Why Attacking Farmers Won’t Solve the EU’s Environmental Crisis

No till farming system in Brookings Co. SD 13873991983

By: Nathalie Bussemaker, Morse’21

With Greta Thunberg at the helm, millions of Europeans have rallied to the banner of climate activism. According to a 2019 survey by the European Commission, an overwhelming majority — over 90 percent — of Europeans see climate change as a serious problem and agree that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced to a minimum in order to make the EU economy climate neutral by 2050..

Much media buzz has recently turned on the role that agriculture and deforestation play in climate change, with the 2019 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that these activities together result in around a third of all human greenhouse gas emissions, including more than 40 percent of methane emissions.

As a result, European political discourse has honed in on the role that the continent’s farmers play in exacerbating the impacts of climate change. In the Netherlands, where 70 percent of nitrogen emissions comes from agriculture, Tjeerd de Groot — a member of parliament of the social-liberal party D66 — caused controversy last September with his proclamation in the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that the country should get rid of half of all its livestock.

The statement drew applause from many environmental activists and other left-wing politicians, but Dutch farmers expressed anger at what they deemed insensitivity and a lack of gratitude and understanding. This dissatisfaction resulted in large-scale protests involving tractors to block roads and occupy public spaces.

Although drawing immense popular support at first, the protests have since declined in popularity, with less than half of the Dutch public declaring their support for the farmers in December, according to Dutch polling site Hart van Nederland.

The emphasis on the responsibility of farmers in combating climate change, however, overlooks one of the biggest factors driving their financial decision-making: the common agricultural policy, or CAP. This agricultural subsidy program makes up around 40 percent of the European Union budget, which translates to almost 60 billion euros per year.

The program is quite popular among EU citizens, with 64 percent saying CAP is “succeeding in its role in providing safe, healthy food of high quality” and 62 percent agreeing that CAP is “ensuring a sustainable way to produce food.”

Recent reports, however, have demonstrated that CAP has more problems than most Europeans realize. At a European Union working group meeting in 2017, a map showing how pollution in northern Italy correlates with the amount of European subsidies farmers in the area receive was expunged from the group’s final report, according to a New York Times investigation. Across the continent, unsustainable farming practices funded by EU subsidies have been linked to “dead zones” unable to support life in the Baltic Sea, toxic algae blooms on the French coast, and a 90 percent decline in some Dutch bird populations.

With the current round of CAP ending this year and discussions for the next set of subsidies getting started, some politicians are pushing for CAP reform in order to better help farmers embrace sustainable agriculture. “If you are rewarded for destroying the environment, you will destroy it,” former European environment commissioner Janez Potocnik told the New York Times. “Because why the hell not.”

One possible example to follow is the United Kingdom’s, according to Science. Having officially left the European Union on February 1, the United Kingdom now no longer relies on CAP farm subsidies and must develop its own model. As the government proposed in January, the UK might soon switch to a model that grants subsidies for delivering “public goods” like sequestering carbon or improving access to the countryside. Dieter Helm, an economist at the University of Oxford, called the new approach “an agricultural revolution.”

Instead of blaming farmers for making decisions that make the most sense for them in the current system, Europeans should follow the money. By encouraging fewer subsidies for large, livestock-heavy businesses and greater support for smaller-scale, environmentally friendly farms in the upcoming round of CAP, policymakers can meet their environmental benchmarks without alienating or impoverishing one of their hardest-working constituencies.

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