Though Europe’s nature in ‘serious decline,’ new ag policy falls short in solutions

By Justin Cremer

October 28, 2020

An alarming new report about the status of Europe’s nature highlighted the need for a fresh approach to agriculture just days before the continent’s politicians approved a farm strategy that critics say will only worsen the situation.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) released its “State of Nature in the EU” report last week, revealing that wildlife species and natural habitats throughout the continent are struggling despite EU member states’ commitments to protect them. The EEA report, which concluded that “current agricultural practices are by far the most dominant driver affecting habitats and species,” came during the same week that the European Parliament approved its negotiating position on a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that was seen by many as prioritizing intensive agriculture over the environment.

The consequences of EU agricultural policies were put in stark relief by the “State of Nature” report, which revealed that 81 percent of protected natural habitats have either a poor or bad conservation status and only a quarter of the species identified by EU nature directives are receiving the protection they need.

Less than half of Europe’s bird species have a “good” population status, while nearly 40 percent are classified as either “bad” or “poor.” Despite these low numbers, birds are doing better than land- and sea-dwelling species. Well over half of Europe’s reptiles and mammals have poor or bad conservation status, while the vast majority of fish species are classified as either bad or poor, and of those, about half have an unfavorable outlook.

Unsustainable farming and forestry practices, along with urban sprawl and pollution are to blame for the “serious, continuing decline” of Europe’s biodiversity, the report said.

‘Fundamental changes’ to agriculture

“Our assessment shows that safeguarding the health and resilience of Europe’s nature, and people’s well-being, requires fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume food, manage and use forests, and build cities,” EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx said.

This call for “fundamental changes” is unlikely to include a relaxation of the EU’s current regulations restricting plant breeding innovations that could minimize ag’s environmental footprint. Leading scientists and researchers have said that the EU’s current policies deprive European farmers “of more climate resilient and more nutritious crop varieties that are urgently needed to respond to current ecological and societal challenges” and that current regulations “cannot be scientifically justified.”

Among the critics of the EU’s stance on the use of biotechnology is the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which has called for radical changes to EU legislation.

“EASAC continues to be very interested in the need for ‘fundamental changes in the ways we produce and consume food’,” Dr. Robin Fears, the director of EASAC’s biosciences program, told the Alliance for Science. “As part of these changes, EASAC has continued to emphasize that New Plant Breeding Techniques based on advances in genomics research represent one important tool in developing improved crops and that current EU GMO regulations need to be revised.”

The CAP reform position adopted by parliament will give individual member states more flexibility on how to reach conservation and environmental goals and will also include voluntary “eco-schemes” that will give farmers extra funding for implementing additional environmental protections. But MEPs voted down CAP reforms that were championed by environmentalists, including cutting factory farming subsidies, a 30 percent emission-reduction target and protections for grasslands and peatlands.

Karen Melchior, a Danish MEP and member of Renew Europe, said she voted against parliament’s position because it doesn’t move Europe toward a greener agricultural future.

“There were too many loopholes that made it look green without actually being green. In terms of both supporting the European Green Deal and improving biodiversity, there are goals we have set that are not supported by the CAP reform. We need to be putting our money where our mouth is,” she told the Alliance for Science.

The CAP, which accounts for over one third of the entire EU budget, heavily subsidies intensive agriculture, with subsidies increasing along with the number of hectares under production. The CAP determines agricultural policy for seven years at a time. The current version was set to expire at the end of this year but was given a two-year extension, meaning the next CAP reforms will take effect in 2023. Now that parliament has approved its negotiating position, there will now be trilogue negotiations between parliament, the European Council and the European Commission. Melchior said she hopes the final version will improve upon parliament’s position.

“That the Council’s version is worse than ours doesn’t mean that ours is good. But the Commission’s position is greener than both of us, so hopefully we can take a hard look at the facts on the ground, and with support and pressure from civil society, move the final version into a better direction,” she said.

Betting on organic?

The EEA identified intensive agriculture as the most frequently reported pressure for habitats and species, and of the eight agricultural pressures it identified, the “use of plant protection chemicals” is the second-largest. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, set by the European Commission, calls for reducing the overall use of and risk from pesticides by 50 percent by 2030.

Although studies have shown that growing genetically modified crops with insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits can significantly reduce the use of harmful chemicals, a Commission spokesperson stopped short of fully endorsing the adoption of these GM crops in Europe.

“As expressed in the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission considers that biotechnologies, together with other innovative technologies, may play a role in increasing sustainability and bringing benefits for society as a whole, provided they are safe for consumers and the environment,” the spokesperson said in a written statement given to the Alliance for Science.

Melchior was more positive, but also put conditions on her support for the EU rethinking its stance on GM crops and gene editing.

“[Adopting GM crops] is not a problem for me,” she said. “I just want to make sure that we aren’t voting to approve GM crops that have been created just to sell more pesticides. I need to be sure they have been created to be more climate-resilient and environmentally friendly. If that’s the case, I’m all for using the technology that we have on hand.”

The Biodiversity Strategy also calls for increasing organic farming to more than 25 percent, but studies have shown that organic farming requires more land use and thus more deforestation than traditional agriculture. The Commission spokesperson did not directly address deforestation within Europe, the extent of which is highlighted in the EEA report, but said “there is no evidence that links organic farming in Europe to deforestation in third countries.”

“There is indeed, for the moment, a yield gap between organic farming and conventional farming that varies enormously from crop to crop and from farming model to farming model. Yet that yield gap will in no way put in jeopardy food security and would not entail an increase in imports,” the spokesperson added.

‘Death sentence for nature’

While Europe’s regulatory stance on biotechnology seems unlikely to change in the near future, environmentalists are now calling on the European Commission to scrap the CAP altogether. Youth climate activists led by Greta Thunberg slammed the MEPs for voting for “a deal which was agreed through a backroom compromise, a deal which you have made seemingly every effort to greenwash” and called on the European Commission “to withdraw this proposal entirely.”

In a video message ahead of Friday’s vote on the CAP reforms, the activists accused Europe’s ag policy of “once again putting profit before people and nature.”

“Soils and plants are sick. Farmers are poisoning themselves with their own pesticides. The people that feed us are trapped in a price race,” the activists said.

The young climate activists were far from alone in condemning the results of the CAP reform vote, which Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero called “a death sentence for nature, climate and small farms.”

“For over 60 years, European farm policy has been blind to farming’s impact on nature, rewarding farmers for producing more or expanding their farms. The EU Parliament is willfully continuing that destruction while scientists warn that farming must change to tackle the climate crisis and protect nature,” Contiero said.

Photo: A farming operation in the Netherlands. Gigra/Shutterstock