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European Parliament greenwashes farming subsidies and recovery funds

Yesterday, the European Parliament rubber-stamped an agreement on EU farm support for the next two years and on how recovery funds will be spent in the sector. And this is bad news for agricultural resilience and the environment, writes Celia Nyssens. 

On the table at the European Parliament was a two-year transition deal extending current farm subsidy rules and a scheme for how to distribute the €8 billion agriculture share of the EU coronavirus recovery package.

The politicians opted for greenwashing and status quo instead of the resilience and environmental sustainability that is badly needed.   

Wanted: farming resilience 

The coronavirus crisis shone a bright spotlight on the fragility of the agriculture sector. With lockdowns hindering international trade and changing consumption patterns, several export-oriented industries such as livestock, potatoes, and wine, were faced with production gluts and falling prices. Charter flights of seasonal migrant workers from East to West also made headlines, as border closures created major shortages of cheap labour amongst highly specialised fruit and vegetable growers.  

European governments were quick to intervene, avoiding major collapses of food supply, but these anecdotes show the vulnerability of our food supply chains. In the face of an increasingly unstable climate and possible future pandemics, the need to build resilience in our food system has never been clearer.  

But what does it mean to build resilience in agriculture? We believe, and so does the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, that the answer lies in agroecology, because of its roots in diversity and locality. A farm producing many different crops is better equipped to deal with fluctuations in price and demand or a bad harvest than one focusing solely on one or a few crops. And farmers who sell their produce through short supply chains or directly to consumers are less vulnerable to international trade disturbances and are more likely to build a relationship of trust with customers which can help them through tough times. 

Strawberries, like many other fruits and berries, are often picked by migrant workers (photo credits Liz Caldwell)

A CAP on green expectations 

The reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was underway just as the coronavirus hit. This could have been a golden opportunity to rethink how public money can be used to boost the sector’s sustainability and resilience, which are really two faces of the same coin. Unfortunately, what we are seeing instead is major policy inertia favouring business as usual and techno-fixes.   

The subject of yesterday’s vote was the so-called ‘transition period’ of the CAP. Long delays in the reform process mean that the new CAP is not ready for its planned start on 1 January 2021, requiring a solution to bridge the gap. When this became obvious, the previous Commission published a proposal extending the current CAP without changing any rules, banking on a swift one-year transition. However, this has now turned into two years, due to delays in the negotiations of the next EU budget and the coronavirus crisis. 

Despite the well-documented environmental shortcomings of the current CAP, keeping things simple and not changing anything for one year arguably made sense. But doing so for two full years in the middle of a climate and biodiversity emergency is a real missed opportunity to initiate a sustainable transition and learn from the lessons of the coronavirus crisis. We need resilience more than ever and more of the same simply will not do it. 

Green recovery or (agri-)business as usual? 

To add insult to injury, ministers and MEPs have now agreed to top up the funding of the transition period with €8 billion allocated to agriculture from the coronavirus recovery package, in what can hardly be described as anything but greenwashing of funds designated to achieving the European Green Deal. 

In her State of the Union speech in September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged that 37% of recovery funds would be “spent directly on our European Green Deal objectives”. Going even further, the Parliament voted to earmark 40% of the main recovery funds to climate and environmental action.   

For the money allocated to the farming sector, such commitment would have been an encouraging leap forward, if reserved strictly for environmental measures. Agriculture recovery funds, however, are treated separately and are benefiting from different rules. While farm ministers and MEPs have maintained the Commission’s 37% figure, they have shoved several non-environmental measures into it, such as payments to areas that are difficult to farm (also referred to as areas of natural constraint) which have no proven biodiversity and climate benefits. When deducting these non-environmental measures* (based on spending levels in 2014-2019), from the 37% earmarking, only 6% of the €8 billion are left for real environmental spending. The emperor has no clothes.  

Farming in areas of natural constraint is likely to receive green support despite lack of evidence of environmental benefits (photo credit Caner Güçlü)

Thankfully, the Commission insisted on the inclusion of a “non-regression principle” which forces EU governments to maintain an equivalent share of funding for “measures that are particularly beneficial for the environment and climate” as a minimum. In 2014-2019, such measures used 21% of funds, so this same percentage would have to be the baseline for recovery funds.  

On the other hand, ministers and MEPs agreed to ring fence 55% for measures promoting “economic and social development”, which is close to double of what is currently spent. One industry in particular is expected to gain a lot from this surprisingly high ringfencing: agricultural technology and machinery providers. The  agreement between the EU institutions explicitly refers to “precision and smart farming, innovation, digitalisation and modernisation of production machinery and equipment” as one of the priority areas for this funding.  

While technology has an important role to play in moving to a cleaner economy, the environmental and economic challenges facing the agriculture sector require far more than such techno-fixes, which even risk locking farmers to fossil-fuel heavy machinery for decades. Not exactly an overwhelmingly green recovery for agriculture.   

All eyes on the governments 

The complete lack of green ambition in these rules for the next two years of farm subsidies, despite all the big words, bodes ill for the promises of the European Green Deal and for the ongoing negotiations on the CAP reform. While the Commission has spent the last year arguing that the new CAP can be compatible with the Green Deal, agriculture ministers and MEPs have systematically watered down the environmental aspects. The Commission faces an uphill battle to defend the green ambition of its CAP proposals in the negotiations, and the underwhelming environmental commitments for agricultural recovery funds leaves little room for optimism. 

Yet, in both cases, the real proof of the pudding will be in the implementation plans drawn up in the 27 capitals: revised Rural Development Plans for the next two years and so-called CAP Strategic Plans for the five years after. There, national officials will determine the actual shade of green through specific measures and budgetary allocations. While EU-level rules are rather discouraging, national authorities will have substantial discretion to choose more or less ambitious measures. The active involvement of civil society in these processes is absolutely crucial to provide environmental expertise and public scrutiny.  

That is exactly what the EEB, with partners Clean Air Action Group and CEEWeb, is working towards as part of a project funded by the German Environment Ministry (BMU). We are organising a workshop in January 2021 to discuss recovery measures in agriculture. If you are interested, please get in touch with me, Celia Nyssens.

National governments need to feel that popular support and demand for a dark green recovery and transition period for EU agriculture, let’s make them hear us. 


* Areas with Natural Constraints – 25% of Rural Development funds in 2014-2019; LEADER – 4%; animal welfare – 2%.