THE environmentalist George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, has belatedly entered the conversation regarding the unprecedented farmers’ protests in Germany and Holland against fuel price hikes and other damaging penalties in the name of Net Zero. According to Mr Monbiot, while it appears to be a populist movement, it is in fact being stage-managed by the ‘far right’ and the farmers are just useful stooges. Or something.
The trouble is, as is so often the case these days, Monbiot is guilty of precisely that which he condemns.
It seems that he, like the Guardian, is now attacking those he would once have supported, and defending the very people he used to rail against. Those who once held power to account have become the gatekeepers of the establishment and the global status quo.
As with any story, there are many factors behind these protests, but the backdrop is the EU Common Agricultural policy. That supermarkets can make huge profits – for no risk – while farmers can barely survive without financial support owes a lot to the failed subsidy-and-quota philosophy of the CAP, still alive in all but name. Not only was it inefficient within the confines of the EU – producing wine lakes and butter mountains – but to this day it has the added effect of these surpluses being dumped at below cost on world markets and wrecking farmers’ incomes overseas; a double whammy of market failure as a direct result of bureaucratic meddling.
For decades, layer upon extra layer of environmental regulation has imposed increased costs on a naturally risky business, and the forced farm closures now creeping across the Low Countries under the guise of environmentalism (driven by organisations such as the Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum, but all under UN Agenda 2030) only add further uncertainty and insecurity. More recently, German government covid funds were used to subsidise fuel prices and lower taxation on farms, actively favouring larger farms and penalising the small ones. Now those funds have dried up, the grants are coming to an end.
Any industry will inevitably become addicted to such support, and governments to the control it buys them, and nobody said weaning farming off subsidies was going to be easy.
In his 2000 book Captive State, Monbiot powerfully argued that the bankers and corporations had taken control of how we deliver healthcare and other services in the UK. Better to build a huge PFI hospital out of town with few transport links than to renovate the old one in town because there’s more money to be made that way.
It seems odd that he is now defending a top-down, hyper-regulated, intensive, GMO-based, corporatised approach to farming, when we know this is the most energy and pollution-intensive way of producing and distributing food, one that leads to less innovation, less competition, less biodiversity, less robustness in years of poor growing conditions and more waste. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation itself states on its website that ‘in rain-fed systems, organic agriculture has outperformed conventional systems under environmental stress conditions [and] the market returns from organic agriculture can contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes’.
It is ironic, then, that the criticism of the farmers comes largely from the same direction as the rules and market imperatives which force them to farm intensively. Big Agri and its political allies have made small-scale farming uneconomic, and the risk is now real that the family farm as we know it will die out. That the number of farms in Germany has halved in 30 years and that few farmers can look to the next generation of their family to continue the business shows that this is an industry in genuine crisis. If the ‘left’ don’t want the farmers to side with the ‘far right’, they need to stop pushing them away.
I’m not saying that the farmers blockading Berlin would all switch overnight to organic farming, but I guarantee a lot of them would want to run a small traditional, profitable farm with low fuel and chemical inputs, subsidy-free, that they can pass on to their kids, if given the choice. It’s not their fault that the regulators have created a market so dysfunctional it can’t cope with even small moves back towards ‘normality’.
Whatever other external factors might be in play, these are working people protesting at their family businesses being driven to the wall by what they see as illogical and immoral diktats handed down from above. With a cost of living crisis that shows no signs of receding, surely we should be supporting those who provide our sustenance, not penalising them.
It’s demeaning to the debate to use the ‘far right’ cliché to characterise circumstances as nuanced as these protests, which no simplistic left-right dichotomy can describe. But if we are to be reduced to anachronistic generalisations, I would argue that it’s the meddling and anti-competitive, globally coordinated policies of the ‘far left’ that have made this situation inevitable.
It has been a long time coming and the warning signs have been plain to see. The grey-suited bureaucrats tucked away in their urban ministries, even those who own a pair of wellies or can tell one end of a cow from the other, have ignored the gathering storm and now it is upon them.
When Stalin wanted to consolidate his power and undermine that of the people, he turned on the farmers first. So, while I do agree that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, I think Mr Monbiot and I may be viewing history through different lenses. It seems to me he’s attacking the wrong side.