EU agricultural reform
Systemic change or business as usual?

Sometimes you can’t please anyone: Agricultural reforms not only draw ire from climate and environmental activists; they also regularly provoke farmers to engage in protest, such as the bonfires seen here at the beginning of 2020
Sometimes you can’t please anyone: Agricultural reforms not only draw ire from climate and environmental activists; they also regularly provoke farmers to engage in protest, such as the bonfires seen here at the beginning of 2020 | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/Jens Büttner

The European Union is negotiating its Common Agricultural Policy for the coming years and a lot of money is at stake – as is the climate. So far, it does not look as if environmental protection and small farms have been significantly strengthened in the drafts to date.

At the end of 2020, young climate activists demanded that Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) be rewritten from scratch with calls of “Withdraw the CAP!” In 2020/21, CAP reform has reached the final decision-making round in the trialogue among the Commission, Parliament and member states. By summer 2021 at the latest, the die will be cast and new guidelines for subsidizing farmers will be in place. Environmentalists at a demonstration against agribusiness and industrial agriculture in January 2020. Environmentalists at a demonstration against agribusiness and industrial agriculture in January 2020. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Wolfram Steinberg/dpa Many agricultural policy makers and farm lobbyists were outraged by the fact that young climate activist suddenly joined forces with nature lovers in insisting they have a say in shaping policy. But the dry summers of the past few years have made the wider public more aware of the extent to which agriculture is both a victim of and a contributor to global warming. Now this public is demanding it be made more sustainable than in the past.

Lisa Neubauer from Fridays for Future, for example, has warned that current subsidy policy proposals keep farmers locked in a perpetual conflict between economic viability and environmental responsibility. “The thinking has become polarised,” she says, arguing for systemic change. And as radical as it may sound to many, CAP critics like Neubauer can count on the support of eminent scientific advisors in their calls for agricultural subsidies to be completely tied to offsets for climate change and protecting water and the earth’s species.

The threat to biodiversity

In Germany, these scientists include agricultural economists, ecologists, the Minister of Agriculture’s scientific advisory boards on biodiversity and on agricultural policy, as well as the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). In a joint statement, three major research councils warned about the terrible impact of the ongoing loss of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes: the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. They are all demanding that anyone seeking money from Brussels in future be required to use it to promote flowering plants in the fields and the diversity of organisms in the soil, to improve the welfare of pigs, chickens and cattle on farms and to shift to more toxin-free and diverse field management.
 
The CAP could be a powerful driving force in achieving all these goals because a lot of money is at stake. Almost 374 billion euros will flow into European agriculture over the next seven years. This roughly 40 percent of the EU’s total budget has a fundamental impact on Europe’s entire agricultural sector, and the new rules will apply until at least 2027. This makes it all the more disappointing for many that the drafts negotiated thus far still focus on direct income support and increased production.

More hectares, more money

This mindset enjoys a long tradition has been difficult to shift. It began in 1962 when the CAP was created by EU politicians seeking above all to ensure a secure supply of food. They set premiums on staples like corn, wheat and milk. This was so successful that overproduction resulted in the “milk lakes” and “butter mountains” of the 1980s, leading to premiums for shutting down production. In the 1990s, the world markets opened up, and farmers were once again only able to survive the new price competition by increasing production. Direct payments as income support were supposed to buy them time to convert and become competitive. The motto was “grow or get out of the way” and despite subsidies, this came at a high price that included the death of small farms, a reliance on monocultures and deplorable conditions in industrial livestock farming.
 
In the mid-1990s, EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler was the first to attempt to change the scattergun principle of agricultural subsidies. In the face of resistance from farmers’ associations, the food industry and member states, however, all the Austrian politician managed to achieve was something that should have been self-evident from the start, namely that funds from Brussels must be tied to compliance with EU environmental laws. Starting in 2000, at least some money was earmarked for nature and the environment as the so-called “Second Pillar”, though it did not amount to much.
Romania’s Dacian Ciolos pushed more resolutely for environmental offsets for per-hectare premiums. But even his sweeping ideas for the funding period starting in 2014 ended up being more of a small step than a large leap as national governments and the EU Parliament’s conservative agricultural committee watered down all environmental requirements until they were hardly recognisable. “Greening”, which tied a small portion of subsidies to environmental guidelines, also did nothing to change the advantage enjoyed by those who owned a lot of land. The more hectares, more money principle continued to rule. 
 
As a result, large swathes of Europe continue to be dominated by industrial agriculture, which achieves high yields with the massive use of fertilizers, pesticides and heavy machinery. And the price continues to be exhausted soil and disappearing insects and birds as many farming families lose their livelihoods – and any desire to farm. Of the 555,000 farms that existed in 1995, fewer than half have survived and only 266,000 were still around in 2019.

Tiny steps forward

While it is true that even agricultural lobbyists are now thinking about sustainability, and tentatively coming to terms with the idea that farmers should not only produce food but also protect the land and climate, the agricultural lobby still argues that change must not happen too quickly, so as not to overwhelm farmers. Pressured by the lobby, the majority of member states want to tie only 20 percent of direct payments to environmental guidelines known as eco-schemes, in the future. Parliament, however, is proposing 30 percent. Whatever level the partners in the trialogue ultimately settle on, the Federal Minister of Agriculture’s claim that this beginning of the much-needed system change (a term she recently adopted) is euphemistic at best.
 
Is there still a chance to improve the situation for farmers and environmental protection? Many are putting their faith in the Vice President of the EU Commission. Frans Timmermans was quite clear in expressing his fears that the Parliament and member states’ present proposals could undermine the planned Green Deal’s more ecologically ambitious goals. The Commission’s multi-billion-euro funding project includes ambitious climate protection plans as well as the “From Farm to Fork” programme, which aims to link agricultural production and healthy eating practices. Timmermans once even threatened to rework the CAP draft. But in the more recent trialogues at least, the Commission was not the strongest of the three negotiating partners. Cows at an organic farm in Brandenburg: Environmentalists are calling for policy to make organic farming profitable, but their demands do not seem to be reflected in the latest CAP draft. Cows at an organic farm in Brandenburg: Environmentalists are calling for policy to make organic farming profitable, but their demands do not seem to be reflected in the latest CAP draft. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Maurizio Gambarini/dpa There are two central parameters that could still create scope for more effective eco-measures. Both concern what critics call the “renationalisation” of subsidy policy. For the first time, each member state will independently decide how to structure their eco-schemes in detail. To prevent undercutting in EU competition, Brussels will have to formulate criteria that are as ambitious as possible and apply to all.
 
And then it all comes down to the governments. The German agriculture minister is already negotiating with German state governments, associations and non-governmental organizations about how ambitious organic programs will be in this country. And even if, in the words of Luisa Neubauer, no consistent systemic change is likely to overcome the “polarization in thinking”, there is at least a ray of hope that conserving the ecosystem will be much easier and more often economically worthwhile for farmers in future.