Last October, to much fanfare, the European Commission proposed to require farmers to green up. A whopping 40% of the European Union budget goes to support agriculture: the new proposals would make a third of farmers' subsidy payments conditional on adopting sustainable practices.
Under the new rules, farmers would be encouraged to grow at least three kinds of crops, leave more land fallow, and help wildlife by leaving some land permanently out of production. Environmentalists said the changes weren't enough, but they were at least a step in the right direction.
Now, green groups are dismayed to see even those measures being watered down by EU farm ministers, who want sustainability to be optional.
May I take your order, sir?
Lobbyists for farm groups said the new rules would cost too much and add new layers of paperwork. The Council of the European Union, on which the farm ministers sit, seems to agree. They have issued a statement saying that they "would like the proposed measures to be more flexible, to take into account differences in the member states and regions, and not create any additional administrative burdens”.
What that means: nobody loses subsidy payments for not being green enough. Instead, farmers can qualify for extra money by choosing from a "menu" of sustainable practices.
Environmental campaigners aren't exactly surprised. Tony Long at WWF called the direction negotiations are taking "depressing": "Member states should be taking stronger environmental measures, rather than working at forming a consensus behind closed doors that will sink the Commission’s proposal.” Faustine Defossez at the green NGO the European Environmental Bureau spoke of an attempt to "sabotage the greening of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy)”.
Not dead yet…
EU agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos says he stands by his proposals. Denmark, which holds the EU presidency at the moment, has also voiced strong support for greening agriculture. But whatever is finally passed into law will have to get past the member state representatives on the Council: and the influence of the agricultural lobby is strongly felt there.
Further info: a video from the European Environmental Bureau and Birdlife Europe about why deep changes in the EU's agricultural policies are so important.