European Union member states are trying to adopt more sustainable agriculture practices, amid debates over subsidies and protests from the sector.The French minister of the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Élisabeth Borne, presented on Monday three new tools to financially support farmers engaged in protecting nature and reducing their climate impact. 

One of the initiatives launched by Borne is the ‘Low-Carbon label’, a tool created in collaboration with the institute for climate economy I4CE with the aim of supporting virtuous projects for the environment. A group of 391 farmers already committed to biodiversity solutions like new plant cover, livestock feed and reduction of inputs.

“Agriculture accounts for 19% of French greenhouse gas emissions,” said Borne. “To fight climate change, we must work together to reduce these emissions by around -18% in 2030 compared to 2015 according to the trajectory set by the National Low-Carbon Strategy (SNBC).”

“This effort requires mobilizing a set of levers by including agriculture in a new model that is more agro-ecological but also more profitable for farmers. With the Low Carbon label, payment for environmental service and photovoltaics on the roof, the state has demonstrated that it is a facilitator. I am fully mobilized to support farmers in the evolution of their model.”

The second measure consists of a reward for farmers who are changing their behaviours, through €150 million set aside by the water agencies.

The third form of support is to ease investment for installing photovoltaics on buildings. Solar panels on roofs of less than 300 KW will thus be exempt from going through a tender procedure to obtain public support.

France is Europe’s leading agrarian nation, but resentment is growing over the so-called ‘agribashing’ (critics against traditional agriculture production). As issues range from pesticide use to animal welfare, the main farmers union FNSEA fears to be perceived like scapegoats. On the other hand, the president of the French vegetarian association, Élodie Vieille Blanchard, published a column in the magazine Libération accusing the government and the FNSEA of using the concept of agribashing to prevent a transition to a greener agriculture.

Together with other organisations, the French trade union Confédération Paysanne also published a statement on Sunday. They drew up their own plan for a social and ecological transition of agriculture in opposition to the state’s proposals.

“We know that the agricultural and food transition will only be done with and by the peasants […] Support for industrial agriculture must stop. We demand an ambitious policy to support farmers in the agricultural and food transition, starting with the CAP and agricultural education,” the statement reads.

Others suggest the introduction of more regulations. The True Animal Protein Price Coalition (TAPPC), including health, animal welfare and environmental organizations, recently published a report on the impact of farming and suggested that “mending our food price system” should be an element of the EU Green Deal. “Industrial livestock production contributes to impaired human health, overuse of antimicrobials, environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and wildlife and very poor animal welfare,” the report reads. “Taxes can be used to internalise external costs and/or to encourage or discourage certain production or consumption decisions.” 

On February 5, the European Parliament discussed a plan to increase the price of meat in order to offset its carbon emissions. This option may be part of the upcoming ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy to be unveiled next month. On the other hand, figures show that the monthly value of EU agri-food exports in November 2019 continued to grow compared to the previous year – an increase mainly driven by pork, wheat and offal.

In light of that, Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs sent a letter to European Commissioners Timmermans, Kyriakides, Wojciechowski and Sinkevičius calling for a plan that tackles meat and dairy.

“Given the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and growing health concerns, changes to our food system cannot be left to consumer choice alone,” they wrote. “The industrialization of animal farming has been supported by policies and incentives – and politicians have the responsibility to reverse this trend.”

The animal welfare organization Wakker Dier has recently organised a similar campaign in the Netherlands. According to a study they have conducted, the EU has spent some €60m promoting meat since 2017. Among the projects sponsored, they found a brand new €4.4m campaign to increase chicken consumption.

“Europe lives in a very outdated and unsustainable subsidy system that is at the expense of animals, the environment and health,” said Anne Hilhorst of Wakker Dier.

Farmers need to do their bit for the environment, however new policies may not be welcomed. Protests took place this winter across France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, against governments forcing farmers to change the way they work and reduce nitrogen emissions.

The European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA) also wrote a position paper setting out what we can do to adapt to and mitigate climate change. CEJA’s president Jannes Maes told Forbes.com: “The world is facing unprecedented challenges and the same is true for the agriculture sector. As European young farmers, we recognise the need to move with the times. Climate change is a reality that we are on the front line in facing.”

“While we welcome strong ambitions, no one can be left behind in the transition. The economic and social challenges facing the agriculture sector, such as generational renewal and low profitability, must be tackled in parallel.”



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