Europe’s $65-billion-a-year farm program needs to change radically if it is to protect the environment and support small farmers, a group of European scientists said in a paper published in the journal “People and Nature” on Monday, March 9.
The 21 authors of the paper said a planned overhaul of Europe’s farm policy is inadequate. They said policymakers must stop paying farmers based on the acres they cultivate and instead reward environmentally friendly practices such as organic farming or agroforestry. The scientists also asked the European Union to cut off subsidies that encourage livestock farming, which is linked to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
“Billions of euros of taxpayers’ money are about to be poured down the drain,” the scientists said in a statement.
A new Green Deal plans to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Last week, the European Commission outlined plans to make the deal legally binding for all member states.
But the package will not reform farming because it has adopted old policies and repackaged them as climate-friendly measures, the scientists said.
“The climate measures are unjustifiable. There is nothing in there,” said Guy Pe’er, a German conservation biologist and the leading author of the paper.
“The commission is taking a step back backward,” he said.
Pe’er has collected signatures from more than 3,600 scientists and researchers on his website supporting the paper’s findings.
The scientists said that Europe’s farm policy has sidelined small farmers and supported practices that have led to global warming, soil erosion, land degradation and the loss of biodiversity. Subsidy programs that could have curbed the damage have been paltry and underfunded.
Last year, a New York Times investigation showed the disconnect between Europe’s green image and its farm policy, which has caused lasting environmental damage and left visible pockmarks across Europe. Decaying algae release deadly gas on some beaches in France. Farm runoff has helped expand dead zones in the Baltic Sea. And farmland emissions of greenhouse gas are on the rise.
The farm subsidies program accounts for nearly 40% of Europe’s budget, making it one of the biggest in the world. It is riddled with corruption and self-dealing, especially in Eastern and Central Europe, where leaders have diverted money to underwrite their governments or companies, the Times investigation found. Attempts to change the system or make it more accountable have failed partly because its biggest beneficiaries are in charge of setting policy.
For all the documented problems, leaders in Brussels have shown little interest in overhauling the policy. In January, the top European agricultural official promised to introduce anti-corruption measures in response to the Times investigation but did not provide any specifics.
And the new farm policy, which is being negotiated this year, will continue to use the land-for-money formula that favors those who own vast tracts. The formula has long been criticized for creating a modern feudal system in which small farmers can barely make a living.
Nearly a third of the payments go to “greening measures” designed to reduce emissions, preserve grassland and save wildlife. But commission officials have acknowledged that this has failed to accomplish much.
Under the new rules, member states will have more control over how much they invest in environmentally friendly measures. But critics say this is likely to encourage countries to opt for the easiest, “light-green” options because the policy does not have a clear scale to measure their successes or failures.
As long as policymakers in Brussels operate behind closed doors, small interest groups will have more influence on the outcome, according to Pe’er.
“This is really a power game,” he said.
Pe'er said that policymakers ignored research on the farm policy’s effect after spending “loads of money” on it.
“The scientific community is there to help,” Pe’er said. “But for that, they need to listen.”