EU agriculture policy not in line with the Green Deal

By: Emilia Samuelsson

One key challenge for the agriculture sector is to feed the growing global population at the same time as reducing environmental impact and preserving natural resources for future generations. Today, about half the ice-free land surface of our planet is devoted to crop and livestock production, which in turn creates multiple harmful effects. The environmental impacts include deforestation, soil degradation and irrigation. Practices such as fertilisation and pesticide use release nitrates, ammonia and phosphorus that negatively affect air, water and soil quality and harm nature and human health.

When it comes to the greenhouse effect, agriculture makes a substantial contribution. Agriculture generates vast amounts carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and in total accounts for about a third of global greenhouse gases. The world’s food systems produced about 16 billion tons of CO₂ equivalents each year from 2012 to 2017. New studies have shown that if emissions from food production continue on the current path, they will reach a cumulative 1356 billion tons of CO₂equivalents by the end of the century. This level of emissions would in itself heat the world by more than 1.5˚C by the 2060s.1 Policies need to address this development with effective measures.

The effect on biodiversity and ecosystem services is another important aspect to look at when it comes unsustainable farming. Agricultural intensification generates loss and fragmentation of landscape types and semi-natural habitats that are vital for ensuring ecological connectivity and biodiversity conservation. The UN has announced that one million species around the planet are at risk of extinction, with agriculture the primary culprit in what is being hailed as the sixth mass extinction. A diversity of species and ecosystem services cannot be created directly, but policies can promote them by favouring certain landscape elements and management practices.

Last year, over 2,500 scientists across the EU joined forces and reached out to the EU parliament in a letter pressing for action and a far-reaching reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) without delay. The document outlines the harmful effects that the intensive agriculture model, supported by the current CAP, has on biodiversity, asserting that much of this damage could soon be irreversible.

CAP subsidies have approached €60 billion per year for the last seven years, much of which funds intensive and factory farming. The letter suggests that this money could instead be used for the recovery of biodiversity and rural human population. The budget period has reached its end and there were high hopes and expectation for the reforming of the policy. The EU must be a “pioneer in responding to these challenges” and the CAP must be part of that response, rather than continuing to contribute to environmental degradation.

The previous reform of the CAP included the key system of green payments, also called greening. This is the only direct payment under the CAP for which the main objective is environmental. It was introduced in 2013 and rewarded farmers for compliance with goals to safeguard environmental requirements. Through this mechanism, greening was meant to enhance the environmental performance of the CAP.

However, greening has received substantial criticism that it is ineffective. A report by the European Court of Auditors found greening has led to changes in farming practices on only around 5% of all EU farmland. The study found that the EU spent €12 billion per year on it, representing 30% of all CAP direct payments and almost 8% of the whole EU budget. The report concluded that greening was unlikely to deliver significant benefits for the environment and climate. Furthermore, a large share of the subsidised practices would have been undertaken anyway. Another weakness that the study highlighted was the significant complexity that greening adds to the CAP, generating confusing overlaps with other CAP-related environmental requirements.

December 2020 is supposed to be the last month of the current seven-year CAP programme and the new reform has prompted high expectations of important changes. In 2018, the European Commission presented legislative proposals on CAP for the period 2021–27. This year, on 20 October, ministers agreed a general approach to the post-2020 CAP reform package after a two-day negotiation session. The agreement introduced instruments such as mandatory eco-schemes and enhanced conditionality. The agreed position also gives member states flexibility in how they would achieve environmental goals. It thus creates a system in which each member state is responsible for creating its own CAP strategic plan that describes how they will direct the CAP funding towards specific targets and how these will contribute to the overall EU targets.2

But environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) warn that the position agreed in the European Parliament and Council has watered down the proposed environmental protections. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), WWF and other green groups reminded president Ursula von der Leyen of the fact that the EU executive had undertaken to recall the reform proposal tabled by the previous commission only if the EU Council and Parliament did not weaken its “green architecture” 3.

An open letter from multiple NGOs, sent on 30 October, asked European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to withdraw the proposal. The letter states that the proposal would allow billions of harmful subsidies, erode the basic “do-no-harm” baseline and remove safeguards in areas such as irrigation expansion. In addition, it would limit ambitions for the climate, environment, animal welfare and public health. The NGOs see no potential for trialogue negotiations to fix the situation, but ask for a new reform that is based on supporting farmers in the transition from industrial agriculture towards a Green-Deal-compatible CAP.

Another open letter sent by The Greens in the European Parliament stated that “without serious action through the CAP, the goals of the EU’s Green Deal, biodiversity strategy and Farm2Fork strategy are in jeopardy”, and that the budget of nearly 400 billion euros (about a third of the EU budget) that has been used for the agricultural sector “are about to be wasted”.

In a reply to the Greens, von der Leyen said she shared some of the doubts raised in the letter, and that at this stage certain elements seem unable to forge a final CAP that could deliver on the Green Deal objectives. However, despite these reservations, von der Leyen remains convinced that the negotiation process, if supported by a joint desire to honour the EU’s commitment towards sustainability, “can result in a new CAP that is fit for purpose” and is therefore not considering a withdrawal.

German environment minister Svenja Schulze stated on behalf of Germany’s EU Council presidency at the end of October that the compromise position of the CAP reform does not go far enough on climate change or nature protection, and said “Everybody must contribute to working our way out of the climate crisis, even the agriculture sector.”


Emilia Samuelsson





In this issue


The clock is ticking to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. To be clear right from the start: this goal deserves every effort that mankind can pull off. In the name of realism, this is the goal we must focus on now, given the current level of progress in reducing greenhouse gases. However, damage to marine ecosystems will not be avoided even if we reach this goal1. In fact, damage already occurs at current levels of warming, as evidenced by the bleaching of coral reefs2. This may be an inconvenient truth when our current goal is 1.5°C.

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