Europe and Central Asia
31 May 2018

You reap what you sow

By Ariel Brunner

As the European Commission prepares to publish its long-awaited proposal on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-2020, Ariel Brunner issues a timely warning: you reap what you sow. This is the editorial of the May edition of the monthly BirdLife Europe & Central Asia Newsletter.

With Brussels Green Week having wrapped up, and as we celebrate the wonderful winners of the Natura 2000 Awards and acknowledge the effectiveness and value of the LIFE program, one could be mistaken in thinking that things are looking up for nature across the European Union. Indeed, there are bright spots despite the gloomy CAP outlook. But let us not be blinded by the light.

Woven into these feel-good moments, and despite the hard and dedicated work of BirdLife partners and our NGO colleagues throughout Europe, we see that we reap what we sow.  And, again, nowhere is this more apparent, momentous and troublesome than in the omens abounding around the next EU budget and the absent reform of our Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The scientific facts are indisputable. Biodiversity, the lifeblood of our existence on the planet, is in free-fall. Studies across Europe ring the tocsin around intensive, industrial agriculture and its heavy use of pesticides; in Germany 76% of insects are lost, in France 30% of farmland birds have disappeared in the last 15 years.

A record 258,000 EU citizens voiced their concerns about these trends in food and farming in the recent EU public consultation on the future of the CAP. The initial language from Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan seemed responsive, even promising. There was talk of moving from entitlements to objectives, from abuse to accountability and dumb bureaucracy to smart delivery.  The recent proposal of the next EU budget (the Multi-year Financial Framework) indicate, on the contrary, a slashing of the forward-looking rural development programs while protecting backward-looking direct payments. Even more ominous have been leaks from the next CAP legislation being cooked inside the EC. Here, environmental ambition is almost gone and perverse subsidies are being given a new lease of life. The seemingly laudable goal of subsidiarity appears more likely to result in a massive expansion of unaccountable, local pork-barrel politics. With no planned change to dumb subsidies that give 80% of the CAP budget (in itself 40% of the EU budget) to 20% of the wealthiest agri-interests, and 30% to only 1%, it is clear that enabling the ordinary farmer to pursue an economically and environmentally sustainable agricultural model is not on the table of the agricultural oligarchy and its Brussels lobby.

It’s long past time to bring business as usual to a screeching halt. From the above-mentioned collapse in biodiversity, to the alarming trends in achieving our legally obligated climate and SDG goals, we need to upset the table.

This never ending race to intensify production drives ecological collapse (farmland birds, butterflies, pollinators) and erodes the very resources agriculture requires to keep producing in the future. Soil is being eroded and degraded and entire regions are depleting their water resources.

Farmers are trapped in a rat race to reduce costs and increase production in a system that only leads to rising debt levels and plummeting incomes. The proof is also in the declining numbers and increasing ages of farmers. Don’t be mistaken, farmers are not thriving from CAP at the expense of the environment. It is a system where everybody loses. The pandering to farm lobby reactionaries is also undermining the legitimacy of the EU idea itself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A smart CAP can help us see the rising of a new dawn. There is an alternative road that take us to a better place. Farmers all around Europe are experimenting with better ways of combining food production, stewardship of the land and better livelihoods. From organic farming to agro-ecology, rewilding to peri-urban farming, community supported agriculture to short supply chains, wildlife-friendly farming to smart new technologies, Europe is awash with good ideas, innovation and collaborative experiments.

The opportunity to make history and set an example for the globe should be seized - nature and our sustainable future hangs in the balance. Instead of exploiting the struggling small family farmer as a smokescreen to serve the interests of the big fish and fat cats, we demand a radical change.  Help farmers embrace the essential, indeed inevitable, ecological transition, reward them for delivering public goods, help them diversify their income and make it more resilient, and in doing so,  give society healthy food, clean water and thriving wildlife.  The time is now.

Ariel Brunner - Senior Head of EU Policy, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.