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Evaluation support study on the impact of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) on sustainable management of soil

When people want to gain time, they commission studies, research, and analysis. A lot depends on who carries out these activities. Nevertheless, the results can be useful in order to understand if and how to proceed. The report on the Evaluation of the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the sustainable management of soil acquires particular importance, in this period of discussion of the CAP, both for the CAP itself and for the development of a new European strategy for the soil.

Who was behind this study? The Agriculture DG of the European Commission, directly. Who was it entrusted to? To the Alliance Environment European Economic Interest Group: over 20 people worked on the analysis and editing. The study considers the various regulations of the CAP since 2014 and carried out assessments in farming areas of 10 EU Member States.

In short, the report seems to us to have a solid scientific base and to have chosen the elements for evaluation well. The final result is quite clear: despite their potential, the tools of the CAP have not supported or protected the productivity and fertility of the soil. The report runs to almost 150 pages: here are a few of its typical conclusions.

Only a few of the activities necessary for soil protection are enforced at EU level. Furthermore, key activities, such as controlled traffic, no/reduced/late tillage, diversified crop rotation and compost application, as well as the limitation of plot size are in no cases enforced by the EU regulation; i.e. vulnerable areas in terms of soil quality (or susceptibility to erosion) do not benefit from specific provisions set at EU level.

Looking at the decisions by Member States and managing authorities to implement instruments and measures fostering activities for sustainable soil management, the study found that soil quality was given less importance than other environmental concerns (i.e. biodiversity and water, which benefit from legally binding EU objectives and dedicated institutions or services). This level of priority given to addressing soil quality seems to result mostly from the level of awareness among national and local authorities of the threats to soil and of their possible consequences. The absence of decrease in the growth nitrogen balance since 2010 suggests that the recent implementation of the CAP did not succeed in providing an additional contribution to the effect that previous policies had on reducing the use of fertilisers. The impact of the CAP measures and instruments on soil compaction and salinisation remains very limited, as no instrument clearly addressed those issues.

Looking at storms, droughts, fires and soil sealing as other factors that may impact soil quality, it can be observed that those events may impact very large areas and may thus very significantly impact soil quality in comparison to the impact that can be expected from the CAP. It is also important to note that degraded and bare soils are more affected by storms and droughts than sustainably managed soils, and that the frequency of extreme natural events is expected to increase in the future: this suggests the CAP measures and instruments need to scale up to counterweight, as much as possible, the effects of these events.

The needs to limit erosion, to increase carbon content in mineral soils, to protect grasslands and to ensure the maintenance of their carbon content are explicitly addressed in the CAP framework. However, the rules set at EU level are not very ambitious, and the CAP contribution to mitigate those soil threats thus depend on implementation choices taken at the level of Member States or regions.

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Common Agricultural Policy

The EU has often been criticised for slow decisionmaking. Seen from outside it seems incomprehensible. Seen from within, however, it looks like fights between members of the same family. We are paying the price for the mistake that was made in not organising the Union with decision-making rules that were capable of advancing as new member states joined.

This premise enables us to understand what is happening with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). On one side of the “family quarrel” stand the young people who have been protesting in recent years, environmental associations, new MEPs and even the Environment Commissioner. On the other, the farming lobbies, the industrial food producers and the Agriculture Commissioner. We wrote about this in a previous newsletter.

The result of this clash is not painless. We can see this in the reaction of the environmentalist world which, when the Green Deal for Europe was approved, had imagined an immediate change in EU policies, including the CAP. Disappointment came on 23 October when the European Parliament approved the new CAP which, if applied, will make it impossible to respect the Paris accords and avoid climate collapse.

This means the continuation of a scheme that leads to the degradation of the environment and human health. Additional evidence for this is the EC’s authorization for the next ten years of the import of Bayer’s XtendFlex genetically modified soya. This soya has been developed to resist three major herbicides: dicamba, glufosinate-ammonium and glyphosate. In Europe production of this soya is banned, but it is allowed in Brazil, Argentina and Canada, which are growing it to supply the European market. In other words, others are allowed to use pesticides which have a negative impact on the environment and on biodiversity, provided it happens outside our borders.

Returning to the CAP, the agriculture ministers of the EU State Members, including the Italian minister, are “satisfied”, at least according to the assessment the minister presented to the Italian Parliament’s agriculture committee which stressed the creation of naturally flexible eco-schemes (!), excluding rice (!). This continues the old approach of protecting the economic interests of some while damaging health and the environment. Exactly the same as what is happening throughout the EU with Covid-19.

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SIP Forum: The Greens at the European Parliament – a conference

The Greens EFA held a session entitled ‘How to really feed the world? Fighting hunger at the root’ at the European Parliament on 18 October. The session was twofold and held 150 participants (farmers, agronomists, students, journalists and MEPs). In the morning, there were talks on the use of pesticides; the afternoon session aimed at reviewing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

More concretely, the morning session dealt with the following issues: the effects of pesticides on the right to food; the Stop Glyphosate! Campaign; data and information manipulation from chemical multinationals. Initiatives and proposals were presented by associations fighting for the elimination of glyphosate, indicating alternative methods of use (a Pesticides Action Network report) together with instructions and recommendations by several farmers, which were shown in the following video.

The SIP Forum was also invited to attend the morning session of the conference. Its representative had the opportunity to “give soil a voice’ underlining:

1) Time: a fundamental parameter to take into account is time. In order to grow in a natural manner soil needs between 100 and 200years, to increase by only 1cm;

2) Soil means life: it breathes, pulses, and it is full of bacteria, large and small-scale animals, insects, plant species, vacuum[1]

3) Ways to combat weeds should be decided by taking into account soil and the wildlife inhabiting it, not just by getting rid of weeds.

4) Some methods are particularly dangerous for soil (hot water, electricity, vapour, fire…)

5) The transition time should be respected: we cannot say to farmers that after eliminating pesticides in only a couple of months everything will be good and they will grow pure organic products. The soil must be cleansed beforehand, and after we must allow it to restore its fertility.

The Forum SIP PowerPoint presentation is available upon request, the entire event was recorded, and the online streaming is available.

[1] Technical word indicating the micro spaces inside the soil containing air. Their dislocation, direction and composition are studied to understand the soil conditions.