Intensive farming is shepherding the collapse of the living world
Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe, explains why the fierce debate on cuts to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget is just a smokescreen for a broken farming system shepherding the collapse of the living world.
As an invited panellist at Politico’s Agriculture & Food Summit 2018 on 27 November, I shall risk upsetting the host by arguing that the title of my panel discussion – Cuts in the CAP: What is the future for European Agriculture? – poses the wrong question. The CAP is widely known to be financially wasteful, ecologically destructive and socially unjust. It long stopped having any recognisable purpose. As it stands, the relevant question is how long it will last before crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. The budget cuts on the table are heavily skewed against the marginally more progressive Rural Development ‘Pillar 2’ in favour of the utterly discredited ‘Pillar 1’ direct payments. But these cuts are merely a side show to the real horror story: decision makers fiddling while the world burns.
“study after study paints the same picture – a broken agriculture system playing a leading role in the collapse of the living world”
The Commission has systematically refused to apply its own Better Regulation policy to its most expensive policy. A massive analysis carried out by independent scientists has proven the CAP to be inefficient, mostly ineffective and of little EU-added value. The last reform of the CAP was a Greening sham, dedicating vast amounts of money to the pursuit of public goods, while in practice changing nothing. It has proved to be nothing more than a proliferation of Member State level loopholes and tricks that have made a notoriously opaque policy even murkier. The Hogan proposal has pinned all its hopes on a “new delivery model” that radically increases Member States’ freedom to determine spending. The idea of shifting from a compliance-based to a performance-based model is laudable, but made empty by the vagueness of objectives and a cruel lack of accountability mechanisms. Indeed, it has just been denounced by the objective European Court of Auditors.
“Member States are falling all over each other with proposals to remove any shred of greenery”
What is emerging from co-decision is even worse. In the AGRIFISH Council, Member States are falling all over each other with proposals to remove any shred of greenery, or even general accountability from the policy. The European Parliament rapporteur has tabled amendments in the same vein: removing any obligation to deliver for the environment, making law breaking easier, and allowing Member States to shower subsidies on whoever they want. It is hard for an honest observer not to conclude that the whole CAP institutional machinery is held completely hostage by the intensive farm lobby which is hell bent on preserving business as usual and making it easier to channel public money to the well connected.
“It is hard for an honest observer not to conclude that the whole CAP institutional machinery is held completely hostage by the intensive farm lobby”
Meanwhile, our little blue planet, seemingly invisible inside the CAP decision making rooms, is dying. Or at least life on it is. And current agriculture production systems, and the consumption patterns that accompany them are at the heart of the problem. A recent WWF report found that 60% of global animal populations have been wiped out since 1970 and the UN has just warned that we are toying with the potential extinction of our own species. In the EU, study after study paints the same picture – of a broken agriculture system playing a leading role in the collapse of the living world. Farmland birds have been halved across the EU. Birds are doing worse now on farmlands than other habitats in France. Insects have collapsed by 75% in Germany over 27 years, while 64% of grassland species (non-birds), 86% of grassland habitats and 70% of cropland species (non-birds) are in an unfavourable state.
“Farmland birds have been halved across the EU. Birds are doing worse now on farmlands than other habitats in France.”
Climate change is starting to hammer our own farmers – as this last summer, and ever more common extreme events, have clearly brought home. And again, agriculture plays a key role with its emissions on the increase. What is called for is radical and immediate change of the kind described in the recent RISE foundation report which, despite giving the livestock sector all benefit of doubt, still found that it needs to shrink by 35-50% to return to a “safe operating space”. Eminent scientists are calling for setting aside half of our land for conservation to avoid catastrophe. But all of this might as well be happening on another planet in distant galaxy as far as the agriculture establishment is concerned.
“Climate change is starting to hammer our own farmers – as this last summer, and ever more common extreme events, have clearly brought home. And again, agriculture plays a key role with its emissions on the increase”
So where does this leave me as an environmentalist, and one still convinced the EU is indispensable for our global survival? Angry – that we are about to waste another decade when we have only two or three left to pull back from the brink. Dismayed – at the immorality of our decision makers that are ready to sacrifice the future of their own children to satisfy the greed of those funding their election campaigns. Scared, that we might wake up too late. Determined – to keep fighting for the climate, conservation and food policies we deserve and need. But utterly disinterested – in the size of the check that will be handed over to national and regional Ministers to use as a slush fund to try and ensure their re-election.
Ariel Brunner will speak at Politico’s Agriculture & Food Summit 2018 on 27 November in Paris.
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