The pressing need for binding and ambitious targets

Creating space for nature in farms and setting a reduction target for meat consumption are absolute necessities. The upcoming Biodiversity Strategy and ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy provide the ultimate opportunity to do so, writes Bas Eickhout.
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By Bas Eickhout

20 May 2020

This month, the European Commission is expected to present both the ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy.

With species disappearing at an unprecedented rate and runaway climate change looming over us, the need for much-enhanced agricultural and biodiversity policies was already higher than ever.

And now we are in the midst of a health crisis which makes a policy overhaul even more urgent. Loss of natural habitats, wildlife trade, antibiotic resistance: COVID-19 is giving us a glance of the disruptive forces that we can unleash upon ourselves if we don’t address these issues at their roots.


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What do I want to see in the two upcoming EU-strategies? Binding and ambitious targets for reducing pesticides and antibiotics; an expansion of Natura 2000 and ecological footprint reduction targets; targets for nature restoration, organic farming, free flowing rivers, and so on - I could continue listing examples.

For now, however, I want to focus on two specific targets: one for creating space for nature at farms and another for reducing meat and dairy consumption. Intensive agriculture leaves no space for natural habitats and landscape features; on the contrary, it destroys them.

The hunt for efficiency leads to large monocultures with no room for birds, insects or other wildlife to hide, feed and breed. This is one of the main reasons why we read in the news about plummeting insect and bird numbers.

“There is an elephant in the room, a hugely unpopular political topic that can no longer be ignored. It is a health problem, it is a climate problem, it is a biodiversity problem and it is an animal welfare problem”

This type of agriculture is not only destructive for biodiversity and the ability to produce food in the long run; it also destroys the look and feel of our rural areas. In the Netherlands, we are already talking about ‘grass deserts.’ I can assure you that those are not attractive places for leisure and rural tourism.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a driver behind this trend, by giving subsidies per hectare of land without attaching proper conditions.

This has to change. Each EU farm will have to devote at least 10 percent of its land to hedges, flower strips, trees, terrace walls, ponds and other biodiversity-enhancing natural features. It is crucially important that this target is put in place for every farm, rather than at Member State or EU level.

We have to break up these monocultures and create connectivity in the landscapes. In order to tackle the biodiversity crisis, there has to be some space for nature everywhere, not simply in a couple of dedicated places while changing nothing in intensive farming regions.

A 10 percent space for nature per farm target is a crucial element for the EU Biodiversity Strategy. There is an elephant in the room, a hugely unpopular political topic that can no longer be ignored.

“Loss of natural habitats, wildlife trade, antibiotic resistance: COVID-19 is giving us a glance of the disruptive forces that we can unleash upon ourselves if we don’t address these issues at their roots”

It is a health problem, it is a climate problem, it is a biodiversity problem and it is an animal welfare problem. We consume way too many animal products. The demand is so high that we see increasing levels of intensive and industrialised animal farming - ‘farm factories’.

This is a system based on the import of large amounts of soy, with massive deforestation elsewhere in the world as a consequence. At the same time, we pollute our air and water, because all the imported nutrients have to end up somewhere.

Deforestation even leads to an increased risk of pandemics, as do areas with lots of closely confined animals. Once again, the EU CAP is incentivising this trend. The CAP subsidises large industrial animal farmers. European taxpayer money can, through the CAP, even be used for meat and dairy advertisement. This has to change.

We need policies that do the opposite and incentivise a shift to a more plant-based diet. The Farm to Fork Strategy has to steer the EU in this new direction by introducing a clear target: a 2030 meat and dairy consumption reduction target of at least 30 percent.

Such a target will force the EU to end its current counterproductive policy measures and design smart new ones, such as fair pricing. I call on the European Commission to act to address the crises we are facing.

The EU needs a meat and dairy consumption reduction target. The EU also needs a target for farm level space for nature. And the upcoming Farm to Fork Strategy and Biodiversity Strategy provide the ultimate opportunity for introducing them.

Read the most recent articles written by Bas Eickhout - Clean mobility package: Disappointing CO2 targets

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Agriculture & Food
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