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The EU must overhaul its farming policy to save the Green Deal

European decision-makers are entering the final sprint of reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Their choices will make or break the European Green Deal, writes Célia Nyssens.

Our food system—how we produce, process, transport, trade, consume and waste food—is the source of around 30 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, the single largest driver of the biodiversity crisis and the cause of unsustainable soil erosionover-extraction of water resources and health-threatening air and water pollution. It is a system of plenty, as we have never produced as much food as we do today, but it is also linked to widespread misery—from farmers unable to make a decent living from their work, to low-income populations with little access to healthy food, who suffer disproportionately from diet-related health conditions.

In response to these challenges, the European Commission published its Farm to Fork Strategy: for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system, a ‘cornerstone’ of its flagship European Green Deal. Farm to Fork (F2F) lays out how the commission intends to promote a transition towards sustainable food systems, as part of the shift towards a more equitable, circular and climate-neutral economy.

Unfit for purpose

When it comes to implementing this new vision for agriculture, however, the primary instrument put forward by the commission is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); And here’s the catch: for over two years, scientists, the European Court of Auditorsthink tanks and civil society have been warning that the proposed new CAP is not fit for purpose.

Despite this, and after two years of discussion at the Agriculture Council and the European Parliament, it is looking dangerously likely that the new CAP will be worse than the current version in terms of environmental performance. Moreover, the bar is already very low: the policy is not delivering on biodiversity and water protection, nor on climate mitigation

Even the commission itself, in an analysis published alongside F2F, recognised several “potential obstacles and/or gaps jeopardising the ambition level of the Green Deal in the agricultural sector”. This admission is striking—not least because despite conceding that the CAP could jeopardise the European Green Deal, the commission has resolutely refused to take meaningful action to salvage its reform. 

legal analysis by Client Earth published in July concluded that, by defending this flawed CAP proposal, the commission is failing not only in its political commitment to the Green Deal but also in its legal obligations under the European Union treaties. ‘Keeping consistency among policies and throughout an institution’s own course of behaviour is a logical approach but it’s also a legal requirement under the EU treaties,’ Client Earth’s Head of Agriculture, Marc Pittie, explained. 

Stakes too high

The stakes are too high for failure: there is global scientific consensus that we have ten years to prevent catastrophic climate change and the collapse of our natural world, and agriculture is central to the change that is needed. The Covid-19 crisis only strengthens the case for a change of direction in EU agriculture, to address the root causes of new zoonotic diseases. A recent United Nations report identified seven trends driving their increasing emergence, including growing demand for animal protein (meat, dairy and eggs) and unsustainable farming practices. 

To rise to this challenge, every single decision-maker must step up to the plate and deliver the urgent climate action and environmental protection European citizens are demanding. Stronger safeguards, a clear direction of travel and robust governance need to be written into law, if the new CAP is to deliver on the European Green Deal.

The commission cannot maintain a laissez-faire approach, which amounts to greenwashing the CAP. To give itself the mandate to achieve a new CAP compatible with its Green Deal, it must work closely with the co-legislators to align the new CAP with F2F. 

The European Parliament’s plenary vote on the CAP in October will be crucial too. For the second time ever, MEPs have a chance to shape how the most expensive EU programme distributes taxpayers’ money: will it be in favour of business as usual, or transformative change towards a fairer, more sustainable and more resilient agriculture?

Making the transition

Finally, agriculture ministers must walk the walk. Since most EU governments welcomed the European Green Deal and F2F, at least ‘in principle’, they must now turn words into actions and ensure the new CAP helps farmers make the transition before it is too late. 

Five key changes must be made to the CAP proposal to ensure it does not derail delivery of the Green Deal:

  • Strict safeguards to end harmful subsidies: Public policy and money must not support or, worse, promote practices that are clearly contributing to the climate and biodiversity crises, polluting our environment and/or depleting natural resources. As an absolute minimum for policy coherence, strict legal safeguards are needed to end CAP support for intensive livestock production, farming on degraded peatlands or over-extraction of water for irrigation—to name but a few examples.
  • A strong, common environmental baseline: Any farmer or land manager receiving public money must be required to adhere to good basic agronomic and environmental practices, which should be common across EU countries to ensure a level playing field. This should include, as advocated by the parliament’s Environment Committee, protecting permanent grasslands, setting a maximum livestock stocking density, dedicating space for nature on all farms and mainstreaming basic integrated pest-management practices, such as crop rotations, buffer strips and constant soil cover.
  • Binding quantitative targets to give a clear direction: The European Green Deal targets related to agriculture must be integrated into the CAP to ensure their effective implementation and to give a clear direction to the policy. Without this legal basis, the commission has no mandate to ask member states to contribute to EU-wide voluntary targets, and national governments have made it clear they will not do more than what is legally required of them.
  • Funding to enable and incentivise change: For the new CAP to deliver on the promises of the European Green Deal, sufficient funding must be allocated to measures that deliver environmental and climate action. In addition, in line with the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, €15 billion per year should be reserved for targeted funding for effective biodiversity measures. 
  • Greater transparency and accountability: As long as the CAP is funded by public money from the EU budget, member states must be accountable to the Commission for how the money is spent and whether it contributes to achieving EU environmental objectives and laws. 

Change is hard. It is full of risk. There are winners and losers. But today change is the only option we have, because the status quo in our food and agricultural system is unsustainable. The European Green Deal promises to deliver a just transition to a fairer and cleaner economy. The CAP must be part of this change. This will safeguard our ability to produce food into the future, it will save lives by reducing air pollution and slowing climate change, and it will contribute to a better future, in which people and nature thrive together.

This article was first published on Social Europe on 29 September 2020.