In recent months, massive farmers’ protests have swept European countries. Though these demonstrations are often a reaction to country-specific policies, they reflect a broader resistance against the European Union’s climate and environmental agenda, notably the European Green Deal. Farmers argue that these policies threaten the viability of small and mid-sized farms, while delivering minimal environmental benefits—and they are right. However, the pressures faced by European farmers extend well beyond the European Union’s relatively recent “green” shift. The reality is that farmers in Europe have been struggling for years with systemic issues, such as rising costs, over-regulation, and, most notably, unfair competition driven by the EU free-trade regime. 

The European Union is a global agricultural powerhouse, with an output value exceeding $500 billion, and it is also one of the world’s largest exporters of agri-food products. The bloc is broadly self-sufficient in most agricultural primary commodities, producing enough to meet domestic consumption needs and often generating surpluses for export. Indeed, when it comes to agriculture, the European Union exports significantly more than it imports and has for more than a decade, leading to a sizable trade surplus. 

One may therefore conclude that the EU agricultural sector is in great shape—and, indeed, in aggregate economic terms, it is. Agricultural output in the bloc has been growing steadily for years, and this is reflected in the steady growth in agricultural incomes. 

So what are farmers complaining about? The answer lies in the fact that even though the sector as a whole is doing well, most farmers are not. There are around 9 million farms in the European Union. Most of these are small: Almost two-thirds of the bloc’s farms are fewer than 12 acres in size but account for only around 5 percent of all utilized agricultural land. At the other end of the production scale, only 7.5 percent of EU farms are large or very large (120 acres or more in size), but they constitute almost 70 percent of all land. 

“Agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of very large firms.”

In other words, most EU agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of very large firms—many of which are corporate enterprises. Only these farms have output levels large enough to generate meaningful incomes. This explains why small farms across Europe have been disappearing. Over the past 20 years, the number of farms in the European Union has fallen to around 9 million today, down from 14.5 million in 2005. At the same time, the number of very large farms (more than 200 acres in size) has grown significantly—by more than 20 percent. 

In strictly economic terms, this process of consolidation has made the EU agricultural sector more productive and efficient, since larger farms are more industrialized and capital-intensive and can rely on economies of scale to reach higher output levels. But small farms provide a wide range of economic and societal benefits that metrics such as output fail to capture: They play a key role in keeping remote rural areas alive by maintaining services and social infrastructure; they support rural employment; they help preserve the identity of regional products; they protect landscape features. 

More fundamentally, it’s far from clear that the gains in productivity offered by greater consolidation are making the EU agricultural sector more resilient in the long run—especially in terms of food security. As noted, the European Union is broadly self-sufficient in most agricultural primary commodities—most types of meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and most types of cereals—and is not overly dependent on imports whose disruption could endanger the food supply. In other words, the bloc enjoys a high degree of food sovereignty, which reflects the EU Common Agricultural Policy’s original focus on self-reliance. 

Yet there are important exceptions: In particular, the European Union is highly dependent on oilseeds (mostly soy) and meal for animal feed. Other products for which the European Union isn’t self-sufficient include protein crops, maize, vegetable oils, sugar, and certain fruits and vegetables. For many primary products, self-sufficiency has been declining over the past two decades, as the bloc has slowly shifted away from the production of low-value, but essential, primary agricultural commodities toward the production of high-value, but non-essential, processed agri-foods. 

This is mainly the result of two factors: the growing influence of the ideology of climatism, as a result of which agricultural production (the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions) has gradually become a taboo in Europe; and a dogmatic and obsolete approach to trade. 

Free trade is one of the founding principles of the European Union. Today, the bloc boasts the largest free-trade regime in the world, with 42 free-trade agreements covering 74 partner countries spread across five continents. This network has expanded significantly over the past decade, and negotiations are underway with additional trading partners, including India, Australia, and the Mercosur bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay). In line with the Common Agricultural Policy’s original focus on self-sufficiency, the European Union initially adopted a relatively protectionist approach to agricultural trade; however, over the past 20 years, the inclusion of agriculture in the bloc’s ever-growing network of free-trade deals has gradually exposed the EU agricultural market to growing international competition. 

According to the mandarins in Brussels, the impact of free trade is almost unambiguously positive—including for agriculture. But does this claim hold up to scrutiny? Over the past two decades, the European Union’s agricultural balance of trade has improved. However, it’s unclear to what extent the bloc’s free-trade agreements contributed to this. If we examine the evolution of the bloc’s overall trade balance in goods and services with partner countries following the entry into force (or the provisional application) of these free-trade agreements, no clear pattern emerges. In some cases, the trade balance improved; in others, it worsened; and in still others, it remained largely unchanged. 

“Foreign farmers are allowed to use toxic pesticides.”

In any case, European farmers have reasons to object to these deals, given the fact that partner countries tend to have lower environmental, health, and social standards, as well as lower labor costs, than the European Union. Indeed, EU free-trade agreements generally contain no “mirror clause” requiring foreign agricultural exporters to conform to European standards on issues such as pesticide use, animal feed, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and animal welfare. This lack of reciprocity—or regulatory misalignment—means that foreign farmers are allowed to use toxic pesticides in their agricultural production, to add animal meal to their animal feed, and to administer growth-boosting antibiotics to their livestock—all things that are banned or restricted in the European Union. Less stringent regulatory requirements give foreign farmers a big cost advantage, especially when coupled with the lower labor costs—or outright exploitative labor conditions—often found in less developed nations. 

This is questionable from a consumer protection and ethical perspective. But is there an economic case for doing this? The argument usually made by supporters of trade liberalization is that it increases Europe’s food security by securing new supply chains. In the short term this is certainly true. But are farmers right in claiming that this is harming European producers? And, if so, what does this mean for Europe’s food security in the longer term? 

The European Union has adopted a trade model that privileges the import of primary agricultural products and the export of processed food products. A large part of what the EU imports consists of agricultural commodities that can’t be grown in Europe’s climate zones, such as tropical products. However, most imported products compete directly or indirectly with products that are extensively grown in Europe—often in sufficient quantities to satisfy domestic consumption—or that could potentially be grown in much larger quantities. 

To what extent has the expansion of the EU free-trade regime contributed to the disappearance of small farms across the bloc over the past two decades? Official impact assessments are few and far between, and any data that contradict the official narrative tend to be heavily glossed over. However, one of the few studies to focus specifically on the impact of agri-food imports on EU agricultural production (over the 2005-2018 period), published by the European Commission two years ago, found that “the impact of agri-food imports was mainly complementary but also competitive, replacing EU production for a limited number of products.” 

The report concluded that, to the extent that “imports had a limited, though not negligible, impact on EU agricultural production,” trade liberalization and growing agri-food imports were “contributing factors” to the structural changes seen across the bloc’s agricultural sector, including the decrease in the overall number of farms and increasing concentration. However, the impact on the EU agricultural sector of the free-trade agreements concluded so far is likely to pale in comparison to that of the many deals being negotiated or pending full implementation—particularly the EU-Mercosur and EU-Canada agreements, both of which involve major agricultural powers. 

A recent report by the European Commission assessed the potential impact of 10 free-trade agreements recently concluded or under negotiation and came to some worrying conclusions. Agricultural imports from countries with significantly lower regulatory and animal-welfare standards are projected to increase significantly, particularly when it comes to beef and poultry. Domestic production is expected to decline accordingly, due to rising competition, resulting in a growing import dependency. 

It’s therefore not surprising that European farmers have placed opposition to EU free-trade agreements at the forefront of their struggles—and that governments are following suit. In March, a large majority of French senators voted against the ratification of the EU deal with Canada, one of the most controversial yet. Meanwhile, the French government continues to oppose the EU-Mercosur deal. Initiatives like this can only be expected to multiply as the European farmers’ movement continues to swell across the Continent.  

The tide is turning against free trade, and rightly so. Europe’s current approach to trade and agriculture is deeply flawed. It squeezes domestic agricultural producers (predominantly of primary commodities) out of the market and amplifies import dependency for products that don’t meet the same standards as those originating in Europe—all in the name of short-term profits and “green” ideals that fail even on their own dubious terms. This model isn’t just harmful to farmers and consumers, but to the Continent’s long-term food security, as well. 

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