Protecting European green agricultural policies for future food security
The European Union’s new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (2023-2027) aims to reverse the current environmental degradation and biodiversity decline in European farmland1 through achieving three green goals: contributing to climate change mitigation, supporting effective management of natural resources and reversing biodiversity loss2.3. Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the European Commission proposed a series of short- and medium-term relaxations of CAP environmental commitments to offset projected grain import shortages and boost food security4.
Here, we argue that policy changes to allow cultivation of fallow land will have a disproportionate impact on biodiversity and support further intensification of animal production. So, ultimately, these policy changes may sacrifice long-term biodiversity and agricultural sustainability in Europe, in favor of modest increases in current agricultural production and purported improvements in food security.
A catalyst to reverse green policies
Russia and Ukraine are the main world producers and exporters of cereal and fodder production (especially oilseed and protein crops)5. The war in Ukraine and international sanctions against Russia threaten the import of these products to the EU. Ukrainian production of winter grains, corn and sunflower is expected to decline by 20-30%, at least in the 2022-2023 season, and similar reductions in Russian exports are also expected5. Consequently, the agribusiness lobbies and farmers’ organizations in Brussels, certain political parties in the European Parliament and the administrations of certain countries perceive the need to increase agricultural production6 and, as a way to offset expected shortages, lobby to relax or remove environmental commitments from the CAP. Mechanisms supporting these commitments include enhanced conditionality (compulsory for all farmers receiving subsidies), voluntary rural development program measures (i.e. agri-environmental and climate measures) and greening measures (diversification of crops, maintenance of permanent grasslands and promotion of areas of ecological interest) . A call launched to mobilize all the international groups concerned during the informal meeting held on March 2, 2022 by the ministers of agriculture and food of the Member States, with the exception of Denmark, Germany and the ‘Italy, can reflect such pressure6. Indeed, the European Commission finally proposed a series of “short and medium term actions to strengthen global food security and support farmers and consumers in the EU”.4. With regard to land use, actions refer to the cultivation of fallow land, which is protected by green payments to keep the land in good agricultural and environmental condition and, managed in an adequate way (both long-term and ‘annually), support high levels of biodiversity and ecosystem servicesseven (Fig. 1). More specifically, the European Commission proposes that “In order to increase the EU’s production capacity, the Commission today adopted an implementing act allowing Member States to exceptionally and temporarily derogate from certain greening obligations. In particular, they can allow the production of all food and feed crops on fallow land forming part of ecological focus areas in 2022, while maintaining the full level of the greening payment”4. This measure was recently extended for 2023.
Consider food sovereignty
However, the FAO does not draw the same conclusions on the possible global impacts of the conflict and recommends finding alternative suppliers, instead suggesting using existing food stocks, diversifying national crops and reducing reliance on fertilizers and wastage. food as mechanisms to help secure Europe’s food supply and sovereignty5. Even the European Commission, while acknowledging the vulnerability of European farmers to feed import shortages and rising costs, has made it clear that food supplies are not at risk in the EU.4. Indeed, production based in the EU provides 79% of the feed protein consumed in European livestock farming, 90% of feed grains and 93% of other products such as dried distillers grains and solubles or beet pulp. .8. In 2020, the EU was completely self-sufficient in dairy, pork, beef, veal, poultry and cereals. It has remained the world’s largest exporter of agri-food products, despite the COVID-19 pandemic8.
Any increase in production resulting from cultivating fallow land will therefore likely be used to feed intensively farmed livestock and support livestock feed exports. Supporting the rising trend of animal feed exports and intensive factory farming is not in line with the EU Green Deal due to negative impacts on air, soil and water quality. ‘water8,9,10. Furthermore, the cultivation of fallow land to support intensive livestock-based agriculture will undermine the EU’s farm-to-fork strategy and the CAP’s “Food and Health” objective of reducing consumption. of meat to promote more sustainable and healthier diets among European consumers.2.11. Encouraging the growth of intensive livestock farming by allowing cultivation of fallow land will increase environmental damage, biodiversity loss and public health risks. Thus, the recent relaxations of the new CAP undermine several of its fundamental objectives, as well as those of other elements of the Green Deal, such as the EU Nature Restoration Act2,9,12.
The duration of the war in Ukraine and its effects on the supply of raw materials to Europe are difficult to predict. We recognize the uncertainties and input costs facing farmers, but calls for greater agricultural intensification may be largely unwarranted at this point. Specifically, cultivation of semi-natural habitats such as annual long-term or no-till fallows will have significant environmental costs, including increased application of pesticides and fertilizers, as fallows often occupy less land. productive.13. Even a moderate increase in food production at the expense of remaining semi-natural habitats in agricultural landscapes (field edges, grasslands and fallow land), which harbor most of Europe’s farmland biodiversity and associated ecosystem services14will seriously damage farmland biodiversity and the sustainability of European agricultural landscapes3.15. For example, an in-depth study of 169 farms in 10 European countries showed that semi-natural habitats, including fallow land, occupied 23% of the land but harbored 49% of the species of vascular plants, earthworms, spiders and wild bees; a 10% decrease in these habitats if reclaimed for food production would lead to an exponential decrease in biodiversity, but only moderate linear increases in production15. In addition, the loss of semi-natural habitats in arable systems, including fallows, would negatively affect the functional diversity of arthropods and the ecosystem services it supports, which could affect agricultural production.14.
There are alternatives to the cultivation of semi-natural habitats that can (and should) be assessed to achieve a more strategic European agricultural policy capable of meeting food demands while maintaining the principles of sustainability and chain improvement. of food production sought by the Farm-to-Fork Strategy. Proposals include agro-ecological approaches to increase production through improved ecosystem services such as pollination and biological control16,17,18adjusting the amount of cultivated area according to the structure and composition of the landscape19or relocate the crops most in demand to areas where production is optimal without increasing the total cultivated area20.
After decades of costly agricultural and conservation policy implementation and reform1the EU risks embarking on a hasty and wrong food production strategy jeopardizing the green transition13. As an alternative to such a “business as usual” reaction, the EU now has the possibility to consolidate the mentioned environmental and social objectives of the new CAP2.3. A more sustainable agriculture, resilient to food crises (present and future), should be based on the ecological functionality of agricultural land, which ultimately depends on the conservation of its biodiversity.16, as well as measures to combat climate change. Responses to this and other challenges on the new CAP should be assessed from a long-term perspective and based on sound scientific evidence before undermining its environmental ambitions3.13.