Farms urged to cultivate green ideas

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Series Details Vol.4, No.21, 28.5.98, p15
Publication Date 28/05/1998
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Date: 28/05/1998

By Myles Neligan

WHEN it comes to heaping bile on the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, environmentalists come second only to free traders.

Green campaigners argue that the European Commission's practice of linking farm aid payments to output levels has encouraged farmers to produce more and more, relying heavily on artificial fertilisers and environmentally-damaging intensive production techniques.

The net result, they claim, has been soil erosion, water pollution and the destruction of the habitat of much rural wildlife.

EU structural fund spending in rural areas has also been sharply criticised. Here, green activists claim that the Commission's near-exclusive focus on upgrading countryside infrastructures has sidelined the environmental aspect of rural development. "Basically, EU taxpayers have been paying for the destruction of large tracts of rural territory, and the loss of a great deal of wildlife over the last 30 years," says Gail Murray, one of World-Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) agricultural experts.

The fundamental problem is that EU agricultural policy was principally designed to guarantee European self-sufficiency in food during a time of post-war scarcity, and did not adapt to the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s-80s.

At the same time, it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its original architects as a food-producing operation, generating beef mountains and wine lakes which laid the Commission open to charges of poor logistical planning as well as environmental destruction.

The Commission made its first serious attempt to address these problems during the 1992 CAP reforms, when it introduced financial incentives to encourage farmers to adopt organic production techniques and plant forests in rural areas. Likewise, it modified farm aid to curb previous chronic overproduction.

The institution is now aiming to build further environmental safeguards into the CAP as part of its Agenda 2000 reforms.

Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler attempted to highlight his new green credentials when he unveiled the all-important environmental chapter of his CAP reform proposals in March, declaring: "We cannot stand idly by and watch while the environmental balance of our rural areas is being eroded."

Under Fischler's proposals, national governments would be entitled to withhold part of farmers' aid payments if they do not observe minimum environmental standards. All forfeited sums would be ploughed back into EU agri-environmental measures. Secondly, the extensification premium, a special payment designed to encourage beef farmers to move away from intensive production techniques, would be tripled, to 100 ecu per head of cattle.

Thirdly, governments would, for the first time, be obliged to incorporate environmental protection into their rural development programmes.

A series of measures designed to protect the ecosystem in vulnerable areas would also be introduced, supported by 750 million ecu per year of EU funding.

The green movement has welcomed the environmental dimension of the proposed reforms as a step in the right direction, but is highly sceptical of the Commission's claim that there will be an improvement in the CAP's environmental record as a result.

Many campaigners expressed disappointment at the non-mandatory character of the new environmental proposals when they were first unveiled, and most fear that national governments will dilute them further as part of their price for accepting a painful round of reforms.

"There are good aspects to these proposals, but they do not go far enough. There will be no room for low-input, environmentally-friendly production techniques until the present financial incentives to produce are significantly reduced," insists Murray.

The WWF is pushing for the Commission to abolish production aid and redirect 75% of its farm budget to promoting an environmentally-sound model of countryside management.

Green campaigners are urging the EU authorities to push through significant farm reforms before the applicant countries of central and eastern Europe sign up to the CAP.

"We are heading towards disaster in eastern Europe," warns Martin Rocholl, political coordinator with Friends of the Earth. "If the CAP is extended in its current form to Poland alone, Europe will suffer its greatest loss of biodiversity in decades."

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