government has in other companies.
The coalition also abruptly cut subsidies for the solar energy industry, for people replacing fossil fuel burning heating systems with the clean and green (like heat pumps and solar panels), and for people purchasing electric vehicles. Those carrots were replaced by more stick, in the form of higher carbon taxes on fuels like heating oil, kerosene (for airplanes), natural gas, and gasoline (petrol) and diesel.
These cuts and carbon tax hikes will be hard on the people in Germany who are already struggling to make ends meet. But the people who are howling the loudest are the farmers. Because, originally, they were going to lose their tax breaks on their machinery and their subsidy on diesel fuel.
The government has since backed notably down, canceling the cancellation of the tax breaks and slowing the roll out of the loss of the diesel subsidy. But the farmers remain unrepentantly furious. Typically, nearly 40% of a German farm’s income comes in the form of subsidies. This allows the bigger farms to be comfortably profitable and it’s a lifeline for smaller farms, who could not otherwise survive. Because the agricultural industry in Germany is not just running on an environmentally unsustainable business model, it’s also running on a financially unsustainable business model.
What’s Up with The Farmers?
If you’re not involved in agriculture, it’s easy to wonder what the hell is up with the farmers. The rest of us aren’t receiving those subsidies when we tank up the vehicles we have and that we have to pay the vehicle taxes on every year. And if we were running small businesses, they’d have to be profitable on their own.
We’d be insane to expect the government (and the European government) to be kicking in nearly 40% of our income… in return for nothing but paperwork filed. How dare the farmers throw a tantrum because they’re losing these particular sets of largesse! Also, why are they furiously blaming the current governing coalition (only in power since 2021), in increasingly extreme terms that play into the hands of the far right, for a problem that hardly originated with them?
Because there is a basic problem here. Farmers aren’t being paid enough for the food they produce and that’s been true for a good while.
Part of the problem in Germany is that the farmers are exporting a lot to the world market, and there’s no way they could be competitive there without subsidies, setting them up for a situation in which they have to rely on subsidies to survive (which is a whole other discussion in and of itself).
Another part of it is that the big grocery store chains in Germany, the big dairies, and the big slaughterhouses have enough negotiating power to buy farmers’ crops and livestock at a loss or near loss to the farmers.
Meanwhile, while the pressure mounts for farmers to produce more with less space and manpower to bring in more money (with disastrous consequences for animal welfare and the environment), the government has been pushing for better conditions for farm animals, less use of pesticides, and less use of fertilizers.
No small part of all of this are European and national agricultural policies that have for decades favored big farms over smaller ones, using laws and the way subsidies are structured to drive the consolidation of smaller farms into bigger ones that were viewed as being better placed to act on advances in technology and engineering to produce food more reliably and efficiently.
Although there’s room to wonder about the lobbying done by big agribusinesses, it’s also fair to say that governments are afraid of wildly fluctuating food prices and famine. They lead to, not just hardship for their citizens, but considerable civil unrest. (For instance, look at the Arab Spring.) But sometimes the road to hell is paved with the pursuit of peace and prosperity, as strange as that may seem.
Systems are complicated and sometimes waves build up, circle around, and crash. Also, sometimes the policy makers, so fixated on the forest, forget that the trees are people.
The Race to the Bottom
Leaving aside the bigger problem of the structure of the agricultural policy that supports bigger farms at the expense of smaller ones, the race to the bottom currently looks like this: Consumers like low prices. Big grocery store chains (including Germany’s discount stores like Aldi, Lidl, Netto, and Penny), as well as the slaughterhouses and the dairies that buy farmers’ livestock and milk, are happy to deliver them, by forcing farmers to sell their meat, dairy, eggs, and other produce at unsustainably low prices.
Farmers have been forced to increasingly up their production, sending pesticide and fertilizer use through the roof, to the detriment of the soils, the environment, and human health, and cramming more and more animals into loud, dark, crowded, ammonia–stinking barns where they will spend almost every last minute of their existence before they are slaughtered.
Not only is this bad for the environment and the animals, it’s soul destroying for the farmers. They may have slightly harder hearts than the rest of us, having no qualms about earning a living raising animals for slaughter, and on a daily and very practical basis, seeing human beings as the masters of animals, but the overwhelming majority of them did not get into this business to keep animals in utterly inhumane conditions.
Meanwhile, the owners of small farms, often fighting to carry on the family business, are burning themselves taking on second jobs to avoid going financially under. The cuts to the subsidies and tax breaks proposed by the German government to close the budget are an existential threat to these people who have been fighting hard for years to keep their heads above water.
What Is the Solution?
You might think that the obvious fairly instantaneous solution to this problem would be to force the grocery stores and the food industry to pay farmers what is known as a fair price for their products. But this requires charging consumers higher prices for food, which no political party is going to do, because that would be the end of it. No one would ever vote for them again (sadly, probably not even the farmers).
Partly this is because we are used to paying unfairly low prices for food and so even those of us who could afford it would be furious at the sudden inflation in prices.
Meanwhile, a lot of people couldn’t afford it. A bit like the farmers, the people doing the basic work that keeps society running—the hand workers, the hair dressers, the store clerks, and even the plumbers and mechanics, not to mention the seasonal farmworkers harvesting the fruits and vegetables—aren’t being paid well enough at all.
And that’s another thorny aspect to this problem, the minute anyone suggests raising the minimum wage, business owners—including farmers—begin screeching that they can’t afford it because—smaller businesses at least—are also just barely making ends meet.
How do you spin the system back up? Where do you even start? People need to be paid more so that food prices can be fairer and so that businesses can charge higher prices to pay their employees more. But people are terrified of a cycle like that, even when, if it were managed properly, it could lead to an increase in their prosperity.
Meanwhile, wealth just keeps trickling surging up to the top, as the rich keep getting richer at the expense of the rest of us. And that is very possibly what lies at the root of all of these problems. Maybe that is the place to start tackling all of the precarity in the system, including the plight of the farmers.