Rural sociologist: Farmer protests a reaction to ‘the crisis of globalised agriculture’

By Angelo Di Mambro
Feb 1, 2024

The tractors blocking the streets of Europe are a reflection of the hardship of growers coping with the contradictions of the current system of food production and consumption, rural political sociologist Natalia Mamonova told Euractiv in an interview.

Since November, farmers have taken to the streets in many European countries. Waves of demonstrations have hit the streets of France, Germany and Poland and are currently crossing Spain, Belgium and Italy, with France the main hotspot for tractor blockades.

While in most cases national issues are sparking the protests, as in Germany with the fuel taxes and in Poland with the influx of agricultural commodities from Ukraine, “we should not lose of sight the bigger picture, that is a systemic crisis of agriculture” Mamonova told Euractiv.

The rural sociologist at the Norwegian Institute for Rural and Regional Research Ruralis thinks that both in the European countryside and the global level, “farmers are among those suffering the most from the crisis of the neoliberal globalised capitalism” that is locking farmers in a vicious cycle.

The current model of economic development, the Ukrainian-Dutch researcher argues, “pushed farmers to become capitalist entrepreneurs, stimulating them to constantly expand and produce more than they need in order to be able to respond to the needs of the market, to invest more and, finally, to depend on loans”.

In France, for instance, average debt levels for farms stand at €201,000, nearing €450,000 for pig breeding, and €370,000 for livestock, according to governmental data from 2020.

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This is a “vicious circle”, Mamonova said, as “either [the farmer] continues taking more debts, more loans, to buy more modern equipment to get more land or he just goes out of business and cannot survive”.

East-West gaps and food sovereignty

Under this logic, the rollout of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s farming subsidy programme, “didn’t take into account the specificities of former socialist member states”, Mamonova said. “Eastern European farmers feel that they are treated unfairly,” she continued, adding that this is “quite paradoxical” given the benefits of the CAP support to rural areas.

The Green Deal has added a third level of perceived inequality, because the flagship initiative of the von der Leyen Commission “tried to introduce environmental objectives through the same market logic”, and “again, it’s often the farmers who carry the heaviest burden for the ecological transition”.

The way out of the “vicious cycle” entrapping farmers, Mamonova says, should look at agroecology and to movements for food sovereignty.

The concept, introduced in the 1990s by the international farmers organisation Via Campesina, refers to the power of farmers to control what they produce and distribute, emphasising local foods and sustainable production.

These movements, Mamonova suggests, “rely on the principles of agroecology and might represent a solution [to the farmers’ lock in] as they try not to implement green transition in this green capitalist logic but to enact a totally different system”.

No to far-right labels

According to Mamonova, who led research on ‘Right-wing populism in rural Europe’, to politically label the current farmers’ movement is difficult. For sure, she said, “I wouldn’t call farmers-protest as a far-right movement”.

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The protests are “very often co-opted, and capitalised upon by the far right”, said Mamonova.

However, “populists offer farmers solutions that are as simple and false, they don’t offer them real alternatives to be more independent, they simply direct [farmers’ anger] against new enemies like the urban elite citizen or central leftist governments”, Mamonova concluded.

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