24th Sep 2023


The new front in conspiracy theories — farming and EU Green Deal

  • An Elon Musk retweet about a supposed cull of Irish cattle - which was 'fake news' - was seen 8.5 million times (Photo: Markus Winkler)
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If you watched Fox News last month, you may have heard that Ireland is planning to slaughter 200,000 cows to meet its EU climate goals. Of course, there was one big problem with the reporting: the claims were untrue.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories have long been a part of debates in US politics about climate change, but Europe may also now be falling into this trap during its wrangling over farming reforms.

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The past few months have shown the new disturbing terrain on which EU politics is being fought. Agricultural misinformation is on the rise, and experts say it's being deployed by climate science deniers and bad faith politicians in opposition to green reforms.

Fox News's misleading reporting came after documents in Ireland showed government officials had discussed "displacing" up to 65,000 cows a year to meet its climate goals. Food production accounts for over a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, while livestock alone accounts for around 15 percent. The government clarified that the proposal — which was one among many — referred to a voluntary exit scheme, with farmers paid to reduce their herd size.

Pauline O'Reilly, chair of the Irish Green Party, told DeSmog that a cull had never even been on the horizon: all reductions would be achieved through farmers not restocking their herds over time.

But the supposed plans drew outrage in Ireland and across the world. According to research by DeSmog, more than 20 million people viewed content on Twitter and YouTube in June about the alleged "Irish cattle cull" that contained exaggerated or outright false claims, a chunk of which was posted by conspiracy theory or climate science denial accounts.

Much of the content stated that the government was considering a "massacre", while many of the accounts used the furore to promote climate science denial. Some fringe commentators told their hundreds of thousands of followers that the plans were part of a sinister plot by the World Economic Forum and global "elites" to use a fake climate crisis to establish global socialist control.

The posts were shared by the likes of climate science denier Jordan Peterson and Twitter owner Elon Musk (whose tweet was viewed by over 8.5 million people).

It's not the first time that misinformers and conspiracy theorists have exploited debates over plans to reduce farming emissions in the EU.

Last year, protests in the Netherlands against proposals to reduce cattle numbers were likewise exploited by sensationalist commentators, who claimed the government was deploying a non-existent climate crisis to attack farmers' rights. Some commentators baselessly claimed that the government was seizing farmland to build housing for migrants.

This surge in misinformation comes at a time of major decisions over the future of farming, threatening to derail conversations about how its climate impacts will be addressed.

"There are going to be contentious things that have to be discussed," said Jennie King, from the think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue. "But misinformation leaves no space for a sober and desperately needed conversation between the people who are affected by these policies and the people making decisions."

Laurent Moinet, a French organic livestock farmer agrees that it will exacerbate an already often divided discussion. "Misinformation is a weapon: a new way of deepening the gap," he said.

This "weapon" has even percolated into European Parliament discussions. Europe's largest political grouping — the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) — has launched a massive online campaign against the Nature Restoration Law in recent months.

The EPP claims about the law — which will put measures in place to recover degraded ecosystems for 20 percent of EU land and seas — were publicly rebutted by the European Commission's environment committee as "simply wrong". The law was narrowly approved by the European Parliament in a vote in July, but is now facing difficult negotiations to reach a final political consensus.

EPP MEP Peter Liese even admitted that some party representatives had posted "exaggerated" tweets. MEPs called the party out for "fake news", and over 6,000 scientists signed an open letter saying that opponents of the law were spreading arguments that "not only lack scientific evidence, but even contradict it".

While the misinformation shared by the EPP is of a different degree to some of the conspiracy theories seen in Ireland and the Netherlands, the two together present a worrying trajectory.

"Politicians are fearful of being outflanked by the far right," Irish journalist John Gibbons told DeSmog. "They think that if they don't own conversations around farming, they're going to lose rural Europe."

All recent evidence shows that farming will be one of the key plains on which the European Parliament elections next year will be fought. It also shows that politicians and online commentators alike may use misinformation to create a culture of division — on which farmers' interests are misleadingly pitched against any climate reforms.

Author bio

Clare Carlile is an investigative journalist on climate, food and farming, mostly for online magazine DeSmog.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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