Farmers block the road with tractors

Farmers block the road with tractors near the European Parliament as they demand better conditions to grow, produce, and maintain a proper income, in Brussels on February 1, 2024.

(Photo: Nikos Oikonomou/Anadolu via Getty Images)

'Not the Solution': EU Delays Biodiversity Rule to Appease Farmers Protesting High Costs

"The farmers' protests across Europe highlight the need for the E.U. to set a clear long-term vision and plan to support farmers in a transition to a sustainable and resilient agriculture model," said one policy expert.

Food policy and biodiversity advocacy groups in Europe on Thursday said the European Commission's recent concession to farmers who have protested high costs across France and other countries this week will ultimately harm the agricultural sector as well as citizens across the continent.

The Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GEAC) 8, under the European Union biodiversity strategy, calls for farmers to keep 4% of their land free from crop production to help regenerate healthy soil and increase biodiversity, or to use 7% of their land for "catch crops" which provide cover for the soil.

After farmers began demonstrating across France—blocking major roads with their tractors and dumping manure at government offices—and as the protests spread to Belgium, Spain, and Italy, the European Commission announced Wednesday a proposal to allow the sector to delay implementing the rules until 2025.

The uproar by farmers has been focused on the high cost of land and energy as well as pressure to sell their crops at near-cost prices and from the government to follow new rules like those proposed in the E.U.'s Nature Restoration Law.

As part of the bloc's Green Deal to protect the environment and reduce planetary heating, the law will establish measures to restore at least 20% of the E.U.'s land.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said Thursday that farmers "are asking for fair rewards for producing our food, and they are right," but warned that rolling back GEAC 8 "sidesteps the fundamental problem experienced and voiced by farmers across Europe, namely unfair prices."

Instead of delaying biodiversity rules, said Giulia Riedo, the group's sustainable farming policy officer, the European Commission should fully implement "the Unfair Trade Practices Directive, ensuring that farmers who farm sustainably receive more funds, and requiring food processors and retailers to play their part in improving the sustainability of the food sector."

"By sacrificing critical environmental measures, policymakers are barking up the wrong tree, and harming the long-term resilience and viability of Europe's farming sector in the process," said Riedo.

The group called for more public funding for farmers who farm sustainably and for "untargeted and harmful subsidies" to be "fundamentally repurposed, supported by increased funding for nature-friendly farming practices."

WWF also noted that agricultural funds are not fairly distributed, with "20% of the largest European farmers, often large-scale industrial agribusinesses, [receiving] 80% of direct payments, while most farmers (often family farms) on small or medium-sized farms receive little to nothing."

The group echoed an observation by the author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week regarding profitability as a barrier to sustainable farming.

"Our results suggest that biodiversity-friendly farming can produce a win-win situation for biodiversity and ecosystem service delivery, but will often require additional public or private payments to become profitable for farmers," said Jeroen Scheper of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.

At the Institute for European Environmental Policy, Harriet Bradley, head of the group's Common Agricultural Policy and Food program, said loosening biodiversity rules for farmers "in many cases will be counterproductive."

"Numerous studies show that, if well-designed and managed, areas left for nature can enhance crop yields by boosting pollination and natural pest control," said Bradley. "Climate and biodiversity crises pose an existential threat, including to food security, to which the E.U. Green Deal is an essential response. Many European farmers face significant economic and social challenges, but relaxing rules that protect biodiversity is not the solution."

"Instead," she said, "the farmers' protests across Europe highlight the need for the E.U. to set a clear long-term vision and plan to support farmers in a transition to a sustainable and resilient agriculture model rather than continuing to lurch from crisis to crisis."

By delaying the potential for "pollinators that support farmers' production and natural predators that control pests," added BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, the European Commission's decision will make farmers "more dependent on the chemical industry."

"Rather than helping farmers," said the group, "we are making their situation worse."

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