With an average contribution of €100 per person, per year, to the farm budget - citizens have a right to decide on how their food is created and how their countryside is managed, says the World Wildlife Fund for Nature
Communicating Europe's farming and environmental crisis to politicians is becoming ever more of a struggle. A large part of the problem is the superficial understanding that many have towards issues in rural areas. There seems to be a belief that all is well in the countryside and that if it continues to look green it must be healthy. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. If the 27 European Union member states continue to bury their heads in the sand, we are in for a rude awakening as the problems accumulate.
The fact is that the intensive farming model that the EU has been promoting through the Common Agricultural Policy since the early 1960s is stripping away local biodiversity, contributing more than 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, making huge and unsustainable demands on freshwater resources and leading to irreparable soil damage. Soil erosion alone leads to an annual €38bn bill to provide the necessary fertiliser inputs, in part made necessary to stem and repair the damage.
In the coming years, Europe is facing a prospect of a multi-billion euro 'agricultural bail-out' as taxpayers are asked to fork out to undo the accumulated environmental damage of the past. Not only are policy-makers asking citizens to pay and subsidise an unsustainable agricultural sector, the very same taxpayers are asked to stump up a second time to pay for the damages caused by these subsidies - in the form of water pollution, pesticide poisoning, loss of species and habitat, and health problems derived from intensive farming.
The European Union's response to this looming ecological and financial disaster has been largely to turn a blind eye. A sliver of hope emerged in October 2011, when the European Commission proposed a farming reform for the next seven years that would partially reward farmers for environmentally-sound choices instead of giving them money simply for occupying agricultural land. While many environmental organisations thought it lacked sufficient ambition, it was at least a step in the right direction.
Of key interest was the commission's proposal to make 30 per cent of direct farm supports from the EU conditional on fulfilling a package of measures. These include: maintaining permanent grasslands like prairies and grazing areas that act as important carbon sinks; a proposal to change crops planted over the course of the year therefore allowing for the rejuvenation of the soil; the introduction of 'ecological focus areas' that would guarantee that 7 per cent of all farm land will be maintained in a wild state for flora and fauna this is essential if we are to see a return of some species including bees and butterflies that have suffered greatly from the effects of intensive farming; the maintenance of ecological 'strips' around areas that are especially sensitive like rivers and lakes - this would protect these vital assets from pollution caused by excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides.
But in less than a year after the commission's proposals were put on the table, we can hear politicians sharpening their knives as they look at ways of cutting the EU Budget by carving out parts of the CAP and the costlier environmental requirements in the proposal. This false economy will be felt by generations to come. In the case of Germany, it is using its voting power and control over the budget purse strings to push for an 'a la carte' option. Under this arrangement, each EU country would choose which environmental payments best suits their needs. This will be a disaster, as experience shows that each country chooses the cheapest rather than the most effective environmental measure.
How can an agricultural climate change programme be implemented if each of the 27 countries is using different criteria and procedures to define the environment? One thing is certain, there will be no joined up ecological networks coming out of this hodgepodge approach. On the contrary, under this proposal, chaos is waiting to happen in the name of 'simplification'. Like the Germans, the European Parliament's lead rapporteur on the Agricultural Committee, Capoluas Santos, has been looking at how to reduce the commission's environmental impacts. His latest idea is to exempt farms smaller than 20 hectares from the "greening" - which accounts for 90 per cent of farms - and to reduce the variety of crops a farmer has to grow in order to protect soil quality.
In all this jockeying of political positions, one thing is clear. The European Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos needs to keep pressure on the European Council and the EP, and to protect the environmental measures that exist in the direct payments system. Given the budgetary squeeze the CAP is facing, the second 'pillar' - the rural development scheme - which is smaller than all the direct payments combined, also finds itself under pressure. This is regrettable given that European taxpayers get more value from this fund, as it is targeted at projects that work.
It has also helped create many successful agri-environmental schemes like farm improvements measures. The World Wildlife Fund wants 50 per cent of the CAP to be diverted to rural development and half of that to be spent for environmental purposes. So far, only a few member states have shown an appetite to protect this fund. They must realise that targeted expenditure is the only way forward when the overall EU Budget is reduced. We are on the cusp of one of those seven-year events, when agriculture policy and farm spending can be brought into line with the new economic and financial realities.
It is all the more the pity, therefore, that the politicians in the European Council and the EP seem intent on protecting the longstanding farm lobby's short-term privileges and interests. They must understand that their citizens already have a clear opinion on how EU funds should be spent. A recent opinion poll showed that nine out of 10 citizens want EU expenditure to be linked to protecting the climate and safeguarding the environment. With an average contribution of €100 per person, per year, to the farm budget - citizens have a right to decide on how their food is created and how their countryside is managed.Tony Long is director of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature European policy office