Policies aimed at integrating environmental and climate concerns into Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy have not delivered, according to a report released by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
The EEA’s ‘State of the Environment’ 2020 report published on Wednesday (4 December) highlighted the fact that soil, agriculture and forestry practices are facing serious negative trends in Europe.
Published every five years, the state and outlook 2020 report brings together all of the knowledge that the Copenhagen-based agency has collected concerning the climate and environment in Europe.
The report showed that land use, pollution, climate change and invasive alien species, as well as agricultural practices, have continued to put serious pressure on natural capital, namely the world’s stocks of natural assets such as soil, air and water.
Compulsory greening measures were introduced in the 2013 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, accounting for 30% of the direct payments budget.
The European Commission has proposed to increase the proportion of the next CAP expenditure dedicated to climate action to 40%, the same percentage contained in the negotiating box of the Finnish presidency.
Crop diversification and maintenance of permanent grassland were among the measures incentivised in the past farm subsidies program.
“But there is overwhelming evidence that agriculture is still the main threat to biodiversity and natural capital in Europe – because of the pollution of soil, water, air and the overall food system,” said Hans Bruyninckx, who has recently taken office as the EEA’s executive director.
“So, the conclusion is that the greening of the CAP has not delivered,” Bruyninckx said, citing critical nitrogen pollution in areas like the Netherlands as a clear indicator that greener agriculture hasn’t happened.
Food (and soil) policy
Soil erosion, together with rain patterns, will have a serious impact on wheat and other crops in several areas of Europe, according to Bruyninckx.
This will also have an impact on the value of farmland, on the livability of those areas and on the whole economic sector all across Europe, which is not limited to the Mediterranean region recently hit by extreme weather.
Land and soil, in particular, are underestimated policy areas for the EU legislative and regulatory action, although they have a large overall impact on the environment and climate.
EEA reported an increase in artificial surfaces, such as cities or industrial parks, by 70% over the last two decades.
This loss of natural land, including farmland and pastures, that can be used for agricultural practices comes at the expense of wetlands which constitute some of the most fragile ecosystems in Europe.
“We’ve had two attempts of a land and soil policy before, but they have both failed. Such a policy is still absent in the EU,” said Bruyninckx.
Another critical policy gap in recent EU policy-making, according to EEA’s Bruyninckx, is the lack of a comprehensive food system approach, as the focus was being directed mainly on the agricultural production part of the food value chain.
In this sense, the announcement of the Farm to Fork strategy, the new EU long-term and integrated food policy proposed by new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is a step in the right direction
Since 1990, the decline of bird species has been about 6%, but when it comes to farmland birds, this increases to 32%.
This indicator of declining species is used by the EEA to show the presence of unsustainable agricultural practices, which they link to subsidies under the CAP and pesticide use, as well as increasing climate change impact on the land.
“And this is just the snapshot,” said Bruyninckx, who also mentioned a similar trend for grassland butterflies and pollinators, which have seen almost a 40% decline since 1992.
Pollinators are extremely important as a lot of food system depends on natural pollination. However, they are suffering due to combined pressures mostly linked to land use and agricultural practices, particularly the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
The EU environmental agency has also started looking at how climate change has an impact on the state of habitats in Europe, noticing that only about 16% of the European habitats are in good ecological status.
They conclude that, overall, habitats in Europe are mainly in an unfavourable state, and this is linked to the combined pressures of pollution, landscape fragmentation, agricultural practices, climate change, which are the key drivers of these trends.
[Edited by Natash Foote / Zoran Radosavljevic]