Flights, farmers and food

Our government’s greed for ever more air travel could come back to bite them

A wave of farmers’ protests has swept across Europe in recent months. Tractors blocked high streets and highways, united under the slogan of No farmers, no food”. But it was another of their banners that caught my eye: Flights over food”. That was the slogan held above a convoy of 60 tractors gathered outside Cork Airport last month. So what does air travel have to do with farmers?

While the motivations of Europe’s protesting farmers are wide ranging, including tough economic conditions and issues with local taxes and regulations, a unifying complaint has been the EU’s Green Deal climate policies. A particular source of ire has been its measures to cut fertiliser and pesticide use, but other important climate measures have also been in the firing line, including tree-planting rules. In Wales, farmers have objected to a proposal which will replace EU policy, which will require them to increase the amount land they dedicate to trees and wildlife habitat from current levels up to 20%. Some farmers argue that these measures are damaging to their livelihoods – although in the Welsh case, the government has gone to great lengths to listen to farmers and address their needs.

The protests are not without their contradictions: the protestors rail against climate-saving measures while the climate crisis itself squeezes the productivity of farming in the UK and across Europe. They’ve also drawn out political contradictions: Rishi Sunak attended a protest with a fringe group of Welsh farming protestors while simultaneously decrying other forms of peaceful protest as mob rule”. Given Sunak himself holds the keys to ensuring farmers are properly compensated for their stewardship of the land (even in Wales), the protestors’ ire seemed somewhat misdirected. Yet, when a group of Irish farmers rolled their tractors up outside Cork Airport with their Flights over food” banner, I found myself sympathising with the their frustration over a different contradiction.

Cork’s farmers saw it as unfair that the EU’s Green Deal meant they were asked to take a hit” for the climate, when the airport next door was slated for a free pass to expand its capacity from 3 million passengers to 5 million. Welsh farmers chose to direct their frustration at the Senedd, but might also have driven an hour east to the gates of Bristol Airport. The airport has been given permission for an expansion which will cause climate damage equivalent to putting over 100,000 new cars on the road.

Tractors blocked high streets and highways, united under the slogan of​“No farmers, no food”. But it was another of their banners that caught my eye:​“Flights over food”.”

While elements of the no farmers, no food” campaign have been captured by right-wing and reactionary groups peddling conspiracy theories, these groups are playing on genuine concerns. In the UK, farm income varies hugely across types and sizes of farm but, particularly among smaller operations, many farms are not particularly profitable. The extent to which climate policy represents a threat to the profitability of farms is a topic of heated debate, but there is a genuine risk posed to farmers from poorly thought-out climate interventions.

Our collective mission to slash carbon emissions to net zero will only be successful if power holders ensure that people on lower incomes — a group which does include some farmers — are not financially punished. Risk and potential loss of income should only fall on those with the broadest shoulders. The shift to a clean, green economy requires that the public buy into the national mission. But this buy-in will not just come from the actual fairness of climate policies themselves – which should be non-negotiable – but also through people perceiving or feeling that those policies are fair.

Across the UK, there are multiple proceedings ongoing to expand UK airports as much as possible, as fast as possible. These are, frankly, insulting to those most directly affected by the climate crisis – whether it’s those living in areas vulnerable to increased flooding, or farmers being asked to reduce emissions. The collective growth proposed at UK airports amounts to a mammoth increase in capacity, and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. Gatwick Airport’s proposed new runway would add 13 million passengers to its annual load, while recent applications from Luton and Stansted add 13 million and 8 million respectively.

Perhaps the most insulting expansion of the lot has been proposed by London City Airport, for 2.5 million extra passengers. Not only do City Airport’s smaller, less efficient planes, create more emissions per passenger, but they serve the wealthiest customer base of any major UK airport. The airport’s predominantly well-off customers take off from Newham, one of the most deprived local authorities in the UK. The proposed expansion will subject several hundred thousand local residents to more noise pollution for ever more hours of their day. A decision on the expansion is currently pending, but its approval would send the clearest signal yet that we are not all in this climate crisis together.

When the UK is ready for a serious national conversation about how it will cut its dangerous carbon emissions, many sectors and communities will be asked to embrace risk and change. Blowing our emissions budget on growing the UK’s many airports is a profligate waste – and one which risks fueling opposition to emissions reductions among communities that are key to the transition.

Image: iStock

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