Food. The way it is grown, harvested, produced and eaten has changed significantly over time.
The advent of agricultural production is arguably a key element in the evolution of humans. Moving from hunter-gatherers to working the land was a step in the direction of industrialisation. Food organisation helped cope with a growing urban population and changing weather patterns. The invention of the plow brought agriculture to a new level, followed by other developments such as the use of chemicals. By spending less time on hunting and gathering, people were able to put their minds to more modern streams of thought.
Once we realised how successful controlled agriculture could be, the floodgates opened. Now communities’ and governments quarrel over the use of GMO’s, biomass incubators, carbon trading and endless complicated and often expensive technologies.
European agriculture has been operating under the shadow of WW2 and the food scarcity that characterised that time period. Post –war policies meant ensuring food security for European citizens, and agriculture became a national priority.
The Common Agricultural Policy or CAP was the supposed answer to this. The fund used to make up 73 per cent of EU spending in 1985, but has steadily decreased to just over one third in 2013. The European Commission’s incentive for such a program is, amongst other goals, to increase productivity, and ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community.
And yet this turned out to be quite the double-edged sword. Abundant food meant immense degradation of the natural environment. Farmers extracted the minerals, protein and fiber that nature provided and we served it up on a silver platter. This destructive way of sourcing our next meal is about to change drastically.
Universal environmental consciousness is growing. The evidence is everywhere. The COP21 held in Paris, countless citizen initiatives for sustainability and the skeptic voices now sitting uncomfortably on the fringe of society.
And with this comes a call for strong action to fight against climate change, green house gases and environmental destruction.
And the response from the European Commission has been to publish the Clean Air Policy Package in 2013. The package sets out strategies and tight restrictions in order for member states to reduce emissions and clean up European air quality. It does so in a bid to both hinder climate change, and importantly, to reduce the health effects related to air pollution.
Europe’s need for this kind of action is becoming dangerously real, with 400.000 premature deaths and 23 billion euros in health costs attributed to poor air quality each year.
The package included a revised National Emissions Ceiling Directive or NEC. This important piece of legislation has contributed to a great deal of intensive lobbying in the commission by a mixture of NGO’s, and interested parties. So what is it?
National Emission Ceiling Directive
The National Emission Ceiling binds member states to a agreed upon limit to harmful emissions. The original directive lasted until 2010 and included pollutants such as sulphur dioxide; which causes acid rain, nitrogen oxide; which is harmful to human and animal health, and ammonia.
New to the revised edition are two additional pollutants; Methane (CH4) and Particulate Matter.
Methane is a powerful green house gas, which absorbs energy thus making the earth warmer. In farming, Methane is mainly produced in cow sheep or goats digestive system, more specifically, from burping. With 48 per cent of Methane emissions coming solely from the agricultural sector, its inclusion in the new directive is an obvious attempt to involve the sector in reduction efforts that they have been so keen to avoid. Although reducing emissions in the farming sector, could and is argued, be far more difficult compared to transport and household.
The amount of reduction of methane from the 27 member countries is 33 per cent by 2030. Techniques to achieve this include changing cattle feed to include a methane inhibitor called 3NOP, which reduces the amount of methane produced. Other methods include installing anaerobic digesters, which processes raw manure into an odourless fertiliser.
Ammonia falls into a similar basket as methane, in the sense that agriculture contributes a mighty 93 per cent of its emissions. Ammonia comes almost entirely from fertilisers and livestock. Its damage to the environment comes from depleting oxygen from water, which causes fish and other organisms to die. Obviously destructive to the environment, the reduction goals are currently sitting at 27 per cent. Ammonia is likely the most well known of the six pollutants in the National Emissions Directive, and has received a lot of media attention over the last decade.
Policy advisor for Copa- Cogeca, the European Union’s largest and most influential farming lobby, Evangelos Koumentakos maintains that for legislation that is based on an impact assessment to curb premature deaths related to air quality, ammonia’s intense scrutiny is difficult to understand. Particulate matter is the main cause of air quality related premature deaths in the European Union, and transport and households are the largest contributors, with agriculture emitting only 6 per cent.
Economy versus Environment
According Evangelos the commissions proposals ask too much of farmers.
‘You can’t just go to a farmer and suggest that he do this and that to a cow feeder, or set up a biogas production to avoid or reduce emissions.’
This view is supported in an impact assessment carried out by the European Commission, which points out that to reduce emissions to the suggested amounts would mean cutting production, which would shrink the supply of beef up to one third. The direct effect of this is less European meat for higher prices. Instead, Evangelos argues, international meat will find its way to European plates, which could lack the kind of environmental standards that Europe is used to.
“If we reduce production here in Europe it doesn’t mean that we reduce emissions. We are proud of our environmental and animal welfare standards in Europe, but this means that demand that we satisfy for Europe would have to be met by others, which probably lack environmental regimes. Its not good for the environment, economy or the society as a whole.”
Competitiveness is one of the founding pillars of the European Union, yet the need to make big changes when it comes to global warming is real and imminent. The intersection of economy and environment is ever present in today’s debate over the trajectory of the two. Agriculture is archetypal of these debates as it represents the two streams so entirely.
Taking a leaf from EU regulation on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing could be a future for other food production. The regulation stops the import of unethical and destructive fishing by only accepting those products validated as legal.
Transposing this kind of regulation to international suppliers of livestock, grain and beans could help reduce unfair competition.
Although the economic effects on farmers from developing countries could be disastrous by cutting out an entire market, yet again marking the struggle between economy and environment.
The other option is to reduce meat consumption in the EU. This tactic is advertised by multiple NGO’s and backed up by the health risks of eating meat that the World Health Organisation came out with earlier this year. Increasing taxes and thus the price of meat could steer consumers away from purchasing it all together.
What can be done?
There is little debate about the fact that something needs to be done about how the agricultural industry works. As it sits, according to the Food and Agricultural organisation of the United Nations, livestock production accounts for 14.9 percent of all green houses gases. Not to mention the sectors impact on biodiversity, forestry and water usage.
If serious action against climate change isn’t taken soon, the changes in weather and an increase in flooding and other natural disasters will have a devastating effect on food supply.
And yet so could EU legislation.
The problem lies not in the need to change the system, but the way European leaders do it.
According to Evangelos, a lot of this comes down to un- realistic goals from the Commission. He worries that the targets are set to high and that farmers are trembling at the sheer impossibility.
“If we put unrealistic targets, if we don’t take into consideration each countries specific model and possibilities, then we might end up shooting ourselves in the foot when we see animals from the grasslands disappear. And we have a huge discussion, millions of taxpayers money is being funneled into understanding how we can make better use of our grasslands and of our cultivations in order to enhance biodiversity, and then we come out and just ask the impossible.”
Markus Wråke, member of the IVL Swedish Institute of Environment, explains the commission set these targets so high to ‘raise the level of ambitiousness’ and make the issues more visible to the public. Its about ‘creating political momentum’ and making it look like the commissions is taking strong action where environment and agriculture is concerned.
For some countries, like the Netherlands, complying with the directive would mean reducing heard size up to 56 per cent by 2020. These kind of drastic measures will completely erode the farming community, and as Genevieve Savigny, a member of La Via Campesina the peasant farmer movement, explained
‘Strict regulations make it difficult for small farmers, or even just normal farmers. And unless we find another way, when we retire the children wont take over’.
Farming has been a significant part of European cultural and social history, and as Genevieve demonstrates, to abandon them now could result in their extinction.
Another option is the American company ‘Impossible foods’, which endeavours to create a sustainable alternative to meat consumption. ‘Impossible foods’ is known for creating the impossible burger, which looks, smells and tastes like real meat despite being made completely from vegetables. Spokesperson Judith Langh explained over email that the goal was to give ‘meat consumers all the pleasure of conventional meat without its disadvantages, both to themselves and to the planet’.
The burger’s environmental footprint is minuscule compared to your regular beef burger, although the same cant be said for its price tag, which currently sits at $20USD. Yet Judith ensured that this will only improve as the company continues to ‘optimise their process’.
The national emissions directive is going to have dire consequences for farmers, but without it the consequences for the health of the planet and those living on it could be far worse. The success or failure of the European Union’s implementation of this complicated and emotional directive will work as a road map for other countries following a similar green path.
With the environmental event of the year, Conference of Parties (COP21) having taken place in Paris, the issue of European agriculture is on the table.
Farmers everywhere are hoping that flexibility and system changes will be factored into the equation. Perhaps consumers should be to.