Not enough care for the climate and biodiversity, and an imbalance that favours larger farms that aim to perpetuate industrial approaches. This, in short, is the assessment of European trade associations and small producers regarding NRRPs for agriculture, which, however, note that there’s still room for improvement.
In the coming years, food in the Europe will be affected by three factors that have come together in recent weeks and should function as Russian dolls: the larger contains the smaller, as long as they have the same form, the same logic.
The first doll is the European Union’s Green New Deal: a large plan promoting the sustainability of production and services in the Member States. Within it is the Farm to Fork strategy, which is the plan that includes the goals to be achieved to create sustainable food systems. The second doll is the CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy, whose funds are accessed by Members thanks to their National Strategic Rural Development Plans. The CAP is a form of agricultural subsidy that has existed for decades and it has a substantial budget (approximately 40% of the EU budget). The third doll, which arrived with the pandemic, is NextGenerationEU, a sizeable “one-off” fund allocated by the European Union to aid the recovery process in the wake of Covid-19. To access these funds, Member States drafted National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs).
Technically, these are three independent budgetary streams (Green New Deal, CAP, NextGenerationEU), but because they relate to the future of EU countries, their governments, and their people, they should form a harmonious and coherent framework.
The most current theme is that of NRRPs, which were delivered to Brussels in April. We asked some representatives of the world of agriculture and sustainability in France, Greece, Italy, and Spain to share their views regarding the sections relevant to agri-food.
Greece's NRRP forgets the climate crisis
Vassilis Gkisakis, a board member of Agroecology Europe and director of Agroecology Greece, comments: “The level of support and funding to the agricultural sector in Greece’s NRRP is primarily focused on technological modernisation and the tendency to adapt market-oriented and hi-tech models to agriculture, rather than prioritising pragmatic challenges such as the climate crisis, the degradation of the (agro)ecosystem, and the loss of (agricultural) biodiversity. Specifically, it promotes major technical projects, such as irrigation networks (up to € 200 million) and the transformation and modernisation of the agri-food sector (€ 520 million), with a clear focus on ‘smart’ agriculture, the digital transition, and promoting agribusiness and the market. Of course, there are also some references in the plan – in part 4.6 – to so-called ‘green agriculture’ and the ‘ecological processing’ of food products, but without any concrete proposals.
Furthermore, it is quite sad that support to research and innovation (part 4.5) only has € 25 million in funding (plus another € 18 million to support the excellence of European Horizon programmes), which I think can be described as insufficient.”
If anything can be amended while the work is ongoing, what elements should Greece focus on? “I believe that the part of the NRRP dedicated to agriculture is the weakest. A solid plan is required, which includes effective transformative actions that take on the main challenges of the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, as well as other socio-economic aspects, such as the weakening of rural communities (which leads to a rural exodus), the loss of income, etc. Another thing that is missing is any kind of reference to synergy with the Green Deal. If you also consider the neoliberal, business-oriented perspective of Greece’s current government, it becomes hard to say whether there will be any flexibility in the implementation of the NRRP.”
No organic farming in Spain’s NRRP
Antonio Aguilera, from the Fundación Savia por el compromiso y los valores, a non-profit promoting rural concerns, appears to have a similar opinion of Spain’s NRRP. “First of all, this plan did come from a transparent and participatory process. No one was able to make proposals. We, along with all other stakeholders involved, received it three days before it was sent to Parliament, where it was approved in four days and then sent to Brussels. In terms of content, the NRRP certainly sets very important goals, such as those concerning rural depopulation, but everything in the document’s 400 pages is too vague, without details and using generic concepts. Sustainability and modernisation are mentioned without explaining what is meant by those terms. There is no explicit reference to eco-friendly production, there is no mention of the Farm to Fork strategy, which requires 25% organic production by 2030. The issue of irrigation systems is prominently highlighted, and while it is true that they require modernisation, which is a good thing, we had been talking about more efficient water use in agriculture for twenty years, so there were already very necessary projects ongoing. Those funds should be used for what had not been done before, otherwise where is the change? I fear that irrigation is mistaken for production, without care for how water is used, without thinking about the added value of agriculture and farming. There are key sectors that no one talks about, such as processing: Spain sells a lot of bulk oil, and it is a problem because this is quality oil and we do not value it.”
Are things better in the fishing sector? “Last year quotes went down and now the sector’s sustainability is under discussion. All of this is included in European directives. In the document there are three pages dedicated to the modernisation and sustainability of fishing, but – here too – without substance, without references to fishing implements or the issue of processing, which is also important in this sector: Spanish catch is primarily processed outside the European Union.”
Even the COAG (Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos), Spain’s primary trade association in the sector, did not appreciate the lack of stakeholder involvement, but their judgement of the plan is less negative. Technical Coordinator José-Luis Miguel de Diego admits that “when they sent us the document, the policies and figures were already set. Most of the money is destined for irrigation, which is a real priority, together with the energy question, and fittingly these take up € 563 of the 956-million budget. Even along the lines of other smaller investments, such as those concerning renewables, precision agriculture, greenhouses, and the circular economy, we cannot be in disagreement. However, now the discussion is around how to bring about this agriculture 4.0, and they seem to interpret this as a digital update. But technology must not leave agriculture behind. Have questions of sustainability relating to digital transformations been considered? We will see.”
Is it not a problem that organic farming has not been considered? “Had we taken part we would maybe have made other proposals, but the issues on the table are the right ones. Indeed, the NRRP does not contain the issue of organic farming, but the parts regarding greenhouses or irrigation are also important to organic farmers. Also, the issue of organic farming is included in the Strategic Rural Development Plan.”
On that note, how does this all fit in with the CAP, where you had the chance to say your piece? “Yes, we are taking part in the drafting of the strategic CAP plan. The Green Deal is in line with the CAP, and Timmermans is pushing for environmental issues to be taken into account. We, unlike other countries, do not have the problem of industrial livestock farming. The chicken (eggs included) and pig-farming sectors are outside of the CAP. That leaves cattle farms, but here in Spain these are almost all extensive and receive subsidies based on the hectares dedicated to pasture.”
A different take comes from value chain expert Alfonso Lacuesta, who collaborates with Burgos University: “It is actually not entirely true that they did not let anyone contribute. In late 2020, they convened a forum on the environmental and digital transition. Out of all the possible stakeholders, 20 were invited. Now, 98% of companies in Spain have less than 200 employees. They invited representatives of the other 2%, and the risk we are running today is that the NextGenerationEU funding ends up financing projects by Bayer, which has a 1,000-hectare farm near Seville where it intends to set up so-called agriculture 4.0.”
Ambiguity on agroecology in France
The tone is similar in France. Félix Noblia, vice-president of Fermes d’Avenir – an association of some one thousand companies working to spread agroecological models – says: “In France, there are two farming unions: one unites small-medium enterprises, the other is for large, global businesses. Only the latter was consulted by the government, and the result is that large farms are very happy with France’s NRRP. Large amounts are to be spent on machinery and technologies, and very little or nothing on exploring a new concept of development or reorganising the commercial side of things. The key goal is increasing production, agroecology is barely mentioned. They write very well, but the measures they describe cannot bring serious and positive changes. This has also been proven in the National Strategic Plan for the CAP, where they are trying to mix conventional and organic farming under a single label HVE – Haute valeur environnementale (High Environmental Value), which will confuse consumers and damage those who work in organic farming. The conditions to obtain the certification are vague and comprise mostly bureaucracy and measures relating to how many trees are planted and how much diversity a farm has. How this diversity is grown and cared for is not important. Consumers will see the HVE acronym and think it is the same thing as organic.”
But France’s NRRP has a great reputation, it is cited as a product of politics that is aware of environmental issues. Is there no saving grace? “If it were up to me, I would ask that they concentrate on the issue of climate change, from which the themes of the agriculture of the future and food safety also emerge. I believe that what needs to be done is to put conditions on the funding linked to the amounts and methods of carbon sequestration. How much carbon do you absorb? How many chemicals do you use? How much ploughing do you do? How much organic matter do you return to the soil? How many people per hectare do you employ? Funding should be based on these criteria. Those like us who practice sustainable farming every day, whose livelihoods are based on this work so we know how to make it profitable, we know how to reconcile the Green Deal with the CAP with the NRRP. But the government is not interested in listening to us, it is not oriented towards change. Multinationals are happy with the old system, so if they are the only ones consulted, nothing will change.”
The ambiguous "green revolution" of the Italian PNRR
Talk of multinationals brings to mind the fact that Italy’s NRRP mentions a ‘green revolution’, a formula that has been used in at least two different times and settings over the past seventy years without ever leading to anything good. Or, at least, never anything ‘sustainable’ or ‘resilient.’
Carlo Triarico, president of Italy’s Association for Biodynamic Agriculture, shares these misgivings: “This expression is dangerous because it represents Italy’s mutation of the Green Deal and Ecological Transition being adopted in Europe. It bears witness to the cultural references, even if unaware, of those who use it. The term was created as a dialectical trick to stop the desperate social revolutions of the hungry and take back control over populations in the global South, through chemical-industrial infrastructure and hyper-productive farming, resulting in social control and extreme damage to the environment.”
What is your opinion on the “food” section of Italy’s NRRP? “The EU devotes one-third of its budget to agriculture, but the main benefits are not for agriculture. Decades of budget reduction policies have led to an impoverishment of the poorest European countries and dampened the EU’s overall economy. Today, this trend is being reversed with an injection of resources through a programme of reforms, which should combine economy and ecology. The goal must not be to grow the economy within the limits of ecology but to grow the economy thanks to ecology. Farming is the prime sector for this, but we have to design systemic action for Italy’s quality model. Here, the most reactionary opposition to a transition path emerges in force. This is proven by the opposition to the law on organic farming, with a joint-network media campaign to discredit biodynamics, without any possibility of rebuttal.”
What are the main shortcomings of this NRRP? “The EU asks us to create reforms that set measurable and qualitatively appreciable environmental goals: allocating 40% of the economy’s resources to the environment, assessing the minimum environmental damage of each action, reinforcing farming in southern Italy in an eco-friendly direction, raising awareness among citizens for virtuous consumption. I see none of these in this NRRP. Instead, I see proposals without organic goals. There is funding for new tractors that pollute less, methane motorisation, precision instruments – all measures that are not bad in and of themselves, but if there is not a systemic programme for farming they are destined to fail. For example, how can Italy, the best-performing country in terms of organic farming, have removed organic farming – which the EU wants to triple in ten years – from its NRRP?”
What about livestock farming? Aldo Grasselli, president of the FVM fvm-nazionale.it (the Italian Federation of Veterinarians, Doctors, and Healthcare Managers), shares the concerns stated so far and adds: “Livestock farming is a crucial issue. Producing meat (or fish) is thermodynamically abortive. Animal farming is one of the main factors in climate change, and I expected the NRRP to be more attentive to food education and a greener approach to people’s diets. We do not all have to become vegetarians, but the consumption of animal-based products has to be promoted alongside animal well-being and in a ‘bio-compatible’ light, where ‘bio’ refers to the life of the whole planet.”
What is the most serious shortcoming of Italy’s NRRP? “What is missing is a serious reflection on the issue of water. Farming uses 70% of the world’s water resources. It is impossible to push up production if the vector in each supply chain is insufficient. Freshwater consumption has tripled over the past fifty years, and another 50% increase is expected by 2050. And underwater reservoirs are not renewable in times that are compatible with human needs. Nothing is left but desalination, which has its own environmental costs.”
The fact that all the associations that deal with agriculture and sustainability in different countries have had similarly disheartened responses has nothing to do with a sense of “misery loves company.”
Hopes for improvement now aim for a reaction from the EU, forcing the Member States to revise the parts that are less sustainable and less coherent with their Plans. However – regardless of how likely this outcome is – even this signal is anything but comforting.