Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety I (ENVI I)
The animal farming industry is a major contributor to climate change, with the livestock sector being responsible for 81-86% of greenhouse gas emissions. How should the Common Agricultural Policy be adapted to achieve enhanced sustainability in all stages of the food chain, as well as a healthier diet for EU citizens?Chairperson: Maro Kaisaridi (GR)
The European Union (EU) has the highest demand worldwide on pork and dairy products. It is also its greatest producer and one of the main exporters of poultry meat. More than one third of the EU budget is being invested towards the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is the European program for agriculture aiming to ensure the support of the rural economy, while also promoting more sustainable practices, in the hopes of climate neutral (or even climate positive) agriculture.
The farming sector is a major contributor to climate change, especially through livestock farming. This is largely due to its sizeable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also because animal farming contributes to the destruction and depletion of large pieces of land, including rainforests, which are essential for life on earth.
Simultaneously, one of the sectors that are being most affected by climate change is the farming industry. This causes the production of crops, meat and dairy to be even more difficult, and the farmers to use alternative practices to ensure that there will not be a drop in supply. These alternatives are not always sustainable: for instance, using more fertilisers and more water to fight droughts and other increasingly hostile weather conditions.
This leads to products being unhealthy to consume, such as meat that is infused with hormones and antibiotics. What is even worse is that the consumer is not always aware of what is actually in their food.
- Climate Change is the slow and steady transition of the global climate, through natural and anthropogenic effects. These refer to the rise in the global mean temperature, the ozone hole, weather extremes etc. The past decades, the main cause of climate change has been the emission of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, mainly through agriculture and industry. Farming affects the climate directly through its activities and also indirectly by its land use. Animal farming especially requires extensive use of land, sometimes causing deforestation. Climate change also, in turn, affects the farming industry, having an effect on crop growth because of weather extremes and making animals more prone to disease in warmer weathers.
- Greenhouse gases (GHG) are gasses such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that are causing the greenhouse effect, which then lead to global warming. Most of them naturally exist in the atmosphere, but due to human activity their concentration has rapidly increased these past decades. The main sources of GHGs are industry, agriculture and burning fuels. Not only are the emissions of GHGs stronger, but the forests, the main contributors in removing the atmospheric CO2 and turning it into oxygen, are being cut down due to humans needing more exploitable land.
- Environmental Sustainability is about producing food and material, without harming the natural resources or making alterations to the land. This ensures that human activity will not contradict nature in any way. Since the lack of respect towards nature leads to climate crisis, living sustainably is crucial. If humanity continues to interfere with nature, vital resources such as water and variety in food are going to be compromised.
- The European Commission’s department on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) is responsible for the CAP in all of its aspects. It ensures that the CAP remains dynamic and keeps up with the changing society and economy, by reforming it when needed. Right now, the CAP aims towards safe and affordable food, produced sustainably while respecting animal welfare and supporting the rural economy. It has implemented policies on agriculture and environment, direct payment support and transparency, rural development, organic farming, quality of farming products, trade and promotion, forestry and agricultural market analysis. The CAP was reformed and now also focuses on social and labour rights of workers, greener practices and support of smaller farms. The European Commission’s responsibility is also to assess and approve the plans of each Member State.
- The Member States are responsible to put the European policies in action, through constructing their own national strategic plans regarding rural matters and following them. By the end of 2021, Member States should have completed and submitted the first draft of their own strategic plan, which will be presented in 2022 and start being implemented by 2023, following the reformed CAP for 2023-2027.
- The producers are the ones that are directly impacted by the CAP. They are the ones being funded and also the ones that will have to follow regulations to make their work more sustainable. Their goal, which at the end of the day is to make profit, is not always in line with the EU’s environmentally friendly vision and does not always look out for animal well being.
- The consumers are indirectly affected, since it is their food at stake. Their health is impacted by what they consume and they are also the ones that make the choices that contribute to the demand of each product. Ultimately, the demand is one of the factors that determines the price of products, making more expensive food less accessible.
MEASURES IN PLACE
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a European program aiming at supporting the farmers, via income support, and market and rural measures. That leads to improvement of agricultural productivity, which in turn is going to provide a stable and affordable food supply for consumers. All these, while also ensuring that the farmers are fairly paid and also keeping the environmental aspect in mind. The European Commission gives the Member States the freedom and responsibility to design, implement and evaluate the CAP. Hence, while following the CAP and having in mind the 9 EU-wide objectives1Supporting farm income to enhance food security, increasing market competitiveness, improving farmers’ position in the value chain, contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation, supporting sustainable development, protecting biodiversity, encouraging young farmers, promoting development and improving the European response to the demand of food., Member States are meant to construct their own national strategic plan regarding rural matters. This provides the benefit of having a more targeted approach and having a plan that does not only support sustainability, but is also fitted to each member’s specific needs. A more eco-friendly initiative is especially noticeable in the new CAP reform for 2023-2027.
The Farm to Fork strategy, which is part of the European Green Deal, is aiming towards a more sustainable food system through various regulations. By 2023, there should be a 50% reduction in agriculturally sourced GHG emissions and in the sale and use of antimicrobials and pesticides for farming. Also, 20% reduction in the use of fertilisers and 25% of the current agricultural land, will be used for organic farming.
The Biodiversity strategy, also part of the European Green Deal, is a set of commitments and actions aiming to recover Europe’s biodiversity for the benefit of the climate, among others. This is being possible by protecting areas with high climate value and by restoring degraded ecosystems.
Some measures that are not currently implemented through the CAP, but are proving to provide successful results are the following:
- Sweden has been implementing several actions nationwide, one of them being actively trying to change consumer behaviour. It is the country performing best against climate change, with a goal to reach zero net emissions as close as by 2045.
- There are many individual businesses taking initiative, such as carbon positive farms. This is a revolutionary alternative to traditional farming.
The CAP does not seem to be effective at combating climate change. There has been no major improvement in agriculturally sourced GHG emissions since 2010, even though more than 100 billion euros (¼ of the CAP budget) were invested towards more environmentally friendly farming practices. There is no polluter pays principle for GHG emissions, which is an effective way to keep pollution under control and is being used in other environmental policies by the European Union. Also, significant amounts of money are being paid to farmers, supporting practices that make the current climate crisis worse.
The health of the citizens is not always taken into account in the different aspects of the CAP. Although there are measures considering some harmful substances such as sugar or alcohol, there does not seem to be any support towards a more plant based diet. In the current CAP, there is more funding towards wine production than fruit and vegetables for school children.
The current measures proposed by the CAP are not urgent enough to face climate change on time, since the climate crisis is only getting worse and the introduced changes are only expected to be implemented in the later part of the next decade. So much so that many Member States have already had trouble following the timeline set, and most of them actually expressed complaints about the deadline.
There are loopholes in certain important sectors, such as water usage. The current CAP does include further restrictions on water usage, but there are no restrictions regarding the location, so areas with plenty of water and drier areas all fall into the same category, with the CAP payments supporting even water-intensive crops. Moreover, strategies such as the Farm to Fork strategy 2 strategy aiming towards a sustainable food system by reducing the use of pesticides, fertilizers, antimicrobials and promoting organic farming and the Biodiversity strategy 3strategy aiming to protect biodiversity in nature. are not legally binding to Member States, so the outcome is clearly dependent on how each country is going to implement the guidelines provided in each national strategic plan.
Since livestock production is one of the main contributors to climate change, reducing animal products in the individuals’ diets is crucial to combat climate change. A mostly plant based diet would have a positive impact on GHG emissions, since animal products provide 37% of consumed protein, while being responsible for approximately 57% of the agricultural GHG emissions. Despite its negative impact for both consumers’ health and the environment, the consumption of meat and dairy does not seem to be significantly decreasing across the EU.
The farmers are feeling the effects of climate change in their everyday life, since their work depends on the climate. Some of them do not think that the new reform will provide the change needed to reverse this issue, while the general public also seems to have both positive and negative opinions.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
All in all, it is apparent the CAP has some flaws preventing it from effectively promoting sustainability and consumers’ health. In fact, although the CAP does include many points that support sustainability, these are often mere suggestions to the Member States that are struggling with following them and not direct instructions or recommendations for the farmers. There are not many suggestions in the CAP for improving the population’s diet, even though there are several studies showing that reducing meat is better for both the individual’s health and the climate. Climate change is a major global issue and agriculture affects it greatly and directly, and therefore constructing a CAP that is adapted to face this challenge is essential.
- Should the CAP be reformed and actually include regulations that make agriculture climate positive and not just climate neutral, keeping in mind that the demand for food is expected to keep increasing?
- Should the CAP continue funding animal farms, even if they have a negative impact on the health of the population and the environment?
- Should the CAP take into account animal welfare while advocating for a more sustainable and healthy farming sector in the EU?
- How can the CAP promote a more healthy and sustainable diet for European citizens?
LINKS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
- The CAP at a glance – Official EU page containing all the basics about the CAP.
- Animal farming in the EU worse for climate than all cars (2020) article from the Greenpeace website, explaining how animal farming contributes to the changing climate.
- What is the current consensus on the CAP? (2021) video by Natasha Foote for Euractiv showing the public’s view and concerns about the CAP.
- Experts: How do diets need to change to meet climate targets? (2020) article from CarbonBrief, with experts explaining how diet impacts the climate and how each individual can help by managing their food choices.
- Arguments for and against veganism by Debating Europe.
- 10 Ways Farmers Can Fight Climate Change (2021) article by Brie Mazurek for CUESA on how farmers can help in fighting climate change.