By James O’Donovan
On May 20th, the European Commission published its Biodiversity and Farm to Fork 2030 Strategies. Both documents indicate a positive direction in policy in Europe. But since scores of other visionary policies have been released with similar fanfare over the past decades it would be irrational to expect these policies to deliver without seeing the other necessary structural changes in place in EU Governance and Funding. This has not yet happened and was clearly illustrated by the fact that the policies were launched by the EU Commissioners for Health and Environment but without the Agricultural Commisioner. The Agricultural Commissioner oversees the negotiations for the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which fund the animal agriculture and fishing industries, which together are the biggest drivers of ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and water pollution in the EU.
How could you release a biodiversity and food policy without the Agricultural Commissioner? It makes no sense, except when you understand that the EU’s agricultural policy does not serve the wellbeing of Europeans – it serves the large agri-business sector and does not serve our health, biodiversity or climate resilience. This structural magical illusion is built into the governance system of all EU and member states, yet it’s totally rational if you believe that wealth is money and the interests of large multinationals is your goal. But it prevents the establishment of healthy communities nested in thriving ecosystems.
For decades the EU has had wonderful visionary laws (Habitats, Birds, and Water Directives), calling for the ending of all biodiversity loss in Europe. These laws require member governments to submit detailed ecosystem and biodiversity and water quality assessments identifying all the problems, the causes and detailed implementation plans to address them. But the EU and National Departments carrying out this work continue to be underfunded and without political power. So although the commission is promising to outline in 2021 legally binding targets on EU member states to restore nature reserves such as meadows, wetlands, peatlands, bogs, marshes, grasslands and forests, without “a dedicated binding framework in support of the biodiversity strategy” there is a “high risk … that biodiversity loss would continue”, Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU Commissioner for Environment and Oceans, told journalists.
You can see this in practice by taking a cursory glance at the EU’s funding and enforcement of its own policies. For example, the LIFE programme for the Environment and Climate Action is one of the spearheads of EU environmental and climate funding. The present LIFE programme started in 2014 and runs until 2020, with a budget of €3.4 billion. While in contrast the CAP, primarily subsidising animal agriculture, was allocated funding of €280 billion over the same time period.
On enforcement – the European Commission is the chief enforcer of EU law and is responsible for taking national governments to court for breaking environmental rules. According to an article in the Guardian, “on average, the commission takes a law-breaking country to the ECJ within four months for a breach of the EU’s transport rules, while the same process takes 66 months for flouting environmental standards.” According to Ariel Brunner, senior head of policy at BirdLife International’s Brussels office, “The real game-changer will be enforcement……The level of law breaking and law ignoring are just terrifying. Every day we have notionally protected sites that become hotels, ski resorts, golf courses, that are being logged, that are being given over to intensive agriculture and that is what we need to deal with. That’s the acid test for all of this – you can set the best targets in the world but if ultimately people can just get away with criminal activity with no consequences then it doesn’t hold.”
Summary of Biodiversity Strategy
Protect 30% of the EU’s land and oceans (today 26% of land and 11% of seas); reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50% and reverse the decline in pollinators; plant 3bn trees. Within the 30% protected areas, a third of land and sea will be under “strict protection”, meaning there should be no human intervention besides minimal management to keep the area in good condition for wildlife. Strictly protected areas will include carbon-rich habitats such as primary and old-growth forests, peatlands, wetlands and grasslands. Currently only 3% of land and 1% of marine areas are under strict protection. The Commission aims to raise at least €20bn (£18bn) per year to fund the the plan.
Summary of Farm to Fork Strategy
10% of agricultural areas will be transformed into “high-diversity landscapes” with the creation of features such as buffer strips, hedges, ponds and fallow land. A quarter of agricultural land will be managed organically. Reduce by 50% the overall use of – and risk from – chemical pesticides by 2030 and reduce by 50% the use of more hazardous pesticides. Reduce the use of fertilisers by at least 20%.
The strategies carry a range of potentially promising statements including:
- The transition to sustainable food systems….will not happen without a shift in people’s diets.
- If European diets were in line with dietary recommendations, the environmental footprint of food systems would be significantly reduced.
- Current food consumption patterns are unsustainable from both health and environmental points of view. While in the EU, average intakes of energy, red meat, sugars, salt and fats continue to exceed recommendations, consumption of whole-grain cereals, fruit and vegetables, legumes and nuts is insufficient.
- Moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.
Campaigners and scientists agree that delivering even on these very limited environmental ambitions will be impossible without a fundamental transformation of the CAP. The much more beneficial transformation to a non-violent food system will only come about as vegans continue to campaign and change the food system. The web of life will only be restored when people see they are just one tiny part of the mystery of living systems.
The European Environment Bureau has carried out an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of these policies here.
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