Lying at the heart of the European Commission’s Green Deal, announced in March 2020 by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy aims to make food systems “fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly.” Key targets include a 50 per cent reduction in chemical and pesticide use and sales of antibiotics, a 20 per cent reduction in fertilizer use, and the allocation of 25 per cent of agricultural land to organic farming. To reach these figures, the Commission foresees a mix of complementing policy tools, of which the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) remains the most pertinent one. 

The current CAP, the main farm subsidy program of the Union, was intended to phase out in 2021 but has been extended to run until 2023. The CAP proposal for the 2023-2027 period was presented in 2018 as a more flexible, performance, and results-based approach with higher environmental and climate action ambitions, in contrast to the current program. Traditionally, Member States have defended a system of “basic payment schemes” or basic income support for farmers, which are independent of income or production. In practical terms, while benefitting large landowners and companies, this system was not able to effectively incentivize ecologically transformative practices. EU-wide, the portion of organically farmed land remains at 7 per cent, while biodiversity loss has increased by 3 per cent for farm birds and 50 per cent for grassland butterflies since 1990.

Without detailing the nuts and bolts of the CAP, it is critical to highlight the existence of a so-called “eco-scheme,” a significant part of the direct payment scheme representing the principal income support system for farmers. This initiative offers a generous fund for sustainable practices, including precision agriculture, agroecology, organic farming, carbon farming, and agroforestry. The eco-scheme is particularly vital, as it would compensate farmers for the services they provide that benefit the environment. That said, the positions of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament (EP) on the Commission proposal is a fundamental aspect of the interinstitutional negotiation process that will determine the outcome of CAP reform.  As of 23 October 2020, both the Council and the EP finalized their common positions. 

As it turns out, the three largest political groups in the EP, namely the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&Ds), and Renew Europe (RE), removed various clauses for environmental protection while maintaining the 60 per cent provision for the CAP’s non-eco-scheme direct income payments. Meanwhile, the EU agricultural ministers reduced the eco-scheme budgetary allocation from 30 to 20 per cent within the direct payment scheme. This agenda was firmly pushed by the so-called “agricultural powerhouses” of Italy, France, Ireland, and Eastern European countries such as Poland. Certain interest groups such as environmentally-focused NGOs or leftist Member of Parliament (MEPs) see these developments as continuing support for industrial and input-intensive farming, with NGO Birdlife International asserting the CAP’s virtual death and Greta Thunberg weighing in with #votethisCAPdown. 

Despite the criticism, however, this is not the end of the story. To begin with, there is an instrument in the CAP reform itself that could potentially give the Commission considerable leverage in enforcing stricter environmental and climate action standards and targets despite the whims of both the Council and Parliament.  As it happens, a prerequisite for receiving subsidies in the next CAP phase, the Member States will be legally required to draw up so-called national CAP strategic plans demonstrating greater environmental and climate ambition. In practice, these plans would be the programming tools where national governments define the central parameters for the implementation of all CAP instruments. Not only does the Commission have to approve these plans, but it also adopts individual recommendations, before the formal submission.

Thus, the Commission has a chance to incorporate key F2F targets into the national plans. For instance, to address nutrient pollution in the livestock sector, the Commission could collaborate with the Member States to foster investments as well as advisory and data management services, such as the EU Farm Sustainability Tool for nutrient management, or EU space technologies, including Copernicus and Galileo. Another example would be the prioritization of renewable energy investments, which could include biogas production from manure or solar panel installations on barns. In addition, the Commission intends to revise the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive, aiming at a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides and a concurrent integration of alternatives. Yet another aspect is the proposal of an action plan on organic farming that, together with the promotion of campaigns favoring green public procurement initiatives, could prove an influential contributor to the green economy. Finally, as part of the new EU carbon farming initiative under the Climate Pact, the Commission intends to develop a regulatory framework for certifying carbon removals based on transparent carbon accounting.

The extent to which these initiatives can grease the wheel of reform remains to be seen. Rejection of the original proposal for the allocation of means to the eco-scheme by EU institutions is a considerable blow to the aspirations of the F2F Strategy. The Member States will also have to make up for lost time due to the two-year delay to the commencement of reforms. This dilemma then begs the question of how effective the other instruments at the Commission’s disposal are in achieving, or at least nearing, the F2F targets and how much resistance they might encounter. 

At the end of the day, agricultural policy is a unique domain with very specific regional and cultural implications. Moreover, it is bound to the realms of the natural world, which means that the development of strategies demands the active input of various regional interest groups and science. While the EU should not be let off the hook easily, it is ultimately up to the Member States to align their CAP national plans with the European Green Deal, and these may well serve as a litmus test for environmental ambition. The next two years will be pivotal in showing whether they are up to the task at hand.


Edited by Gabriele Melindo; Photo credit: Klara A. Wuketich