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Farmers revolt against EU's historic nature restoration law

July 12, 2023

The EU has accepted a historic bill to reduce agricultural emissions and promote biodiversity and sustainable land and soil use. But farmers fear that they will lose out.

A view of the Rehden Geest Moor, a swampy piece of land covered with vegetation, with an orange sun low on the horizon
Around the world, peatlands like the Rehden Geest Moor in northern Germany absorb nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all the Earth's forests combinedImage: Olaf Juergens/Zoonar/picture alliance

After the European Parliament accepted a key nature restoration law with a razor-thin majority on July 12, a backlash is expected against plans to protect vast swaths of threatened nature.

The law, which has passed through the European Parliament but is subject to final approval, comes after the European Commission concluded that member states have not yet succeeded in stopping the extinction of species. A further failure to achieve the common goals of restoring destroyed ecosystems caused the Commission to call for "more decisive action."

As agreed in the European Council in June, EU member states will "put in place restoration measures that bring at least 30% of habitats in terrestrial, coastal, freshwater and marine ecosystems that are not in good condition, into good condition by 2030."

The bill is a key part of the European Green Deal, which seeks to implement some of world's most ambitious climate and biodiversity targets.

While the law narrowly passed, a number of amendments appear to have weakened its ambition. Nonetheless, campaigners including the Left in the European Parliament hailed the winning vote.

Protesters including climate activist Greta Thunberg gathered at the European Parliament on Tuesday in support of the nature restoration law. "Vote for the strongest law possible," she demanded, adding that "anything less" with be a "a betrayal to future generations." 

Meanwhile, farmers also took part in a counter-demonstration that called for a slower approach that would lessen the impact on their income.

Farmers protest loss of agricultural land

Farmers and conservative lawmakers in the European Union strongly opposed the landmark nature legislation that bolsters the bloc's green transition and prevents vital ecosystems and species from being wiped out due to climate change.

The Nature Restoration Law was first introduced by the European Commission in June 2022 and met political resistance over plans to restore drained peatlands. The bill allows for 30% of all former peatlands currently exploited for agriculture to be restored and partially shifted to other use by the end of the decade, a figure rising to 70% by 2050.

A farmer harvests corn with a tractor, as seen from above
Farmers, many of whom cultivate monocultures like grain and corn (seen here), are worried about what peatland restoration means for their industryImage: Jochen Tack/picture-alliance

But farmers' associations say they fear the widespread loss of valuable agricultural land. Supporters, meanwhile, see the new rules as crucial to meeting the EU's climate goals because peatlands help slow planetary heating

Peatlands absorb more carbon than forests 

Peatland, which is a type of wetland, forms over thousands of years from the remains of dead plants, storing more carbon than any other ecosystem.

Globally, peatlands take up some 3% of the planet's land area — and yet, they absorb nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all the Earth's forests combined. But when damp peatlands are drained and used for other purposes, like agriculture or fertilizer, they go from being a CO2 sink to yet another potent source of greenhouse gas. 

Across Europe, 7% of the continent's greenhouse gas emissions are the result of drained peatlands and wetlands. That's nearly as much CO2 as the emissions produced by the EU's entire industrial output.

More than half of Europe's peatlands lost

European peatlands, full of nutrients and especially important for biodiversity, make up a patch of land roughly the size of Germany. More than half have suffered permanent damage. In Germany, the amount of degraded peatlands is estimated to be as high as 90%. 

Former peatlands in Scandinavia and the Baltic states are mainly used for forestry. But in the Netherlands, Poland and Germany, large swaths of these drained areas are now farmland. Former peatlands account for about 7% of Germany's agricultural land, and now generate 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

Sophie Hirschelmann, an expert at the Greifswald Mire Centre, a research institute in northeastern Germany, said that when it comes to agriculture, the continent needs a "paradigm shift" to meet the Paris climate goals. This means moving away from farming on drained peatlands and investing in paludiculture — agriculture on rewetted peat soil. The latter would stop carbon emissions while improving soil and water quality. 

In the EU's proposed legislation, rewetting has been planned for half the former peatlands across Europe. For the other half, less effective measures would be used.

In Germany, a comparatively large amount of agricultural activity takes place on peat soils. For Hirschelmann, that means the proposed rewetting and conversion of agricultural land to paludiculture is "very comparable, in scope, to phasing out coal."

"We need policies designed to transform the use of these peatlands," she said.

Political pressure to water down green proposals

The European People's Party (EPP), the conservative group in the European Parliament, has been seeking to drastically reduce the scope of these plans for wetland restoration. It is also against the conversion of agricultural land for other uses.

A claim that it "doesn't make sense to tear down villages built 100 years ago to create wetlands," boosted by the EPP and other groups on Twitter, caused an uproar in March 2023.

In response to a question by DW as to exactly which villages this tweet referred, the EEP press office replied that it could not say whether any villages or infrastructure were actually in danger of being cleared.

Jutta Paulus, a German Member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, called the dissemination of such misinformation "absurd" and "populist."

European farming group Copa-Cogeca, on the other hand, has warned of the economic and social fallout of the EU's green proposal. Rewetting, it says, could lead to a widespread drop in the productivity of large areas of agricultural land and even endanger food security. 

Supporters of the law have pointed out that the new legislation would actually ensure Europe's long-term food security. In early May, Virginijus Sinkevicius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, tweeted that "despite the myths, the benefits for farmers are many: fertile soils, less impacts from droughts, water retention, pollination."

"[Farmers] will always be able to make a greater short-term profit from a drained peatland planted with a cash crop, than if it's managed in its rewetted form," said Green MEP Paulus. "And that's why, of course, they will need to be compensated." 

Profitable agriculture, green solutions can coexist

Backers of the ambitious legislation have pointed out that profitable agriculture and the restoration of wetlands need not be at odds with each other. 

The European Commission has calculated that every euro invested in restoring natural resources would result in at least eight times the economic return over the long term. 

And while rewetted land wouldn't be able to support monocultures like grains or corn, it could support the growth of other crops, according to a position paper released in January by several scientific institutions and environmental organizations, including the Greifswald Mire Centre.

Water buffalo wading through water in North Rhine-Westphalia
Water buffalo, who feel at home on swampy soils, could replace cattle on restored peatlandsImage: Roland Weihrauch/dpa/picture alliance

Rehabilitated land could also be used to grow timber, or plant grasses and reeds that could serve as insulation material for the construction sector or as raw material for organic plastic substitutes. And instead of cows, revitalized areas could one day become grazing grounds for water buffalo.

The one thing for experts is clear: Land use must be transformed in the long term through a paradigm shift that is also laid out in the EU nature restoration law. 

Rewetting peatlands to fight climate change

This article was originally published in German. It was updated on July 12, 2023 to reflect the outcome of the vote in the European Parliament.

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