Mental distress for European farmers, the unseen motivation for their protests

The farmers’ protests across Europe are headline news, but there’s a lesser-known reason for such action – their negatively-impacted health and mental well-being.

The farmers’ protests across Europe are headline news these days, with hundreds of tractors blocking traffic in major European cities, exhausted after years of green policies undermining the survival of their activities. But there’s a lesser-known reason for such action. Research has shown that the pressures on farmers over the years have also significantly negatively impacted their health and mental well-being. This is very worrying but totally understandable. In many cases, their daily job is an activity that has been handed down for generations, and the risk of failure creates a lot of mental stress in addition to the myriad difficulties the sector has been experiencing recently.

Farms have belonged to these families for generations, but European policies often do little to protect their incomes, creating financial insecurity and forcing many farms to close. With some seriously considering suicide, the situation is more dramatic than anyone might think. A 2023 survey of more than 250 Irish farmers found that 20% had considered suicide in the previous two weeks, while almost 40% reported moderate to extremely high levels of stress. In northern Belgium, almost half of the 600 farmers surveyed said their work was a cause of psychological distress. More than a quarter of German and Austrian framers reported experiencing burnout, twice the general population’s rate for burnout.

The sense of powerlessness, oppression and injustice can be unbearable

Farmers report feeling completely crushed by climate policies that unfairly label them as the planet’s main polluters. The increase in costs, the fall in selling prices, and the overly rigid and unfair rules governing their work are also inevitably damaging their mental health. The sense of powerlessness, oppression and injustice is reported to have become unbearable for many, in the face of the headlines painting the agricultural sector as the main cause of global warming and loss of biodiversity. The farming sector, just like many other sectors, knows it must reduce impacts on the environment. In this respect, livestock farming has shown success in reducing emissions. But these improvements should not be undermined by making their work impossible. After all, the farmers are the ones putting the food on our supermarket shelves.

Farmers are at the forefront of the fight against climate change

Farmers are at the forefront of the fight against climate change and are also one of the most affected by it. But, the unsustainable rise in costs, ever-stricter regulations on emissions and restrictions on the use of various inputs, negative media portrayals and the removal of subsidies for agricultural fuel have eroded any respect for their fundamental role as guardians of the land and suppliers of food. After the Second World War, farmers were told to give it their all to end hunger and secure our food supply. Today, however, they are constantly criticised and labelled as polluters and torturers of animals. This kind of constant criticism would be exhausting for anyone.

“They feel that they have been scapegoated in terms of being a headline as if they are causing the climate crisis disproportionately beyond their role,” said Louise McHugh, professor of psychology at University College Dublin and co-lead of the mental health study on Irish farmers. McHugh says farmers she spoke to as part of her study were motivated to engage in innovative practices and policies that addressed climate change but felt these needed to include their voices and, crucially, be workable on the ground. Researchers say solutions and more support for farmers’ mental health need to be found. In Ireland, they’ve already started by offering mental health modules to agricultural sciences students.

According to Franziska Aumer, who is studying to become a dairy farmer in Bavaria, Germany, it is also important to ensure that farmers have more information and opportunities for dialogue. Franziska said that a Dutch friend of hers took his own life at the age of 25 after losing his farm, like many others in the Netherlands, due to stricter nitrogen emission standards. “He was full of life. He fought for his farm for years”, Aumer said. Despite the tragic stories she has experienced and the challenges facing the sector, Aumer said giving up is not an option for her. “I hope that politicians and society will appreciate us and that they’ll offer us support so that our profession has a future. And so that it doesn’t break people.”

Source: European Livestock Voice

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.