The state of Europe’s water ecosystems puts a big question mark over the future availability of freshwater, for people and for all manner of industry, not least for food production and agriculture, writes Jabier Ruiz.
Jabier Ruiz is senior policy officer, agriculture and food, at the WWF’s European Policy Office.
Water is one of nature’s most valuable resources, and the role it plays in our daily lives and economies cannot be overstated. But it is under threat.
As we beckoned in 2019, water was sky-high on the agenda – the World Economic Forum kicked off the year with its Global Risks Report and, unsurprisingly, water was listed amongst the top five crises for businesses. For the ninth year in a row.
In Europe, the sources of our freshwater are in a dire state. 60% of our rivers, lakes, wetlands, streams, coastal and transitional waters are not healthy today and fail to meet the water quality and quantity standards that the EU’s landmark water legislation, the Water Framework Directive, establishes that must be reached by all Member States by 2027.
The state of our water ecosystems puts a big question mark over the future availability of freshwater in Europe, for people and for all manner of industry, not least for food production and agriculture. Without water, there is simply no agriculture – approximately 70% of the freshwater used worldwide is currently pumped into irrigation alone.
Given water’s colossal importance to the sector, you would think that the protection and sustainable management of our waters would be at the very heart of EU farming and the policy that underpins it.
Spoiler alert: It isn’t.
Many sectors exert huge pressures on water ecosystems, but agriculture has a lot to answer for. According to the European Environmental Agency’s 2018 report on the state of European waters, agricultural production is the major source of diffuse pollution (mostly as a result of nutrient runoff, as well as chemicals like pesticides), which affects 38% of EU surface waters (such as rivers, lakes, wetlands and streams). Agriculture is also the main reason that EU groundwater is still failing to achieve good chemical and quantitative status, with over abstraction (pumping out too much water) for irrigation also being a huge concern, especially in southern European countries.
To add insult to injury, instead of supporting the protection and sustainable management of water, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) undermines it. With its unfair subsidies, the CAP favours intensive farming practices rather than sustainability. It reinforces, rather than dissuades, practices which deplete our planet’s natural resources, including freshwater.
Although it is clear from the EU’s own environmental legislation and monitoring that our waters cannot stand being so stretched and polluted by the farming sector a second longer, EU institutions are reluctant to push for all-round CAP reform. On paper, draft CAP regulations mention water and other environmental challenges prominently, but ultimately fail to set up a strong EU framework which would obligate Member States to fully integrate sustainable water management in their CAP strategic plans. This is especially critical because poor application of the farming policy can completely undermine the full and effective implementation of environmental legislation.
Could co-legislators make the CAP proposal any better for water? At the time of writing there is some hope, as the only formal opinion to date from a key decision maker is that of the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. For the first time, this committee has shared competence over the CAP reform, and they have asked for stronger objectives and a higher baseline on water use and agrochemicals, as well as a significant budget for environmental measures in the CAP.
But, as expected, ongoing negotiations in the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and in the Agriculture Council of the EU are less promising, and in some cases truly disheartening. Indeed, provisions that could lead to diminishing pressures on water (such as safeguards on irrigation investments or incentives to reduce the use of agrochemicals) could be already weakened at EU level, thereby allowing Member States to design their CAP strategic plans whilst remaining completely oblivious as to what the common EU interest is.
The EU and its Member States need to wake up to reality and respond boldly to the water challenge, putting forward a coherent farming policy that can both drive EU farming practices towards sustainability and ensure that there is enough good quality water in the future for people, nature and economies.
On 25 October 2018, the European Parliament adopted a new legislative framework for veterinary medicinal products and medicated feed, a step forward in preventing the rise in antibiotic resistance.
This op-ed is signed by MEP Barts Staes (Greens/EFA), MEP Lynn Boylan (GUE), MEP Guillaume Balas (S&D), MEP Tilly Metz (Greens/EFA), MEP Maria Heubuch (Greens/EFA), MEP Eleonora Evi (EFDD), MEP Thomas Waitz (Greens/EFA) and MEP Michèle Rivasi (Greens/EFA).
Under this new legislation, the preventive use of antibiotics in animal feed will be prohibited. This will also apply to imported foodstuffs. This policy should be implemented by 2022 and is one of many responses to rising antibiotic resistance, which is a major risk to human and animal health and threatens us all.
By prohibiting the systematic preventative feeding of antibiotics to farmed animals and ending the use of last-resort antibiotics for animals, EU legislators want to ensure that these drugs can stay effective.
However, laws and regulations will not be enough to win the – very costly – fight against antibiotic resistance. Last December, there were specific reports of massive contamination of animal feed with antimicrobial resistance genes dating back to 2014.
NGOs published information that large quantities of unauthorised vitamin B2 (also called riboflavin (80%) containing viable, genetically modified bacteria had been introduced into the human food chain in Europe via feed additives from a Dutch animal-nutrition supplier imported from China.
This genetically modified bacteria is not authorised to be used in food or feed in the EU and was genetically engineered to carry antimicrobial resistance genes. This poses risks to both animals and human health, as well as to the environment, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The contamination is estimated to concern between 250,000 and 500,000 tons of animal feed in several EU countries (to date: the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands are concerned but the list may grow).
As early as 2014, the German and British authorities warned other Member States via the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) after discovering the presence of this unauthorised genetically modified bacteria in vitamin B2 feed additives.
In October 2016, a joint study conducted by experts from the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) and other EU authorities concluded that the affected feed additives should never have been sold.
It should be noted that the Vitamin Authorisation Consortium (VITAC), regrouping the main stakeholders, applying for the authorisation of vitamins on the EU market, have refused to collaborate with the BVL and to provide them with relevant samples. At the time, no measures were taken to withdraw the vitamin B2 additive or the contaminated feed materials from the market.
An incomprehensible delay of action
Rather than take immediate action, in August 2016 the European Commission asked EFSA to prepare a new scientific opinion on the safety of riboflavin (80%). This opinion, adopted on 7 March 2018, concluded that the additive posed a risk for the “target species, consumers, users and the environment”.
However, it was not until 19 September that the European Commission issued an official ban on the illegal nutritional additive. As such, farmers are still allowed to continue using feeds that have already been produced with the additive – presumably hundreds of thousands of tonnes – until April 2019.
As members of the European Parliament, we are appalled to learn that 47 months separated the first report of the contamination on the RASFF system and the EU Commission’s reaction, especially concerning contamination involving antimicrobial resistance.
This is not the first time that the RASFF has failed to effectively fulfil its role (for example, the fypronil contamination of eggs last year). But in the vitamin B2 case, some of the member states actually used the system in an appropriate and timely manner. It is mainly the response to the RASFF alert that failed to ensure the protection of citizens and the environment.
The presence of the bacteria in vitamin B2 additives was minimised in the application for authorisation: the contaminations reported in the RASFF system should have been enough reason to temporarily withdraw the authorisation, or at least to immediately ask EFSA to review its assessment.
The Commission not only failed to protect EU citizens’ health but knowingly endangered their life. We sent the responsible Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis a letter with the information to express our disappointment and highlight measures which could be taken to ensure such a situation does not repeat itself.
Six measures to avoid the story to repeat itself
1. The EU Commission should mandate an ad-hoc independent expert committee to analyse this case and make relevant proposals of measures to be timely taken and ensure this won’t happen again. Potential shortcomings in the EU Commission’s reaction should also be properly investigated.
2. EFSA’s first assessment was made on the basis of studies provided by VITAC in which the risks of a contamination by the GM bacteria were minimised. Later analysis of the initial samples showed the reality was different.
If EFSA had also referred properly to the published, peer-reviewed studies as a basis of its assessment, the risk of such a shortcoming would have been minimised. This is a key point and we hope that this new scandal will lead the ongoing negotiations on the General Food Law refit in the direction of more transparency and better scientific value of assessments.
3. When it comes to food and feed products produced by a GM organism, the risks coming from potential contamination by the genetically modified organism should always be assessed. If the genetically modified organism is potentially dangerous for health or the environment, the product itself should not be authorised.
4. The refusal of VITAC to contribute to the BVL study is shocking, given the risks at stakes for citizens’ health. The provision of relevant samples by the applicants to the authorities needs to be mandatory, with means of enforcement, through the temporary withdrawal of the authorisation of the product concerned for instance.
5. The delay given to farmers to use the contaminated feed – 8 months – is not acceptable in a case involving health risks. The feed needs to be withdrawn quickly, under the responsibility of the feed producers.
6. Vitamin B2 is one of the examples of food and feed products which are now only available as produced by a GMO. This is extremely problematic, as it means that any health or environmental problem occurring with the GMO put the authorities in a difficult position where they have to weigh the undeniably heavy negative economic impact of withdrawing said product against citizens’ health and safety.
It should be the role of the EU institutions to put measures in place so as to avoid this sort of situations, which endanger both our safety and our food security, for example, by supporting research and development of alternatives.
The industry cannot be trusted blindly when it comes to health or the environment. Trust may be good, controls are better. This slew of recent cases shows that blindly trusting the industry’s integrity is illusionary. Rules and enforcement measures are necessary to ensure EU citizen’s health, and this is what we will continue defending within the European Parliament.
With insects declining at an alarming rate, the German environment ministry wants an action plan to protect them before the end of the year. But farmers are feeling ignored in the process and are calling for more environmental protection incentives. EURACTIV Germany reports.
A study featured in the British daily newspaper The Guardian is currently causing quite a stir with its finding that more than 40% of all insect populations are declining sharply. The rate of their extinction is eight times faster than for mammals or reptiles, the researchers warned. In the worst-case scenario, there may not be any insects in 100 years.
The public has long been anxious over this nightmare scenario and the decline of insects has been ignored for too long.
In February, almost 20% of all eligible voters in Bavaria joined a petition for a referendum to better protect biodiversity. The German government, in the form of social democrat (SPD) minister for the environment Svenja Schulze, has also confronted the problem.
In October 2018, the cabinet approved the key points of an “action plan for insect protection,” which has been under consultation between departments since Friday. If Schulze has her way, the cabinet will adopt the finished law in April.
“Stopping the decline of insects is a key political task of our time,” Schulze has said. Around €100 million of funding for the action plan should be made available every year, with a quarter going to research and monitoring.
Farmers think there is a lack of cooperation
The German Greens and nature conservation organisations criticise the law as insufficient, but there is also growing resistance from the German Farmers’ Association (DBV).
While farmers were willing to play their part, DBV chair Joachim Rukwied explained, “an action programme that only touches on key issues – such as unrestrained land consumption, urban sprawl or mobility – cannot fulfil its objective.”
DBV general secretary Bernhard Krüsken also thought that the law “comes with a host of detailed proposed bans.” He added that what was missing was a cooperative approach, as farmers could not do everything alone.
Nobody knows the exact situation of insects’ decline as the data is only based on a few studies. But the trend is very clear and has been recognised by science for a century, explained Martin Husemann, an entomologist at the University of Hamburg.
“There are studies showing that there are fewer insects in some regions with a lot of arable land than in cities. And this applies to all insect groups,” he continued.
Husemann added that a combination of many factors was the cause, particularly the lack of good-quality habitats for insects. These are habitats with great plant diversity and without too much noise, light and, of course, human activity.
German environment minister wants bans on fertilisers
The German environment ministry’s action plan aims to address as many of these issues as possible. In particular, the use of fertilisers should be restricted and, for example, there should be an outright ban on their use in areas of fields which border on insect habitats.
Moreover, the controversial pesticide glyphosate should only be used “in those areas and if there is absolutely no other solution.”
There is controversy over the extent to which pesticide use is even connected to the dramatic decline in insects. Some studies have not been able to establish an impact.
However, these studies are usually commissioned by fertiliser manufacturers themselves and are only carried out on certain species under laboratory conditions, Husemann emphasised.
“The funding is available”
As banning fertilisers will not stop the loss of biodiversity, the German plan for insect protection also plans to provide more green areas not intended for agricultural use.
This kind of “greening” is envisaged in the common agricultural policy (CAP) and is tied to funding. However, many criticise this as ineffective and, according to the Commission, it is to be dropped completely in its present form.
In order to have more wild plants, there needs to be an incentive programme for farmers, Krüsken believed. “The funding is available,” he added.
The German federal government and states provide funding while the CAP, from which German farmers obtain €6.2 billion a year, provides for environmental measures.
These include, on the one hand, direct payments and, on the other, money through co-funding by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Krüsken believed that, unfortunately, the bureaucracy was often lacking – for instance, if a flower strip is not accepted because there is a line of trees.
“There are always complaints but some money is available in the funding instruments. They just have to be directed towards insect protection. I don’t think we’ve yet exhausted all of the possibilities we have,” Krüsken said.
The EU farming sector is faced with an ageing population. In 2016 only 11% of farm managers in the EU were young farmers under the age of 40 years, according to Eurostat.
According to European Parliament surveys, even though EU assistance has been available to young farmers for more than three decades, the ‘young farmer problem’ seems to remain.
The European Commission’s proposal for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has set nine objectives, one of which is generational renewal. The CAP budget will play a key role in achieving these goals but its future level is uncertain because member states are still discussing EU budget priorities for the period 2021-2027.
Another issue is the role of women in EU agriculture. Eurostat data from 2013 shows that on average around 30% of farms across the EU are managed by a woman. The differences among member states are remarkable, ranging from just over 5% in the Netherlands to around 47% in Lithuania.
In February 2017, the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee and Women’s Committee approved a report calling for an enhanced role of women in EU farming.
EU lawmakers believe that women have a key role in helping to revive rural areas as well as avoiding further urbanisation.
“This report highlights the multifunctional role of a rural woman – as a mother, a homemaker, a worker, an educator, a manager of a family farm, a guardian of culture, heritage and tradition,” Croatian MEP Marjiana Petir told EURACTIV.com.
Similarly, a global study carried out by Corteva Agriscience found that discrimination against women in the farming sector is still widespread.
“Empowering women could help revive rural areas and meet rising food demand,” the report said.
Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s environment committee have voted for a reduction in subsidies going to intensive farming under the common agricultural policy as of 2021. EURACTIV France reports.
The future common agricultural policy will have to reduce subsidies for intensive farming, the MEPs have said in an opinion on the CAP for the 2021-2017 period.
The reform put forward by the European Commission is to be voted on by MEPs in the agriculture committee on 6 and 7 March, before the European Parliament as a whole then votes on the matter in April.
However, upcoming negotiations with the member states will be delicate and it is increasingly uncertain that the reform will be completed before the May 2019 European elections.
MEPs from the environment committee have, however, adopted recommendations to improve CAP funding for green measures. The MEPs called for 30% of the direct payments budget and 40% of the rural development budget to be devoted to environmental measures.
MEPs have voted in support of a provision to improve animal welfare. The opinion of the environment committee recommends limiting subsidies granted to livestock farms which exceed a certain “density rate,” calculated as the number of animals reared per hectare.
In practical terms, farmers wishing to remain eligible for all of the EU’s agricultural support will have to have a maximum stocking density of 0.14 hectares per sheep, 0.71 hectares per sow and 1.43 hectares per dairy cow.
In order to encourage farmers to apply a lower concentration of livestock, MEPs pointed to the role of national plans. These will have to provide measures to reduce the density rate of farms.
“Currently, there is no density rate limit for livestock activities within the European Union,” said Marco Contiero from Greenpeace.
“This definition of density rate could distinguish between two options of raising livestock, and allow the one which is more environmentally and animal-friendly to be further subsidised,” he added.
This measure could promote farms that do not confine as many animals as possible into minimal space. However, it is unlikely that the environment committee’s advisory opinion will be followed during the European decision-making process.
Further measures also provide for an improvement in farming conditions. Livestock will have to be able to lie down, to stand, to extend their limbs and to turn over, according to the advisory opinion. Failure to comply with the regulations of the European directive on the treatment of farm animals would lead to certain national subsidies being suspended.
If European regulations are breached, the aid instalment that would be dropped would be those under article 68. This article allows capitals to distribute part of the CAP budget to particular kinds of agriculture. Between 2010-2013, European funds distributed by states under article 68 rose to €6.4 billion.
“So, for farming where animals are confined, it will no longer be possible [for farms] to receive the type of funding provided for by article 68,” Contiero said, welcoming the move.
“These first signs are encouraging but there’s still much to be done to fully tackle the problem of industrial farming,” added Suzanne Dalle, agriculture campaign manager at Greenpeace France.
Concentration of farms
The current European agricultural policy encourages the scaling up of farms and industrial farming, according to a Greenpeace study published on 12 February.
In France, the proportion of pig meat produced by mega-farms increased from 31% in 2004 to 64% in 2016, the Greenpeace study stated. The figure for chicken meat rose from 11% to 28% between 2004 and 2016.
The concentration of milk production in large farms has been less pronounced. In France, this figure rose from 2% to 6%. Greenpeace explains this limited increase with the fact that milk quotas were in place until 2013, which guaranteed a price for producers.
Further animal welfare measures
Animal welfare is also at the centre of a European Parliament resolution adopted on 14 February, which called for transported animals to be better protected.
MEPs not only called for stricter checks and penalties for breaching regulations on animal welfare, but also for transport times to be shortened.
“The intensive farming model, which has been developed for more than 50 years, has led to the concentration of production in certain regions,” said French socialist MEP Éric Andrieu.
“Local abattoirs have been closed down and, in fact, transport times have become longer. We need to return to tighter regional coverage, bringing the slaughter of animals closer to farms and, in addition, developing mobile slaughter facilities, which already exist in some member states,” Andrieu added in a statement.
Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a big issue at this year’s Green Week in Berlin. With all the billions of euros available, the agro-ecological transition is more than possible, especially if subsidies to agribusiness and factory farms were stopped, write Harriet Bradley and Trees Robijns.
Harriet Bradley is EU Agriculture and Bioenergy Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe. Trees Robijns is Agriculture and Bioenergy Policy Officer at NABU, a German environmental organisation.
We are at the End of the International Green Week in Berlin, an international exhibition of the food, gardening and agriculture industries. While the businesses and marketing people were focusing mainly on digitalisation and high tech, NGOs and civil society took the opportunity to raise the alarm about the real problems. The loudest voice could be heard during the protest march: we are fed up with industrial agriculture! (Wir haben Agrarindustrie satt!).
For the 9th year and this time supported by over 100 organisations and more than 35,000 people, the streets of Berlin were filled with demands for low-impact farming, animal welfare, climate justice and good food, for thriving family farms and rural communities, for biodiversity, for pesticide-free farming, for development cooperation based on ecological principles, and for a just and ecological reform of the EU’s farm subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
That last topic – the CAP – was quite a big issue at the Green Week, and, even if the industry – and a big chunk of the Green Week organisers – pin all their hopes on high-tech ‘solutions’, civil society turned the spotlight on the politicians and how they are not even acknowledging the real issues of huge insect and farmland bird declines, the disappearance of small farmers and the sustainability of animal production.
In the same week, yet more studies and media revelations reminded the public of the sobering reality of Europe’s current farming model and subsidy system, calling the bluff on the shiny propaganda of the official Green Week fair.
And the fact that there is a lot of ‘bluff’ to be called across the EU is illustrated by the following examples from Germany.
- The biodiversity crisis: where German scientists showed a real insectageddon inside nature protection areas. While the WHO is pointing at the carcinogenic effects of pesticides like glyphosates, the former Agriculture Minister Schmidt gave the go ahead to renew the controversial herbicides’ licence without the consent of his government colleagues causing a big popular uproar.
- The horrendous animal welfare situation which has been exposed by video material, shot by undercover activists in factory farms.
- And last but especially not least: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), where the Scientific Advisory Councils to both the agriculture – as well as the environment – ministry strongly criticise the policy, which spends most of the money on flawed direct income payments that are free of any meaningful conditions.
After all this science and public uproar, it is astonishing how many EU governments and Members of the European Parliament are happily taking very clear positions to weaken down the policy, while Germany remains mostly silent.
Those speaking up are pursuing an aggressive simplification agenda: making eco-schemes voluntary, further weakening environmental spending in Pillar 2 and ring fencing money for direct income payments instead, hollowing out the basic principles of the ‘conditionality’ (the baseline for payments, previously called ‘cross compliance’ and ‘greening’), bringing in even more income support tools that harm the environment like risk management etcetera, etcetera. The list just goes on and on.
It is time to show where you stand now. Today the Agriculture Ministers of each EU country are meeting again, and they are discussing the green architecture and the ‘new delivery model’ which promised a new CAP focused on results and higher environmental ambition. We expect Germany and all other Member States to inspire us with their vision for the future of food and farming, and therefore call on ministers to stand up for nature, climate and nature-friendly farmers by supporting:
- Real money for nature, the environment and climate: The next CAP needs to deliver at least €15bn per year for effective biodiversity measures, to be funded out of an overall 50% ring-fencing across the CAP for all environment and climate measures.
- An end to perverse subsidies by ending the harmful aspects of coupled support, investment aid, areas of natural constraints payments, risk management and direct payments
- Real law enforcement by strengthening the conditionality for farms getting subsidies, including setting common baselines such as 10% space for nature on all farms
- A strong accountability and performance framework, including SMART objectives and rigorous indicators, the inclusion of environmental authorities and public interest civil society organisations in decisions on how the money is spent and finally sufficient penalties and incentives systems for Member States so as to encourage strong environmental ambition and punish cheating
With all the billions of euros available, agro-ecological transition is more than possible, all the more so if subsidies to agribusiness and factory farms were stopped. All that is currently missing is the political will to stand up to the intensive farm lobby and agribusiness interests.
In just a few months time, Europe will go to the polls. The result will have a huge impact on biodiversity, climate and long-term food production, but also on our fundamental values and rights as both citizen’s and civil society organisations. Let’s make the CAP another reason for Europe’s citizens’ to believe in Europe, and answer their demands for a fundamental reform towards environmentally sustainable farming, before they cast their vote.