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Greener farms

July 8, 2011

Europe's farm subsidies have long been controversial, but in these tough economic times a novel idea has been gaining traction - why not divert some of the money to look after nature?

A French farmer works his fields in the snow
The spectre of frozen subsidies has farmers worriedImage: picture alliance/AFP Creative

Emmanuel Feys leaves the tractor running as he comes in from his potato field for a quick chat.

He singlehandedly runs his family’s 160-hectare farm just east of Brussels. He doesn't have much time for small talk, but he does have his opinions about Europe's farm subsidies.

"European family farms will disappear with the cutting of subsidies," Feys told Deutsche Welle. "You will have the big farms who are able to go against the world market, but farmers such as I won't be able to make it. That's for sure."

Yet Feys also stands to gain from proposed changes to the bloc's subsidies regime.

Right now his potato field is surrounded by a wide swathe of grass and weeds, which form a ring around the plot, and this appears to be just the kind of farm that EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos would like to promote.

Greening the CAP

Mist in a wine-growing valley in Bordeaux, France.
Farm subsidies are supposed to help promote a European rural idyllImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Of all the measures contained in last week's proposed EU budget for 2014-2020, conservation groups had their eyes on one section in particular: Farm subsidies.

That's because a novel idea has been gaining traction in recent years – with Europe's dispute over the legitimacy of the payments as intractable as ever, why not divert some of the money to pay farmers to look after nature?

With the figures out, it appears the EU's executive is backing the idea.

According to its proposed reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), some 30% of payments for farmers will be made conditional on what it calls "greening."

In practice, this means farmers, like Feys, would be rewarded as of 2014 for maintaining grassland, using green winter cover and generally setting aside areas for nature – in short, things that would help the EU reverse the loss of biodiversity across the bloc.

Another example might be deploying crop rotation methods that are less stressful for the environment than monocultures, but the details on what conditions will be attached to payments for "greening" are still to be hammered out.

In any event the executive's Agriculture department appears to be on board. At least in principle.

"Europe now faces a crucial choice for an entire generation," said EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos back in November 2010.

"Between agriculture spread throughout Europe or agriculture marginalized in society and the economy. We are talking about economic choices, but also a choice as to our lifestyle, a choice for diversity, for authenticity, quality, for the essential values of the European civilization."

Organic reservations

The lobby for organic farmers would have preferred to see significantly more than 30% of direct payments to farmers tied to "greening" criteria, because if there's one group that already mostly deploys them, its organic growers.

More fundamentally, though, it would prefer to see the CAP's funding priorities reversed.

"You can't re-grow habitats on a basis of annual payments," said Antje Kölling, a policy officer for the Brussels office of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

Direct, annual payments to farmers account for the lion's share of EU farm subsidies – around 282 billion euros, according to the current proposals.

But some 90 billion euros are also earmarked for the 'second pillar' of farm subsidies, for what the EU calls "rural development."

National governments can use this money to promote long-term projects, and this is where the real opportunities to promote organic farming and nature restoration lie, according to IFOAM.

"We would prefer to see more emphasis on the second pillar," Kölling said.

"With annual direct payments, a farmer might adopt some sustainable practices for a couple of years, and then switch back to conventional methods."

Janez Potocnik
Environment commissioner Potocnik wants farmers paid for environmental servicesImage: picture alliance / dpa

Harsher assessment

Indeed some environmental groups say the EU's rural development funding is now so popular that some European farmers would be lost without it.

"What they have started to do, is to restructure some of their businesses so they are increasingly reliant on some of the schemes that support them for managing their farms with wildlife in mind," said Martin Harper of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about the scheme's popularity in Britain.

He welcomes incentives to encourage farmers to do more to protect the environment, but says they still remain too weak and that the EU's proposed seven-year budget "lacks vision."

"We are pleased and relieved that some of our worst fears, about cuts to wildlife-friendly farming schemes have been to a certain extent shelved,"

"That said, I think Europe's commitment to cutting greenhouse gases and halting biodiversity losses by 2020 - all things the EU has signed up to - are not going to be realized through this budget," Harper said.

Farmers' federations

But farmers' federations are wary of the additional requirements that would come with future subsidies.

"We are particularly concerned that farmers are going to be asked to do more, with less money," said Gail Soutar of Britain's National Farmers' Union's (NFU).

"Retaining permanent pasture and maintaining ecological set-aside means laying aside 5% of their production land for environmental purposes."

Many UK farmers argue they are already doing enough for the environment and cannot afford to do more- even if the EU offers them more financial incentives in the shape of special grants for rural development programs.

The NFU says the fact that 70 percent of British soil is already covered by agri-environment schemes proves just how willing UK farmers are to "go green."

Subsidy opponents

A farmer's hand plants a shoot
EU legislators seek a balance between agriculture and protecting the environmentImage: dpa

Then there are others who would prefer to see Europe's farm subsidies – which have long been controversial – scrapped all together.

The UK government has long campaigned for deep cuts to the scheme in the face of French and German support for it.

Critics say the CAP distorts trade, encourages inefficiency, favors certain European countries and wipes out food markets in Africa.

Perhaps most of all, the CAP is attacked for being expensive. The subsidies currently amount to around 40 percent of the EU's budget.

This proportion will shrink somewhat under the proposed budget, which foresees freezing CAP spending at around 55 billion euros a year - around 387 billion euros over the seven years from 2014.

But this is still far too much for some.

“You can probably make a good case for some spending, particularly R&D, but you cannot make a good case for keeping the same huge levels of spending," said Pieter Cleppe of the Open Europe think tank.

"We’re talking about spending 37% (of the EU's budget) under the new proposal...for a sector that’s only 2% of the whole European economy.”

Cleppe says it would make more sense to abolish direct payments to farmers, and use the money instead to fund direct environmental improvements.

Still up for discussion

Nothing is set in stone yet.

The budget proposal will be formally presented this fall. European parliamentarians will then debate it in parallel with the CAP's details, a process which could take more than a year.

In the meantime, Belgian farmer Emmanuel Feys says he enjoys his grass border and doesn't need to be 'incentivized' to keep it.

"It's a nice way to be. It's a nice interaction with my environment."

Author: Teri Schultz, Nina Maria Potts (sjt)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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