Illustration: © Lars-Erik Håkansson

A just transition in EU farming

The EU needs to plan and act for a just transition in agriculture, is the message in a new report. Not only because it is fair, but also to mitigate the resistance to change.

Two years ago, Dutch farmers filled the roads to protest against the country’s plans to cut livestock numbers by 30 per cent, as a measure to protect nitrogen-sensitive natural areas. This is one example where a transition to a more sustainable and nature-friendly farming system does not benefit everyone, at least not in the short term. This dilemma is highlighted in a recent paper “Just transition in the EU agriculture and land use sector” from the Institute for European Environment Policy1.

The report begins by disentangling the concept of a “just transition”. It was first used by the US labour movement in the late 20th century, to describe the need for social interventions when shutting down an industry, typically a coal mine, for environmental reasons. The term has subsequently been taken up by international organisations and widened to mean the general striving for fairness in a transition process. One example is the European Green Deal, which includes a Just Transition Mechanism that aims to support regions and citizens facing the greatest difficulties in a transition to a greener economy.

One important observation is that aspirations for a just transition are not only a matter of principle, but also of tactics. The parties that are impacted most by change are less likely to obstruct the transition if they are compensated in some way for their losses. The authors write: “Current hostility to some of the Green Deal agenda in parts of the farming community might be softened and be less of a barrier to change if credible and measured forms of support for potential losers figured more prominently in the debate.”
They then try to sketch out what a just transition would mean for agriculture and land use. They note that the food and farming sector differs in several important respects from mines and traditional manufacturing industries (table). These differences mean that you cannot just copy experiences from other sectors.

Another difficulty is that there is no common view of what a transition in agriculture would look like, however the authors identify four elements where there is relatively good agreement:

  • Changes in the overall composition and quantity of food being produced, alongside changes in consumption patterns, including increased plant-based foods.
  • A reduction in the agricultural area allowing more land devoted to carbon sequestration in forests and peatlands and biodiversity restoration and conservation.
  • Changes in the mix of farming systems and accompanying practices. This will give rise to a range of systems spanning different levels of intensity extending from organic farming and agroecology to contained, vertical cropping systems and cell culture.
  • A systematic focus on reducing both carbon and non-carbon GHG emissions, energy use, curtailing waste and increasing recycling in the primary production sector.
  • Based on this, the authors make qualified guesses about who would be potential winners and losers in an agricultural transition in the European Union. Among the winners they see: producers of foods that in the future will have high added value, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and meat produced with high standards of animal welfare; early-adopters of new sustainable technologies; providers of new inputs, knowledge and training; and producers in well-organised collective structures that can share knowledge and equipment etc.

Among the losers they find parts of livestock industry; farmers with barriers to change because of age, poor economy or low education; producers who today are heavily dependent on agri-chemical inputs; providers of agri-chemical inputs; farmers on land that is re-wetted; and regions that currently have less sustainable systems and where a transition can be difficult, for example, due to acute water shortages.

The authors believe that more comprehensive analyses of winners and losers need to be made. This will enable the design of policy systems that can compensate the less-favoured for their expected losses.

Their first recommendation is greater engagement with the farming and land managing communities, including agricultural workers. Not only to help them prepare for the expected transition, but also to include them in the design of policy interventions. Measures that would benefit a just transition include educating farmers and farmworkers in new skills and developing new sources of income for land-users.

It is also important to ensure that farmers receive a fair share of the revenues in the food chain. This also touches on the risk for “leakage”. This occurs when higher environmental requirements make domestic products more expensive, leading to greater imports from countries with lower standards. The report states: “given the difficulties of applying Carbon Border Adjustment Taxes in the agriculture sector, alternative approaches will be needed”.

Another recommendation is to use existing funds, in particular CAP payments, to facilitate a just transition. However, they also highlight a history of using compensatory arguments to defend support within the CAP, which have not contributed to any change but instead preserved the status quo. There is a risk that the case for a just transition could be used in this way. To avoid this, measures for a just transition need to be targeted at specific groups and for a limited time. And in particular they should be followed up with evaluations to see if the interventions were justified.

Policy makers must also recognise that in addition to farmers and farm workers, whole rural communities as well as consumers will be affected by a transition. The former can be met with regionally targeted support. For the latter group they propose general welfare improvements and targeted payments to counter food poverty.

So far, a sustainable transition in agriculture in most parts of the EU, formulated optimistically, is in its infancy. Here, the Dutch example becomes particularly interesting. If they manage to phase out their intensive animal production in a just way, it may serve as a role model for the rest of the EU.

Kajsa Pira

1 Institute for European Environmental Policy, "Just transition in the EU agriculture and land use sector", January 2022,

Table: Just transition for traditional mining/extractive industries and the food and farming sector

Considerations for a Just Transition The extractive and declining industries Food and farming sector
Scale and nature of businesses Often large companies (some in public ownership), generally with large workforce  Mainly small and micro family businesses, few employees, often owning assets of value (less so for tenants)
Principal threat Redundancies and complete shutdowns, challenge of major restructuring of local economy Change of business operation, income loss, market disruptions, redundancies only in specific cases (e.g. extensive pastoral farms)
Decision makers driving transition Government policy and company executives Government policy and some consumer behaviour change (animal to plant-based diets), retail and food companies
Other drivers for change New technology creating obsolescence, contributing to general economic and social good Aim of reducing damage to climate and natural capital including farmers’ own soils and directing more resources to public benefit. Technical change also.
Degree of spatial concentration Highly concentrated, economically, socially and often geographically Highly diffuse over the whole territory, but with some specific regional threats
Principal Just Transition question How to compensate the losers, engagement/consultation How to arrive at fair outcome and also induce transition

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