‘EU vote is missed opportunity for greener farming’

Europe’s agricultural policy must look after the environment. It is not just organisations such as WWF that demand this, but increasingly Europe’s consumers too. They expect more than simply the provision of food from a farming sector that annually gobbles up many billions in EU subsidies.

Surveys show that EU citizens would prefer their taxes were used to promote farmers who produce healthy foods and contribute towards preserving the environment, landscapes and liveable rural areas.

Regrettably, earlier this month the majority of the European Parliament adopted a green-washed position on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) for the next seven years. Similarly weak proposals were agreed upon by the 27 agriculture ministers of the member states.

How did this situation arise? The Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş tried to give voice to Europeans’ sentiment in autumn 2011 when he set the broad direction for the current reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). His argument was simple: if the CAP is to survive, it needs strong support from the public and to become a tool of conservation.

What is currently happening in Europe’s fields is an insidious exploitation and waste of natural resources

As soon as the Commissioner stopped talking, the agriculture lobby started to play on the fear of many politicians and farmers that the farming community will lose funding – funding that often is seen as a kind of EU-financed rent for the farmer’s land, without any meaningful conditions attached.

Unfortunately, when these environmental rules came to a vote in the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, the best parts of the reforms, which would have guaranteed a sustainable future policy, were ripped out. Apparently, many politicians were convinced environmentally sound agriculture is morally unacceptable because it threatens the food supplies of 500 million Europeans.

In fact, the opposite is true. What is currently happening in Europe’s fields is an insidious exploitation and waste of natural resources. A combination of market failures, the buying behaviour of EU citizens and anachronistic EU policy force many farmers to maximise short-term production at the expense of long-term viability, just to keep their heads above water. Many farmers give little consideration to long-term soil fertility, water availability or the benefits of biodiversity.

About 13 per cent of soil is at risk of erosion. Surveys estimate that soil erosion costs £44 billion across Europe each year. Birds that live in diverse landscapes and are a good indicator of biological diversity are becoming increasingly rare. Populations of bees and other pollinating insects are receding dramatically, and already threaten agricultural production.

Around 100 million Europeans live in regions where ground water or surface water have been over-exploited or are in a poor condition. Yet at least 70 per cent of freshwater is used for agriculture. The concentration of livestock production in ever larger barns results in manure being spread on small areas and thus a massive nitrogen surplus. One consequence is that 20 per cent of the Baltic seabed is oxygen-free due to eutrophication, which is an ominous signal for fishing.

Europe largely offers excellent natural conditions for agriculture, but the EU must urgently invest in the preservation of natural capital otherwise farmers will no longer be able to feed Europe’s citizens. The proposal by Commissioner Cioloş may not have fully achieved a truly sustainable agricultural system in Europe, but it deserved support as a compromise between environmental and business interests

Since the EU Parliament and Council’s positions have been confirmed, little hope remains that Mr Cioloş’ reform will survive the trialogue process between Council, Parliament and Commission. Presumably a new mechanism will be created linking parts of direct payments to environmental measures.

But the environmental measures will be full of exceptions, transition periods and softened requirements. Should the trialogue process fail to adopt more ambitious greening measures, the next seven years of CAP can be seen as another missed opportunity to push Europe’s agriculture towards greater sustainability.

It would have been in the interest of farmers and politicians to support a green CAP to protect nature and thus their long-term capital. In return for £33 billion a year in direct payments, European taxpayers have the right to demand this service for society as a whole.

Matthias Meissner is WWF leader on EU Common Agricultural Policy reform, with a particular interest in global food security and sustainable agriculture. Before joining WWF Germany in 2008, he worked for other non-governmental organisations on sustainable farming issues and protection of species.