Forget the ‘million dollar question’. This week Brussels will answer one worth €358 billion: the shape of the next EU farm policy, running to 2027. The details of this highly destructive policy, consuming a third of the EU budget, will be largely determined by agriculture ministers meeting 19 and 20 October and the European Parliament scheduled to vote between 20-23 October. Leaks, statements and last-minute deals suggest EU lawmakers are preparing a stinker: subsidising the wrong kind of farming and sending tens of billions of public funds to the one percent of big landowners, moves that fly in the face of EU statements and strategies aimed at addressing ecological collapse largely driven by agriculture.
In an age of mass extinction, intensive farming is nature’s enemy number one. Nearly half of Europe is farmland, most of it intensive. That means vast monocultures in place of diverse farming and natural habitat, methods that spread thousands of tonnes of toxic chemicals into soil, rivers and seas that are increasingly lifeless. This is mainstream farming without a future. Just last month, the EU pledged on the international stage to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. So can we expect change?
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a massive pot of public money that should powerfully steer farmers in a better direction. This moment to seize the tractor steering wheel arrives once every 7 years, when a reform of the CAP is negotiated. But although warnings signs have been flashing since the 1970s and we have a clear roadmap to something better, talk of ‘greening the CAP’ has been largely just lipstick on a pig. The last reforms were a disaster.
But the mood music for change in 2020 is good. After a so-called ‘green wave’ in the May 2019 European elections, the new European Commission quickly tabled a European Green Deal. This had a “zero pollution” goal that triggered a helpful chemical strategy, plus a ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy promising that Europe will move to a food system with “a neutral or positive environmental impact” and future legislation to cut pesticides and antibiotic use, add environmental aspects to food labels and boost organic farming. Another recent strategy aims to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. Agriculture ought to contribute to an ambitious new climate law.
If the mood music is good, the moves from lawmakers to shape the next CAP are not. Based on leaks and meetings with decision makers, the EEB expects the next CAP to remain a ‘swamp’ of vested interests that are stuck in the past: maintaining the financial incentives for intensive farming, providing substantial funds for green initiatives that risk being anything but green, basically channeling masses of public money into the pockets of powerful agri-chemical corporations.
Some examples: Brussels will for the first time hand almost the entire CAP budget to governments, with only vague rules and no targets. Some governments may use it well. Most won’t. Corruption is a problem, and there is no sign of an agenda for change.
There are plans to funnel tens of billions of Euros in what are known as Direct Payments to the worst kind of destructive farming, with little environmental conditions. NGOs want a full half of these payments to be ring-fenced for ecological farming practices, but Big Agri pushed for no more than 20%, a figure mirrored by agriculture ministers.
NGOs ask that 10 percent of farmland become nature-friendly land to allow, for example, insects and songbirds a chance of recovery. But the agri lobby is fighting this, proposing a reduced portion of 20%, a position now endorsed by conservative parliamentarians and governments.
Livestock and dairy farmers have for years been caught in a vicious cycle of overproduction leading to ever-falling prices for their goods. Yet the new CAP is likely to lift the subsidy limit each beef and dairy farm can claim for production, which could make the problem worse. This as we are told to eat less beef and dairy, and as Covid-19 highlights the links between intensive livestock farming and diseases that jump the species barrier to humans. The inevitable excess will be sent overseas, undercutting foreign markets with intensive products subsidised by European taxpayers. This policy change has been tabled by the Commission, endorsed by governments, but may still be blocked by the European Parliament. The same political reality is also true of CAP payments for draining peatland, a destructive practice generating massive amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Negotiations between parliament and governments will begin after 20 October and conclude by mid 2021.