As it becomes increasingly evident that Europe’s farming must change, the European Union is in danger of doubling down on a broken system, warns Marco Contiero.
Marco Contiero is Greenpeace EU’s agriculture policy director.
The summer, the record-breaking European heatwave and drought are well and truly over. With winter will come a new set of problems for the farming sector, which the EU’s agriculture policy is ill-equipped to deal with.
Twice this summer, at the request of several governments, the European Commission, announced measures to help drought-stricken farmers, which have just come into force this week.
Farmers were told that they could access CAP money early, and also that some rules intended to protect the environment would be relaxed. They were allowed to use areas of land, usually reserved to protect biodiversity, to grow extra feed crops.
The Commission also suspended requirements to diversify crops and to plant “cover crops”, and allowed early planting of winter crops. There are rumblings in Brussels now that the next step could be to use public money to bankroll drought insurance for Europe’s farmers.
As winter draws closer, so too does the threat of snowstorms and flooding. Will the European Commission again relax environmental rules for farmers who find themselves under pressure from worsening weather patterns?
There was a time when climate scientists were very hesitant to link any one weather event to climate change. But scientists are now more clear that climate change makes these events more frequent, and more powerful.
The climate is changing, and it’s time for European farming to change too, limiting its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions as well as becoming much more resilient to climate shocks. The problem with continuing the existing agricultural model is twofold.
European agriculture’s focus on meat and dairy production is exacerbating climate change. Animal farming accounts for between 12-17% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to recent lifecycle assessments.
Farm animals emit potent climate-changing gases directly, and via their manure, which is spread in great quantities on fields as fertiliser. Through massive imports of animal feed, Europe is driving deforestation and climate change. Vast areas of carbon-sink rainforests around the world are cleared to meet demand for feed crops like soy and maize.
The current meat and dairy production system, and its current levels of production, also contribute to making European farmers vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate.
Livestock and their feed require a lot of water, so a water system that is already under pressure is at further risk from external shocks. The estimates of how much water is needed to produce one kilo of meat are in the thousands of litres.
Monoculture plantations of genetically identical plants are particularly vulnerable to erratic weather conditions. Maize fields in particular have been shown to worsen soil erosion, increasing the danger of landslides, to mention one example.
The common agricultural policy is the single largest item paid for by the EU budget. It has shaped European farming since its inception. But we must wake up to the fact that it drives farmers towards a type of agriculture that makes climate change worse and is crippled by its effects.
The ongoing review of the common agriculture policy is an opportunity to turn Europe away from intensive and damaging meat and dairy production, and towards farming that produces less and better meat, as well as plenty of diverse vegetable alternatives.
Europe needs a farming system that protects the environment and the climate, and can survive the impacts of climate change that we know are coming.