Home Brussels How an ancient harvest practice pushed EU’s new farm reform to the edge

How an ancient harvest practice pushed EU’s new farm reform to the edge

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STRASBOURG — Brussels is trying to push its agricultural sector into a greener, modern era, but a technique farmers have been using for thousands of years has proved one of its biggest hurdles.

European lawmakers will vote Tuesday on the mega €270 billion Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2023-2027, worth a third of the bloc’s entire budget. The new scheme is over three years in the making and has already been slammed as unambitious by environmentalists who argue it won’t do enough to incentivize greener farming methods to fulfill broader climate goals.

One of the biggest sticking points as EU institutions hammered out a deal over the summer was crop rotation — the practice of changing up the types of plants grown on the same plot of land across harvest seasons. Farmers have used the technique for thousands of years to help keep their lands fertile, and it is even mentioned in the Old Testament as divine instruction for maintaining farmland. 

“It’s very old knowledge but in the recent 40, 50 years, this knowledge has maybe not been used a lot by farmers. We are rediscovering again the benefits of crop rotation,” said Damien Beillouin, an agronomist at France’s CIRAD research center and co-author of a recent scientific study on green farm practices.

But making the practice mandatory to receive funds under the new CAP faced a huge pushback from France, and it became so crucial that EU lawmakers seeking other tradeoffs used it as their biggest bargaining chip in the eight-month-long negotiations, strategically holding the topic back until the last of the 29 so-called trilogue meetings.

“The last deal was that one,” said French MEP Pascal Canfin, who added that he and other key Parliament negotiators finally bowed to more flexibility on crop rotation in exchange for commitments from EU capitals to more closely align the CAP with the Green Deal climate plan.

The CAP that’s set to expire requires farms over 30 hectares in size to plant three different crops to receive funds — one of the EU rules that proved a bugbear for British farmers before Brexit. The new policy MEPs are voting on allows numerous exemptions to the crop rotation requirement, including opting instead for crop “diversification,” which experts say doesn’t offer the same kinds of benefits for soil.

Critics say this exemplifies how the CAP negotiations between EU institutions watered down initial environmental goals in favor of modern techniques maximizing agricultural output.

MEPs hope the Commission will now get tough in imposing its green goals when approving EU countries’ so-called national strategic plans, which must be submitted by year’s end. But that also looks set to be an uphill battle.

French resistance

Mandating crop rotation in Europe predates the EU, with a three-field system officially deployed in medieval times under the rule of Charlemagne. It served as a clever way to boost food production and break the cycles of pests that end up ravaging a field if it is repeatedly planted with the same crop.

In modern times, the drive against requiring crop rotation under the new CAP was spearheaded within the Council of the EU by France. French farm minister Julien Denormandie led a coalition of around 17 countries to vocally oppose the Commission and Parliament’s bid to make crop rotation strictly mandatory for farmers, pushing instead for the alternative crop “diversification” — planting a range of different crops on a farm, even if they each stay in the same place.

“We think that crop diversification can bring an environmental benefit which is equivalent to crop rotation,” a French government official said during a briefing in July after the CAP deal was inked.

Tough, legally-binding crop rotation rules weren’t appealing to the French government, which was under pressure from the farmers harvesting vast monocultures of maize in the southwest of the country, and a huge wheat belt wrapping around the Paris region.

Christiane Lambert, the head of France’s politically powerful farmers’ lobby, the FNSEA, even argued during a webinar alongside other European farm lobbyists in May that mandating crop rotation would be counterproductive. “If we have strict crop rotation we risk putting at stake the environmental benefits that would be possible,” she said. “If we sow crops that aren’t adapted to the conditions then this goes against our interest.”

The French government’s main argument was that farmers are not stupid and most already use crop rotation since it’s in their own interest to do so. 

The final deal that emerged on crop rotation was a messy compromise — but France and the majority of EU agriculture ministers got their way. “The Council was clever on that,” said Peter Jahr, the Parliament’s main CAP negotiator, who said France and Belgium led the charge to weaken the crop rotation demands.

A lengthy footnote to the crop rotation requirement in the legal text of the new CAP says countries “may authorise” crop diversification, and all farms under 10 hectares in size are exempt — the vast majority of farms in the EU are under that size.

“The diversification there is a slap in the face, and it’s basically the status quo,” said German MEP Maria Noichl from the Socialists and Democrats group, reacting to the deal in the European Parliament. She said Monday that her national party colleagues in the Parliament will vote against the deal.

Guy Pe’er, a researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, said “it didn’t make any sense to place any exemption” on crop rotation. “There is no reason ecologically why a farm with 10 hectares should be exempted from a good practice which is simply their own insurance for maintaining soil quality,” said Pe’er, one of the fiercest critics of EU farm policy within the scientific community.

He added that rotation and “diversification” are not equivalent practices, despite both being beneficial. Diversifying crops is a boon for biodiversity and is urgently needed to halt the dangerous intensification of European farming, but rotating crops is mainly about keeping soil healthy, he said.

“There’s no scientific reason to mix up crop rotation and crop diversity,” Pe’er said. “There’s thousands of years of knowledge about the importance of crop rotation for soil.”

France also argues it would cost millions and be incredibly complex to check that every farmer is complying with annual crop rotation rules on each parcel of land.

“It’s nonsense,” said a senior EU official who declined to be named.

The Commission argues that the final compromise is still an improvement on the current CAP, thanks to a clause allowing countries to prevent the creation of large monocultures. However, it clearly chalked up the crop rotation debate as a defeat, with another EU official telling journalists after the deal was done: “Clearly we would have preferred to have only crop rotation as a norm, without any possibility to derogate.”

“The agreement is not perfect, but it’s a big step in the right direction,” they added, citing “strong pressure” to water it down.

Céline Duroc, the head of the French maize lobby AGPM, said that mandating a strict annual crop rotation failed to account for the reality of modern farming. “The reality is that it can’t happen like that on farms for many reasons, technical and economic,” Duroc said.

“The farmers from 3,000 years ago didn’t exactly have the same technologies available and they didn’t have the same obligations to feed the planet either. I absolutely don’t believe we are going backwards,” she added.

Having given EU capitals some leeway on crop rotation during the negotiations, MEPs now expect governments to align their national strategic plans with the Green Deal. But that’s also facing resistance in the Council, with countries pushing to maintain distance between the farm and climate plans.  

MEP Canfin called this “totally unacceptable” given the deal they struck.

Dutch Green lawmaker Bas Eickhout said MEPs would turn up the pressure on the Commission this week in Strasbourg: The Greens, some Left MEPs and the German S&D delegation are expected to vote against the CAP reform on Tuesday, although this won’t be enough to stop it from passing.

“We also want to hear from the Commission not only about this vote but what are they going to do with the follow up and how are they going to use the little hooks that are there to reference the Green Deal,” Eickhout said.

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