Farmers are advancing on Paris in protest at costs and red tape

Europe is in the midst of a farmer revolt. Protests that began in France over falling incomes, soaring costs and “environmental over-regulation” have quickly spread to other countries this week.

Tractors have been blocking roads across the continent. As The Grocer went to press on Thursday, angry French farmers – unimpressed with president Macron’s response to the crisis – were closing in on their capital city as part what has rapidly become known as a modern-day ‘siege of Paris’.

They say they will stay “as long as they have to”, according to Jenny Brunton, senior European policy advisor for the British Agriculture Bureau in Brussels. So could the unrest spread to the UK?

The main ask of European protesters is for more government help on fuel prices and other input costs, action to tackle the impact of imports and a cut to bureaucracy, Brunton says. That’s particularly when it comes to the cost of implementing the EU’s updated Common Agriculture Policy and its tighter sustainable farming provisions.

Why are European farmers making their voices heard?

While protestors outside France have their own local gripes, their general concern around soaring costs and burdensome red tape is a common theme, as is a growing frustration with decreasing returns from supermarkets – something with which British farmers will be all too familiar.

So it was little surprise when NFU president Minette Batters this week expressed solidarity with “farming colleagues across Europe”, who, like their contemporaries in the UK, were “facing huge challenges and uncertainty”.

However, she stressed protests of the like seen on the continent would “always be a last resort”, while the UK’s “incredibly high public support for our farmers and growers” could influence politicians.

Still, the UK is no stranger to direct action by farmers.

The past decade has seen a series of farmer protests over financial and red tape concerns, ranging from marches on Westminster in 2016 – organised by lobby group Farmers For Action over low farmgate prices – to farmers taking cows into supermarkets in 2015 to protest low milk prices.

As recently as October 2023, farmers under the banner of campaign group Proud to Farm took to the streets to blockade six supermarket distribution centres owned by the big four in protest over low returns.

In October, that group told The Grocer it had “the skill-set and knowledge” to take the campaign further, amid farmers “struggling to feed themselves”.

UK protest possibility

So all things considered, many believe it is only a matter of time before there is similar protest action in the UK.

An organiser of the Proud to Farm protests says there is now a growing groundswell in favour of “at least a day of national protests” in the UK.

Countless farmers on social media have expressed similar opinions, with one, known only as ‘The F in Farmer’, being particularly vocal on TikTok.

Commenting on the platform this week, the so-far anonymous farmer said “actions speak louder than words”.

Tractor farming field

Source: Getty Images

A modern-day ‘siege of Paris’ is taking place in France, with farmers reportedly prepared to maintain road blockades ‘as long as they have to’

To “address the balance of power, we need to go out en masse, all of us united, whether you are in the dairy sector, veg, arable, beef – it doesn’t matter”, he urged. “The bottom line is we go out as farmers.

“We need to show the population we are suffering, and they will understand as they are too.

“The consumers have the right to know the prices they are paying for their produce is basically 70%-80% going to the supermarkets, not us.”

The Proud to Farm organiser says The F in Farmer has already “brought together organisations and individuals from across the UK” to plan protest action.

Impact on British households

And supermarkets are on high alert. One senior food sector source says the prospect of protests is “worrying businesses downstream”, who fear they will be “caught in the crosshairs”.

Ged Futter, director of consultancy The Retail Mind, says retailers must take more responsibility for the state of the farming sector.

“If someone’s costs are going up, and if you can’t pass those costs on, you will go bust. So if they don’t want their manufacturers or growers to go bust or to leave farming completely, they need to work with them.”

Whether they have enough time to avert protests kicking off in the UK is another matter.