Agriculture in the European Union is set to get a little greener, say ministers and farmers. But environmental protection groups doubt a new farming proposal will do much good on the ground.
It's a major project and it deals with a serious amount of money, some 60 billion euros ($77.3 billion) paid out annually to farmers in the European Union. In the current setup, farmers receive subsidies based on the amount of land they cultivate - regardless of what they grow. That's a system some EU agriculture ministers want to change. The ministers plan to only pay out full subsidies when farmers also use their fields to benefit the environment.
After 36 hours of negotiations, the EU's 27 agriculture ministers agreed that at least 30 percent of direct payments will be tied to environmental activities. The rule would be a step toward ridding the European agriculture landscape of monocultures, which can turn massive stretches of land into a sea of corn, for example.
To continue receiving subsidies, farmers will have to plant two or three crops and devote five percent of their lands to so-called "ecological focus areas," which are fallow fields that serve as havens for plants, animals and insects on arable land.
But what sounds like a boon for organic farmers is little more than lip service, according to environmental protection groups. The expression "greening," part of the ministers' final agreement, is more of an "empty term" than a support for the environment, according to Reinhild Benning, an agriculture expert at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). The ministers' proposal was "so empty that neither species nor the environment will be protected," she told DW.
An earlier proposal made by the EU Commission would have required farmers to set aside seven percent of their land for species protection, including fields of flowers for bees or bushes as nesting spots for birds.
"Now that is just five percent, and this five percent can still be basically be farmed," Benning said, adding that the agreement will not bring life back to the "empty and cleared agricultural steppes."
German farmers already stick to green rules
Helmut Born, the general secretary of the German Farmers' Association, said when he drives across Germany he doesn't see agricultural steppes but "hedges, bushes and green spots."
"We do not have any problem with the greening aspect of the proposal," he told DW.
Born added that German farmers are already working to protect the environment and adhere to numerous environmental protection guidelines. He and the council of agriculture ministers agreed there should be compensation for such work.
Born said the decision to reduce the amount of land required to be maintained as ecological focus areas from seven percent to five percent and to allow some farming of that land made sense.
"At the moment there is a large food and energy shortage, and not just in Europe," he said. "We need every hectare for production."
But farmers' lives would also be affected. If the plan stuck to the seven percent requirement, Born said it would have meant a noticeable decline in income for farmers. He estimated that a farmer could lose 10 to 12 percent of his income.
A sweet problem
While the Farmers' Association was satisfied with the EU's greening proposals, it was less pleased by planned changes to the sugar market. European sugar beet farmers are currently protected from cheaper imports, such as those from South America. The most recent proposal calls for the protections to end within four years.
While Born said his organization is not against changes to the sugar market, a quick end to protections would not only affect farmers but overwhelm the entire sugar industry. That's why the group has called for the protections to be extended once again, to 2020.
Exactly what the EU's agriculture policy will end up looking like for the next decade will be determined by further negotiations. The European Parliament and EU member states still have to approve the agriculture ministers' plan. Additional compromises are expected but German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said she was optimistic that the plan could be officially approved this autumn and enter into effect in 2015.