The drought crisis must serve as a wakeup call to Agriculture Ministers

We are pleased to welcome this guest post by Harriet Bradley and Ariel Brunner of Birdlife Europe.

EU agriculture is not prepared for the climate crisis – the next CAP must urgently fund a full scale transition to ecologically resilient agriculture

The drought that has struck farmers this summer has exposed the extreme vulnerability of conventional agricultural systems to environmental shocks. Across Europe, harvests have been severely affected by the summer drought, leading to a lack in particular of feed for livestock.

The response by the EU Commission, governments and the conventional farm unions has been disappointingly ‘conventional’. First, the granting of emergency aid such as in Germany , which can provide a necessary stop gap, but does not fix the fundamental problem. Second, the situation has been used to suspend some of the only environmental measures on farms, namely by allowing farmers to grow crops on areas they are paid to reserve for nature and on land that is being left ‘fallow’ to recover. What this means is further exacerbating the environmental problems that make current farming so vulnerable.

Worryingly, there is no recognition by either the farm unions or national ministries that agriculture must become much more environmentally and climate-friendly in order to be more resistant to extreme weather events and thus avoid not only disaster for farmers and food production but also a huge bills to the taxpayers. Farmers who have installed irrigation are presented as being in a better situation, but this only pushes the problems further down the road: we need to reduce water use not irrigate until reserves run out, or rely on more ‘efficient’ irrigation (in Spain, improved efficiency of irrigation has led to a 3-fold increase in irrigated area in some areas). Hardly anyone is pointing out that depleted soils can’t hold water, monocultures increase farmers’ risk in the face of extreme events and livestock concentration makes feed shortages more dramatic.

Ecological transition is inevitable, it is only a matter of time before industrial farming will collapse under its own resource-depleting weight. The longer we wait the more painful and costly the transition will be: to our wildlife, future generations, our food supply and farming as a business. Farmers will be the first to suffer. Decision makers must own up to this reality and make the right choices now, not leave future generations to shoulder the catastrophe. Farmers need a helping hand in changing course, not be pushed further down the dead-end road.

It is time for decision makers and vested interests to get real and own up to the real issues facing the agriculture sector. The current reform negotiations on the post-2020 CAP offer the ideal opportunity to steer our agricultural systems on the right track. We have been publicly promised a ‘transition to sustainable farming’ but so far agriculture ministers appear to be mainly interested in the opposite: reducing environmental and other safeguards (dubbed ‘simplification’) and maximising their flexibility to give the CAP money to whoever they choose.

Further, we are told that if the next CAP is to do more for the environment than it already is (which is little given the massive destruction wrought by CAP-fuelled intensive agriculture), then we need to pay more money into the CAP.

All these debates simply obscure the issue. The fact of the matter is that there is a huge pile of money (almost €60 billion per year) which is mostly going to intensive farming and marginalisies sustainable farmers. We do not need more money to do more for the environment: we need to stop spending what we have on the wrong things and divert it to the right things.

This means ending perverse subsidies that fuel intensification and factory farming, and instead pay for a) the forms of agriculture that actually deliver for nature and climate, and b) transition aid to farmers who are currently trapped in 20th century farming systems to convert to 21st century agro-ecological, climate-friendly methods, such as high nature value, organic and ecological mixed farming.

We need to cut through the false debates about the environment versus food production, and instead do the right thing. This is not an environment versus food production issue: making agriculture ecologically resilient is in the interests of society, future generations’ food supply and farmers’ livelihoods.

This post was written by Harriet Bradley and Ariel Brunner.

Photo credit: Harriet Bradley reproduced with permission.

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1 Reply to “The drought crisis must serve as a wakeup call to Agriculture Ministers”

  1. The call for EU CAP Reform to include an alteration of policy as proposed by the authors should make sense to both farmers and ecologists. But it fails to take account of the investment in large scale farm enterprises across Europe.
    Modern farming is exemplified by events such as Agritechnica in Hannover, showcasing industrial scale machinery and farm methods to the 240,000 farmers and others who attend the event. Agritechnica is not alone of course. Sima in Paris, Cereals and others in the UK…. there’s a modern progressive farming event happening in Europe on every day of the year.
    They have a common theme: Specialise farm enterprises. Expand production to gain economies of scale. Embrace technology. And, most importantly, replace equipment and invest heavily.
    These events are well supported by government departments and non-doms. In Britain, AHDB, the levy funded organisation, has one of the largest stands at Cereals. It happens in every EU country, and of course across the globe.
    It means the diversified and less intensive farming systems which the authors would like to see only get a look-in as part of agricultural history lessons. Diversity of crops and enterprises is something from the past. The benefits of using smaller, older machinery don’t get a look-in, either at these events or in the agricultural departments in colleges and universities across Europe. Even the vital topic of soil remains a side show in college, even the most prestigeous of them. The teaching staff appear to know little about soil, and there seems no incentive for them to learn. Public finance and funding of the small groups of farmers and people who do see the importance of these things is limited, difficult if not impossible to source.
    Farm eco organisations, those which champion diversity, mixed family farming, low borrowings and modest scale (I guess I am one of these) remain unorganised and, while this is the case, BigAg suppliers and influencers can continue to operate unchallenged.
    The authors of this report point eloquently to the need for a change in direction, so water can be conserved and used more effectively, farms become more able to cope with adverse weather conditions without the cry for help that is answered by providing environmental concessions.
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