European Farmers Stood Up to Free Trade, Will US Farmers?

Photograph Source: Raymond Trencavel – CC0

Dumping manure in public spaces, hurling eggs at government buildings, blocking major roads – the European farmers who have taken to the streets to challenge free trade policies sure know how to raise a ruckus.

Their public disruption also produced results.

French farmers, for instance, managed to persuade their nation’s leaders to ban food imports treated with thiacloprid, dedicate € 150 million (~$163 million) annually to support livestock producers, and provide European-wide definitions for what constitutes lab-grown meat.  German farmers also saw movement in their favor from their lawmakers on fuel subsidies.  When protests reached Brussels – where the European Parliament was in session – European Union policy makers announced plans to cushion the blow from Ukraine grain imports and address bureaucratic red tape.  Seeing such gains as only the beginning, Spanish, Italian, and Flemish farmers vow to remain in the streets.

Thus far, the protests offer some takeaways for food and farm activists.

Specifically, not only can public disruption trigger real change, but there is room to push back against the disastrous free trade policies that have wreaked havoc on farm economies on both sides of the Atlantic.  US farmers and their allies should pay attention, perhaps thinking how to make protest part of our ongoing Farm Bill debate.

In Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – similar to the Farm Bill in the United States – governs most facets of the continent’s agricultural system, including financial assistance, environmental policy, and the regulation of exports and imports.  Beginning in 1962 with France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, the arrangement has grown along with the European Union to cover all of the organization’s 27 member states.

CAP policies began to change in the 1990s with the MacSherry and Agenda 2000 Reforms to promote “efficiency.”  While Reagan railed against “government cheese” to point out the assumed wasteful nature of US agricultural policy in the 1980s, in Europe, “wine lakes” and “butter mountains” were made into campaign slogans to cut public assistance for farmers.

And cuts took place – from 1980 to 2021, the total EU budget dedicated to agriculture went from over 60% to below 25%.  Many policies were also eliminated, including export subsidies, production quotas in dairy, and price supports that were coupled to farmer income.

Such changes brought European agricultural policy into alignment with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) push for states to reduce government intervention into agricultural markets and increase production.

Decades of promoting such free trade initiatives have not been kind to farmers, especially in Europe.

In France, for instance, there were 389,000 farmers in 2020 – almost 800,000 fewer than in 1980.  Poland, which joined the EU in 2004, since 2010 has lost 13% of its producers.  Overall, throughout Europe from 2005 to 2020, the continent has seen 37% of its farms go out of business.  During that same time, production has grown, as only farms of over 200 hectares (approximately 400 acres) have increased in number.

Meanwhile, the ever-dwindling financial support for European farmers is made contingent on meeting various environmental and labor standards.  Put simply, for assistance, farmers must do more to receive less.  Aiding, not curtailing ongoing consolidation,  20% of Europe’s farmers – particularly large scale operators in terms of land and production – receive 80% of all payments.

Adding insult to injury, EU authorities allowed the import of cheap Ukrainian grain to assist that country in its ongoing war with Russia.  This, as supply chain disruptions from that conflict drove up the prices that European farmers pay for inputs like gas and fertilizer.  EU policymakers also are negotiating a contentious free trade deal with the South American regional trade bloc, Mercosul, which would invite agricultural export giants Argentina and Brazil to potentially undercut European producers.

US farmers have experienced the same toxic mix of free trade promotion and increased concentration.

According to the 2017 Agricultural Census, the largest 4% of U.S. farms (2,000 or more acres) control 58% of all farmland.  In 1987, that figure was 15%.  Similarly, in 2015, 51% of the value of U.S. farm production came from farms with at least $1 million in sales, compared to 31% in 1991.  From 1997 to 2017, about 200,000 farms, or 8% of operations, went out of business.

In terms of deregulation, the 1996 Farm Bill made periodic, ad hoc direct payments the primary way the US government provided financial assistance for producers.  Gone, but years later reintroduced in a significantly weakened form, were non-recourse loans that assured farmers a decent income if market prices dipped below a certain threshold. With such loans, decent incomes can be guaranteed without forcing farmers to increase production potentially in environmentally harmful ways as governments purchase products off the market to stock reserves.  Dismissed by free traders, reserves can be drawn upon in the event of emergency and to address price volatility and speculation, as commodities can be released onto markets if prices go too high.

To take on the harmful free trade policies that govern much of agriculture, US farmers and their allies could find inspiration from what is taking place in Europe, perhaps going to DC to make their voices heard.

In fact, US farmers in the past did so.  When free trade was in its infancy back in 1979, thousands of farmers drove their tractors to DC to demand policy changes to address rising foreclosures and increases in input costs.  These actions inspired the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to bring activists together in DC last year, but mainly to make climate policy part of the Farm Bill.

Now, with the Farm Bill debate continuing at least through September of this year, pricing policy reforms could take center stage. Some farm groups, such as the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) with its dozens of member organizations, have made pricing policy reform central to their Farm Bill platform.  In demanding parity pricing, policy instruments such as non-recourse loans could be improved to assure farmers decent prices and dissuade them from increasing production to make ends meet.  Addressing concentration is also part of NFFC’s demands, with particular attention to an increased role for the government to finance land access programs and enforce Antitrust laws.

Do such proposals challenge free trade?  Yes they do, without a doubt.  And as European farmers have shown, protest yields results.  By adding some popular mobilization into the mix of our ongoing Farm Bill debate, maybe with the occasional rotten egg or manure load, farmers and their allies could push our lawmakers to make real changes for the benefit of our food and farm system.  Let’s not just stand by as the people who grow our food endure yet more financial hardship.

Anthony Pahnke is a Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. His research covers development policy and social movements in Latin America. He can be contacted at