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How an old harvesting practice took the EU’s new agricultural reform to the extreme – POLITICO

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STRASBOURG – Brussels is trying to bring its agricultural sector into a greener and more modern era, but a technique that farmers have used for thousands of years has proven to be one of its biggest obstacles.

EU lawmakers will vote on Tuesday on the mega-common agricultural policy (CAP) of 270 billion euros for 2023-2027, representing a third of the bloc’s total budget. The new program has been in the works for more than three years and has already been called low-ambitious by environmentalists who argue it won’t do enough to push for greener farming methods to meet broader climate goals.

One of the main sticking points as the EU institutions struck a deal over the summer was crop rotation – the practice of changing the types of plants grown on the same plot of land over the seasons. harvest. Farmers have used this technique for thousands of years to help keep their land fertile, and it is even mentioned in the Old Testament as a divine instruction for the maintenance of farmland.

“This is very old knowledge, but in the last 40 or 50 years this knowledge may not have been used much by farmers. We are once again rediscovering the advantages of crop rotation, ”said Damien Beillouin, agronomist at the French CIRAD research center and co-author of a recent scientific study on green farming practices.

But making the practice mandatory to receive funds under the new CAP has faced a huge setback from France, and it has become so crucial that EU lawmakers seeking further compromises have it. used as their biggest bargaining chip in the eight-month negotiations, strategically holding the topic until the last of the 29 so-called trilogue meetings.

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

The expiring CAP forces farms over 30 hectares to plant three different crops to receive funds – one of the EU rules that proved a scarecrow for UK farmers ahead of Brexit. The new policy MPs are voting on allows for many exemptions from the crop rotation requirement, including opting instead for crop “diversification”, which experts say does not offer the same types of crop. benefits for the soil.

Critics say this illustrates how CAP negotiations between EU institutions watered down initial environmental goals in favor of modern techniques that maximize agricultural production.

MEPs hope that the Commission will now be able to impose its green targets when approving the so-called national strategic plans of EU countries, which are due by the end of the year. But it also seems like an uphill battle.

French resistance

Mandatory crop rotation in Europe predates the EU, with a three-field system officially deployed in medieval times during the reign of Charlemagne. This was a nifty way to boost food production and break the cycles of pests that end up ravaging a field if repeatedly planted with the same crop.

In modern times, the fight against the requirement of crop rotation under the new CAP was led within the Council of the EU by France. French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie led a coalition of around 17 countries to vigorously oppose the Commission and Parliament proposal to make crop rotation strictly compulsory for farmers, pushing instead for “diversification “alternative crops – planting a range of different crops on a farm, even if they each stay in the same place.

“We believe that crop diversification can provide an environmental benefit equivalent to crop rotation,” a French government official said at a briefing in July after the CAP agreement was signed.

The strict and legally binding crop rotation rules did not appeal to the French government, which was under pressure from farmers harvesting vast monocultures of maize in the southwest of the country and a huge wheat belt enveloping the Paris region. .

Christiane Lambert, leader of France’s politically powerful farmers’ lobby, FNSEA, even argued during a webinar alongside other European agricultural lobbyists in May that enforcing crop rotation would be counterproductive. “If we have a strict crop rotation, we risk jeopardizing the environmental benefits that would be possible,” she said. “If we sow crops that are not suited to the conditions, it is against our best interests.”

The main argument of the French government was that farmers are not stupid and most already use crop rotation because it is in their own interests to do so.

The final deal that emerged on crop rotation was a messy compromise – but France and the majority of EU agriculture ministers won. “The Council has been smart about this,” said Peter Jahr, Parliament’s main negotiator for the CAP, who said France and Belgium had led the charge to weaken demands for crop rotation.

A long footnote on the crop rotation requirement in the legal text of the new CAP says countries “may allow” crop diversification, and all farms under 10 hectares are exempt – the big one majority of farms in the EU are smaller than this size.

“Diversification there is a slap in the face, and that’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 on Monday that her National Party colleagues in parliament would vote against the deal.

Guy Pe’er, a researcher at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, said “it made no sense to grant an exemption” to crop rotation. “There is no ecological reason for a 10 hectare farm to be exempt from a good practice which is simply their own assurance of maintaining soil quality,” said Pe’er, one of the critics. the most ferocious of EU agricultural policy within the scientific community.

He added that rotation and “diversification” are not equivalent practices, although both are beneficial. Crop diversification is a boon to biodiversity and is urgently needed to halt the dangerous intensification of European agriculture, but crop rotation is primarily aimed at maintaining soil health, he said. .

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

France also maintains that it would cost millions and be incredibly complex to verify that each farmer complies with the rules of annual crop rotation on each parcel of land.

“This is nonsense,” said a senior EU official who declined to be named.

The Commission argues that the final compromise is yet another improvement over the current CAP, thanks to a clause allowing countries to prevent the creation of large monocultures. However, he clearly called the crop rotation debate a defeat, with another EU official telling reporters after the deal was struck: “Clearly we would have preferred to have only crop rotation. as standard, without any possibility of deviation. ”

“The deal is not perfect, but it is a big step in the right direction,” they added, citing “strong pressure” to soften it.

Céline Duroc, head of the French corn lobby AGPM, said the imposition of strict annual crop rotation did not take into account the reality of modern agriculture. “The reality is that it can’t be like this on farms for many reasons, technical and economic,” said Duroc.

“The farmers of 3,000 years ago did not have exactly the same technologies available, nor did they have the same obligations to feed the planet. I absolutely do not believe that we are backing down, ”she added.

After giving EU capitals some leeway on crop rotation during negotiations, MEPs now expect governments to align their national strategic plans with the Green Deal. But it also meets resistance in the Council, with countries pushing to keep the distance between the farm and climate plans.

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

Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout said MEPs will step up pressure on the Commission this week in Strasbourg: Greens, some left-wing MEPs and the German S&D delegation are expected to vote against CAP reform on Tuesday, although that won’t be enough to prevent it from passing.

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

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