NGOs say EU ‘green’ agriculture policy is a sham

European environmental groups have accused the EU of defending its farm subsidies as delivering considerable environmental benefits, when very little 'green' protection is being provided by agriculture.

As the EU gears up to defend its policy of farm subsidies at the World Trade Organisation meeting later this month, The European Environment Bureau (EEB), an umbrella organisation representing more than 130 European environmental organisations, has published its assessment of the EU’s agriculture policy. The EU Agricultural Policy after 2000: Has the environment been integrated? argues that the EU is not justified in retaining subsidies by citing their environmental protection benefits.

“Central to the European Agricultural Model is the concept of multifunctionality: in addition to producing agricultural produce, farmers also provide and maintain cultural landscapes and nature and help support a viable rural economy,” says EEB. The EU uses multifunctionalilty to defend its continued use of subsidies. While EEB would like to support multifunctionality, it does not believe that the concept has been truly employed in the EU’s Agenda 2000, a post-2000 reform of its Common Agriculture Policy.

EEB highlights the fact that a recent draft of an EU strategy on integrating the environment into agriculture policy contained “no concrete targets, indicators or timetables”. Speaking to edie EEB’s Agriculture Working Group chair, Gijs Kuneman said: “The agriculture ministers should have produced a real strategy to integrate the environment, but they have failed.”

Asked whether there is likely to be much improvement at the Helsinki summit in December, Kuneman is not hopeful. Instead, he believes that environmentalists must put pressure on the Heads of State. “The Heads of State meet every half year and look at environmental integration. The best thing we can expect is that the Heads of State put pressure on the agriculture ministers to add substance to environmental integration,” said Kuneman.

EEB hopes that the EU will be forced to improve the environmental protection aspects of agricultural policy over the next three years in order to protect its subsidies on the global stage. “We’d love to support the EU agriculture policy, but how can we defend it as green if cross compliance isn’t even working,” asked Kuneman. Cross compliance is a system whereby direct payments to farmers are linked to their meeting specific environmental standards.

Although heralded as a concept, cross compliance is barely implemented within the EU. Kuneman can cite just three examples of member states that are planning cross compliance, and even these are not large-scale plans. “The French will have some environmental conditions linked to their irrigation payments,” said Kuneman, who raised the fact that the practice of subsidies farmers’ irrigation is unusual in itself.

“The Danish have a new law in place about pesticides and nitrates that farmers will have to comply with in order to receive payments,” continued Kuneman, “and the Dutch will require farmers to apply Integrated Pest Management in maize and starch potato growing”. The Netherlands will not, however, be linking payments to nitrate reduction. Kuneman believes that overuse of nitrogen fertilisers is a serious problem in the Netherlands.

While the EU presents its agriculture policies to the world as an example of the best in ‘green’ management, Kuneman is not certain that the environmental future of European agricultural areas will be very bright unless considerable improvements are made. “I expect that a two-track agricultural policy will develop,” said Kuneman. High production agricultural areas will need strict environmental regulations in order to avoid deterioration in landscape (i.e. fewer trees, hedges and ditches) and increased pollution of land and water. Meanwhile, scenic and upland rural areas will require subsidies to promote sustainable agriculture and guarantee the preservation of fragile rural economies.

In fact, Kuneman sees such a two-track policy already emerges on a national level. Denmark, whose agriculture industry promotes high production, is “leading the way in environmental policy”, ensuring that high production does not overwhelm all other considerations. Austria, on the other hand, has recognised that its agriculture industry cannot sustain high production levels given the country’s mountainous landscape. Therefore, subsidies are being used to protect the industry and promote multi-functionality.

The EU Agricultural Policy after 2000: Has the environment been integrated? was produced for EEB by the Dutch Centre for Agriculture and Environment.

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