On Saturday evening German farmers set up “warning bonfires” at hundreds of sites across the country in a continuation of protests against new environmental controls that have caught Berlin on the back foot.
The fires come sharp on the heels of a huge protest in Berlin, when close to 9,000 tractors converged on the Brandenburg Gate – many farmers driving overnight from far-flung regions.
“We feel that government is being driven by green groups and NGOs. They are chasing the Green party vote and ignoring farmers even though we are their core voters,” said Helmut Lebacher, the organiser of a bonfire in the small Bavarian village of Tyrlaching.
Himself a cattle farmer, Mr Lebacher said that ever stricter regulations are threatening the financial viability of small farms.
“I invested a million euros in a new cow shed five years ago, but it wouldn’t get planning today. Constantly changing regulations are making it impossible to plan for the future,” he said.
Another farmer at the demonstration, Matthius Michaelbauer, said that farmers are sick of how they are portrayed in the German media.
“We are always the bogeyman, the media reports negatively on pesticides and fertiliser without giving the full picture,” he said.
The demonstrations seemed to come from nowhere. Unlike France, where farmers blocking motorways is an integral part of the political landscape, Germany’s rural communities are not known for their activism.
But discontent has been bubbling under the surface. Tractor protests in Munich over a collapse in milk prices in 2015 provided a taste of what was to come.
The current demonstrations started in October after Angela Merkel’s government agreed on a new agriculture bill, which sets tough new limits on fertilisers and pesticide usage.
Of particular distress to farmers is a 20 percent reduction in fertiliser use in large areas of the countryside. The government says it has to comply with EU rules on nitrate levels in the groundwater. Concentrations of nitrate in drinking water pose serious health risks to infants and fertilisers are a major culprit. But farmers suspect environmental agencies are exaggerating the extent of the problem.
Maike Schulz Broers, the protests’ co-initiator, told The Telegraph that fertiliser restrictions “wouldn’t just lead to a drop in the harvest, it would mean crops would take the additional nutrients from the earth, which would quickly impoverish the soil.”
For her, this is evidence government policy is “driven by ideology not facts.”
Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who have locked down the farming vote for generations, have tried to appear accommodating, stressing that the bill “is not yet law.” But they’ve made clear compromising on environmental standards is a red line, saying their hands are tied after losing appeal against fertiliser rules imposed by the EU.
The protesters’ list of gripes stretches much further than the draft law, though. Some are angry wolf numbers have been allowed to swell, leaving sheep as easy prey. Meanwhile a sense that city dwellers don’t respect, or are even flat out hostile to, farmers permeates the protests.
Ms Schulz Broers, owner of a wheat farm south of Hamburg, says Germany’s liberal city dwellers want it both ways – they want farmers to go organic but still want a reliable supply of affordable food.
“If they want us to move to organic farming, fine. But they should know that it leads to lower production,” she says.
The protests have met criticism from the Green party, who accuse farmers of “ignoring the seriousness of biodiversity loss and water pollution.”
Critics charge that a powerful agro-lobby has protected a retrograde EU subsidy system while stalling efforts to restrict the use of the potentially carcinogenic pesticide glyphosate. Meanwhile, although farmers claim their futures are threatened, agricultural exports are big business, accounting for €70 billion last year.
With the CDU losing conservative voters to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in recent years, some predict disgruntled farmers could now desert them for the far-right.
“The government’s centrist politics fits the liberal principles of urban voters, but farmers in south Germany, like rural voters in the east, feel like they aren’t being listened to,” says Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund.
“The AfD could pose a threat by telling farmers ‘we also understand that the EU is distant body politic that makes rules from on high’,” she argues.
Others see it differently. Robert Vehrkamp, a researcher at the Bertelsmann Stiftung think tank argues that “support for the AfD in the countryside has been exaggerated. The pact with the CDU has served farmers well over the years. As far as I know the AfD don’t even have a detailed agricultural policy.”
Source: The Telegraph