The farmers' revolt comes to Catalonia: Why are they protesting now?

End of demonstrations nowhere in sight despite government efforts to meet demands

Farmers lift the highway blockade in Girona
Farmers lift the highway blockade in Girona / Marina López
Oriol Escudé Macià

Oriol Escudé Macià | @oriolsqd | Barcelona

February 24, 2024 10:43 AM

February 24, 2024 10:43 AM

Farmers' protests have spread from across Europe to Catalonia. In early February, a week after thousands of farmers blockaded the European Parliament in Brussels, Catalan producers launched their own protests. 

After disrupting several major highways and staging a day-long blockade in Barcelona, Catalan farmers won several commitments from the Catalan government on multiple issues. 

Despite these concessions, farmers are still unhappy and determined to continue their protests, including a joint protest with French farmers at the border next week

But what are their grievances, and how do they differ from other farmers across the EU? 

A tractor on the A-2 with a sign reading 'No farmers, no food, no future'
A tractor on the A-2 with a sign reading 'No farmers, no food, no future' / Oriol Bosch

Rising costs: The tip of the iceberg 

Farmers are protesting against soaring energy prices and production costs. The escalating costs of energy, fertilizer, and transportation have become particularly pronounced, exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. 

"We’re going through a really tough time, especially small and medium-sized farms. We really need help," says protesting farmer Toni Martínez. 

While the increased expenses have played a crucial role in sparking the protests, there are more significant demands driving the farmers' discontent.

Red tape: Europe's major challenge 

Red tape is farmers' main concern across Europe. They argue that EU bureaucracy is overly complicated and time-consuming, leading to wasted resources on paperwork.  

Experts note that strict European regulations are affecting farmers' profit margins, with excessive controls on traceability, mandatory training, changing regulations, and challenges in processing subsidies. 

"The bureaucracy is unsustainable. The sector can no longer cope with so many regulations, excessive controls and unfair competition from countries outside the EU that do not have as many requirements. Farms are disappearing because of all of this," says Esmeralda Rourera, a farmer. 

'Without us, there is no food': Why Catalan farmers are protesting / Oriol Escudé/E2S Creativa

To address this, the government committed to simplify the computer applications used by farmers and re-establish local district offices for assistance.  

However, experts note that those measures will have little effect as reducing red tape is a complex task, as most demands stem from EU regulations. 

Cheap foreign imports: Farmers seek support for 'mirror clauses' 

While European farmers struggle with burdensome red tape and adhere to strict environmental and food safety laws, a significant portion of the food consumed in the EU is sourced from countries outside the bloc at significantly lower prices. 

"All products coming from abroad are not subject to the same controls as Catalan, Spanish and European farmers. Here you have to declare when you sow, when you fertilize, while products from third countries are exempt," explains Andrés Cosialls, an agricultural law professor. 

This week, Spanish agriculture minister Luis Planas pledged to defend mirror clauses in the EU. These clauses, widely called for by farmers, would ensure that all imported food products meet EU production standards. 

Although the Spanish government has long supported these clauses to promote fair competition in community trade agreements, unanimous approval is required, and some non-producing countries resist, fearing potential cost increases. 

Farmers blocking the AP-7 highway having lunch on Wednesday
Farmers blocking the AP-7 highway having lunch on Wednesday / Xavier Pi

Drought: The breaking point for Catalan farmers 

Catalonia is experiencing its worst drought on record, and farmers have been facing water restrictions for nearly three years. 

Recently, the Catalan government declared a drought emergency in the Ter-Llobregat system, which supplies water to 6 million people. In this area, farmers have had to reduce irrigation by 80% and livestock farmers by half. 

"[The government] cannot cut back 50% of the water needed for livestock. Livestock is where our food is produced. We are an essential part of society. Without us, there is no food," says farmer Joan Rius.  

Farmers are upset because they feel they are bearing the brunt of the drought, while other sectors such as industry and tourism have not faced as many restrictions. 

"Other sectors do not have a quarter of the restrictions we have," argues farmer Cristina Bech. 

After two weeks of protests, the Catalan government responded to the farmers' concerns by reaching an agreement with them on a special drought plan. 

The government promised to compensate farmers for up to 80% of their losses due to drought restrictions and guaranteed access to water for livestock farmers. 

But despite the government's attempts, a solution to the farmers' problems is out of reach, and they are determined to continue protesting until their demands are met. 

To learn more about the farmers' protests, listen to the latest episode of our podcast, Filling the Sink.