We talked with Harriet Bradley from BirdLife Europe on the EU’s new Common Agricultural Policy, why it’s bad news for trees and the environment, and how you can help to withdraw it.
How would you describe your job?
I work on trying to make the EU Agricultural policies better for biodiversity and climate, saving species – especially farmland species – from going extinct.
How would you explain the CAP to a friend?
It’s called the Common Agricultural Policy, but it basically amounts to farm subsidies. It’s one of the biggest subsidy systems in the world, which makes it very powerful. That amount of money can do immense good or immense harm, depending on how it is spent. This CAP is going to be 387 billion in total and would last until 2027; in comparison, the EU’s only real dedicated environmental fund, called ‘LIFE’, is worth three billion – so less than 3% of the CAP.
Are trees mentioned within CAP?
There is, in theory, support within the CAP for environmental schemes for forests, but also for commercial forestry, without effective safeguards. You can get paid for investments like building forest roads or equipment so you can harvest more trees. The CAP also includes many incentives for using trees for bioenergy.
If you’re a farmer, does having trees on your farm reduce or increase the subsidies you get?
If you want to get CAP or agricultural subsidies, by-and-large your land needs to be focused on food production. Historically this has led to massive clearance of trees and bushes on agricultural land in order to get the subsidies. There is no obligation to restore what has been lost, because the requirement to have a minimum amount of ‘non productive area’ on farms, such as trees or other landscape features like hedges or shrubs has been hollowed out. Also, most of the agricultural land in Europe goes towards rearing animals or growing food for animals, which is a massively inefficient way to feed the population. The CAP supports meat and dairy production both directly and indirectly, with the result that there is far less land available for nature restoration, including of native trees or forests.
There was a big vote on this by MEPs last week – what happens now?
This vote isn’t the final agreement. The three EU institutions first have to negotiate and come to a compromise on the final policy. That’s called the trialogues. They’re trying to rush it through, though, as the German presidency has said they want to start next month and come to a final agreement early next year.
Is #WithdrawTheCAP realistic? What would need to happen?
The European Commission could withdraw the proposal before the formal adoption — so there is a window for this to happen. They’ve done this before, for example with the Soil Directive proposal, so we know it’s legally possible. But of course with the CAP they would have to come up with a new proposal because there is a fixed budget that needs a spending plan.
The current CAP was meant to come into force in January 2021, but because of delays this will only come into force in 2023 – so there is time to change this. And they have the tools to do it, but it depends if they have the courage to show that leadership. If the green deal means anything then they need to come up with something new in regards to the CAP.
How are the EU Green Deal and the new CAP at odds with each other?
For a start, none of the targets of the EU Green Deal are mirrored in the Common Agricultural Policy — and the CAP is vague in its guidance on the environment. The parliament voted against all the amendments to link the CAP to the Green Dealt, and the Council has explicitly said that only the aspects that are included in the legal text will be actionable for member states. So the Council and Parliament have effectively ruled out the option of the EU Green Deal having any impact on the individual spending proposals from member nations.
The EU Green Deal says we need to get rid of harmful subsidies, make space for nature on farms, decrease fertilizers, and increase organic farming. But then you look at the CAP and it’s going in the opposite direction. Instead of protecting peatlands and wetlands, the CAP will fund draining them. These activities are responsible for 25% of the EU’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and 5% of the total EU emissions, even though they cover only 3% of agricultural land. Whereas in their natural state peatlands are huge carbon sinks. Why are we subsidizing agricultural production in these areas?
There is a complete disconnect between the targets of the Green Deal and the CAP. The IEEP Next Zero in Agriculture report published last year stated thatto reach net zero by 2050 we need to cut agricultural emissions by 80%. If we had a significant reduction in meat and dairy we could have a 37% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2030, but there is no mention of this in the current version of the CAP. And this is despite the fact that the parliament voted a few weeks ago to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030. They are basically exempting agriculture from having to cut back on emissions.
What can European citizens do right now?
You can join the petition to #WithdrawTheCAP, join the photo action and call for a withdrawal of the CAP on social media. Longer term, we’re going to need a lot of people to support and scrutinize this policy, particularly when your home country starts to implement their CAP strategic plan. It will be important to watch how your country spends the subsidies it receives from the EU — and call them out if they are doing so in destructive ways.