This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming ambitions: between the CAP and the Green Deal.
Producing more while reducing the impact on the climate and the environment: this is the challenge facing the agricultural world today, presented as one of the keys to a successful green transition by the French and European public authorities. EURACTIV France explores the potential of agroecology in squaring this circle.
“We are faced with an emergency, with economic as well as environmental challenges,” Frédéric Lambert, head of the European and international department at the agriculture and food ministry, told the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) on 16 March.
Agriculture accounts for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU and 17% in France, according to a report from France’s leading agricultural union (FNSEA).
While the agriculture sector in France has been called upon to become greener, reduce the use of pesticides and meet growing public demand for healthy and sustainable food, the French government has also put forward during the pandemic the objective of achieving food sovereignty.
But the central question is: how can we produce both quantity and quality in a sector marked by low incomes, excessive debt, and daily suicides?
Agroecology – a ‘smart’ practice
In its plans to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU is banking, among other things, on strengthening agro-ecological practices.
This involves a collection of farming practices that aim to reduce pressure on the environment, reintroduce biodiversity and preserve natural resources through a systemic approach. These include organic farming, but also agri-environmental and climate measures in conventional farming and practices labelled as ‘high environmental value’.
“Agroecology reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture, promotes the recovery of biodiversity, restores soil fertility, prevents air and water pollution, and increases the economic resilience of farms producing healthy and affordable food,” the EU’s Committee of the Regions (CoR) argued in an opinion published on 4 March.
This would be “intelligent” agriculture, in line with nature, which would in this way respond to the challenge of the “systemic transformation of agricultural production methods”.
This is needed to achieve the European objectives of “significantly reducing the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as antibiotics, by 2030”, as outlined in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy.
Transition costs, a ‘major obstacle to system change’
While agroecological practices can prove profitable in the medium term, the transition often generates significant costs in the short term.
These transition costs “are undoubtedly a major brake on the change of system”, according to a statement published last August by France Stratégie, the government’s advisory body that aims to shed light on collective choices on social, economic and environmental issues.
The institutional think tank also highlights a lack of correlation between the most environmentally friendly practices and the financial aid allocated to them. In the statement, they highlight that CAP subsidies are still “too disconnected from the environmental requirements” imposed on farms.
However, with the recently proposed eco-schemes, the Commission wishes to reward environmentally-friendly farming practices.
The European Parliament’s position in the current CAP negotiations is in favour of having at least 30% of direct payments to farmers paid this way.
“Eco-schemes make it possible to better take into account the risks that farmers take by adopting more ecological practices,” said Lambert. France is said to be “pushing very hard for mandatory eco-schemes” in the negotiations for the new CAP.
The Commission’s flagship F2F strategy relies on competitiveness and the will of European citizens to change their diets.
According to the Commission, the evolving expectations from citizens are causing significant changes in the food market, and these should be seen as an opportunity for farmers to make sustainability their trademark.
A sustainable food system, as laid out in the F2F strategy, would be “essential to achieve the climate and environmental objectives of the Green Deal while improving the income of primary producers and strengthening the competitiveness of the Union”.
No transition without remuneration
Highlighting that agriculture is “first and foremost a productive economic activity, a profession from which the players must be able to earn an income, the 2020 orientation report from French FNSEA insists on a number of essential prerequisites to enable farmers to achieve the transition everyone is hoping for.
This includes public policies commensurate with climate ambitions, the lifting of innovation and development barriers for competitive agriculture, more attractive risk management tools, and “an external policy consistent with our climate commitments”.
Farmers should also be remunerated in line with their commitments in the fight against climate change, according to the report.
“It is not regulations, and even less so sanctions” that will enable farmers to start transitioning, the report says, adding that it will not be the CAP, “at least not with the current budget”, that will drive the movement in a sustainable way.
Ultimately, only a fair remuneration will enable farmers to engage – and succeed – in the agro-ecological transition, according to the FNSEA. “This will be done either through the price of their products or through a full remuneration for environmental services in the framework of a renewed contractual arrangement,” the report added.
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Gerardo Fortuna]