EU Biodiversity Strategy must be based on incentives, not obligations

Biodiversity is a laudable and desirable ambition, but the means to achieve it lie best in a pull, not a push-based approach. Incentives will always trump sanctions, writes Norbert Lins.
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By Norbert Lins

Norbert Lins (DE, EPP) is chair of the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee

20 May 2020

I was elected Chairman of the Agriculture Committee on 10 July 2019. Shortly afterwards, the “Species Conservation – Save the Bees” initiative caused quite a stir in my state, Baden-Württemberg.

Farmers felt unfairly accused of being responsible for the extinction of species, particularly insects. They vented their discontent by placing green crosses in their fields, deeming the initiative’s demands for the extensive avoidance of pesticides to be unrealistic.

Many even threatened to abandon farming. Discussions between those for and against constantly turned into an exchange of blows. The solution to the crisis was to gather everyone around the table and to draw up a less rigid Bill.


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This includes the key points drawn up by the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment in Baden-Württemberg. I wish to focus my article on biodiversity.

You may be wondering how an initiative in one German state could serve as an example for Europe. I wish to address two aspects: first, cooperation and acceptance and second, recognising that there is rarely a single correct solution to any problem.

The Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 is due to be presented in May 2020. By all accounts, the objectives it sets out are ambitious. In my experience, the success of strategies depends on their acceptance by those who have to implement them.

“In my experience, the success of strategies depends on their acceptance by those who have to implement them”

If they are planned with very rigid rules, there is reason to fear that not everyone will be won over on the objectives. Success will only be achieved if everyone pulls together and pursues a common goal.

The “Save the Bees” bill succeeded in uniting critics and supporters. Objectives were reduced to a more realistic level and – even more importantly, in my view – agreements were reached on target ranges, rather than precise goals. For example, the initiative called for a 50 percent reduction in the use of chemical/synthetic pesticides.

It also specified that the use of pesticides should be reduced by 40 to 50 percent. A range between A and B is what counts, not a specific number. This significantly increases acceptance, given that a reduction of 40 percent is considered a success and failure to achieve a reduction of 50 percent will not result in sanctions.

The European Commission wants to establish further obligations in the agricultural sector, for example establishing a few protected areas with contractual arrangements. If these objectives are not achieved, then sanctions will be imposed.

Although I am not opposed to this model in general, I firmly believe that offering incentives would be more productive. Another example is Council Directive 92/43/ EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, also called the Habitats Directive. This rigid Directive does not take into account any variations relating to precipitation and climate change.

Therefore, it cannot be the be-all and end-all. Our experience with contractual nature conservation has been excellent in Baden-Württemberg.

This involves preserving habitats or farming landscape through voluntary collaboration with landowners. During the contract period, farmers ensure that land use is adapted for nature conservation.

“The same applies to the use of fertilisers and pesticides. We won’t get farmers on board if we force them to make unrealistic reductions”

This model has been very well accepted and its potential for conflict is low. Alongside acceptance, we need to set realistic objectives. Data is circulating suggesting that, as part of the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, 30 percent of land is to be reserved for organic farming. I believe this is unrealistic.

In 2018, this figure was 7.7 percent in the EU as a whole and 9.1 percent in Germany. Stipulating 30 percent would correspond to more than a three-fold increase in Germany. This cannot be achieved, and I would like to illustrate this by looking at the figures for Baden-Württemberg.

Organic farming currently has a share of 14 percent and we have achieved this over 40 years. How are we supposed to achieve 30 percent within ten years? The same applies to the use of fertilisers and pesticides. We won’t get farmers on board if we force them to make unrealistic reductions.

This is what sparked massive criticism in the “Save the Bees” initiative. Those people working in agriculture are already managing our soil in a responsible manner.

Using fertilisers and pesticides costs money and no one is going to spread any more on their fields than is absolutely necessary. Unrealistic objectives, combined with more checks and sanctions, will not help to prevent small, family-owned farms from closing.

They are particularly affected by increasingly stringent requirements and restrictions concerning the management of their land.

As Chairman of the Agricultural Committee, I advocate acceptance and awareness. For me, this includes realistic objectives that correspond to market demand. In Germany, price is still a decisive factor for around 60 percent of consumers.

This means we also need to encourage consumers to change their views and opt for a healthy and sustainable diet. At the same time, we need to increase appreciation for food and farming. This is what I am campaigning for.

Read the most recent articles written by Norbert Lins - Is the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy a silver bullet for sustainable agriculture?

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