By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor
The European Union’s Green Deal is a new scheme that was announced in December 2019; the deal is an ambitious package of policies which aim to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The targets implemented are to reduce carbon emissions and enhance forests, farming, green transport, recycling and renewable energy. On the surface this sounds great, the EU wants to show “the rest of the world how to be sustainable and competitive”, as Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has said.
The issues arise from the fact that the EU depends massively on agricultural imports, the only country importing more is China. Europe bought one fifth of the crops and one tenth of meat and dairy products consumed within its borders (around 118 megatonnes (Mt) and 45 Mt). This means that European farmers do not have to farm so intensively. However, these imported goods come from countries with less strict environmental laws than Europe – and the EU trade agreements do not mention imports having to be produced sustainably. Through the import of agricultural goods from countries who do not enforce sustainable farming, the EU is directly supporting and augmenting the demand on these countries to produce more goods.
In the past 18 months the EU has signed deals covering almost half of its crop imports – including: the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia. Pacts with Australia and New Zealand are on the table. The concept of environmentally-friendly farming and its enforcement is different in every country and many use herbicides, pesticides, and some use genetically modified organisms that are strictly banned in the EU.
The result is that the EU is outsourcing environmental damage to other countries as opposed making themselves entirely net zero; taking the credit but without the merit. While the EU acknowledges that some new legislation will be required around trade, in the short term, the Green Deal is unlikely to change.
Between 1990 and 2014, European forests expanded by 9% – an area roughly the same size as Greece, 13 million hectares; Mha. However, around the globe, 11Mha of forests were deforested in order to grow crops that the EU consumed. Around three quarters of this deforestation was linked to oilseed production in Brazil and Indonesia – regions of unparalleled biodiversity and home to some of the worlds largest carbon sinks, essential to maintain in order to battle climate change.
So what exactly does the Green Deal mean?
The agricultural landscape of Europe will be transformed almost entirely within the next ten years. A ‘farm to fork’ initiative aims to reduce fertilizer use in Europe by 20% and the use of pesticides by 50%. There are also plans to use one quarter of land to be farmed organically by 2030, with plans to plant around 3 billion trees and restore 25,000 kilometres of rivers and reverse the decline of pollinators.
Despite these seemingly great plans, there have been no targets set for external trade. There are some mandatory guidelines and some voluntary in the governing of sustainability in agricultural goods. The 2018 Revised Renewable Energy Directive is an overarching policy that says that oilseeds like soya beans should not be sourced from recently deforested areas, but these rules are poorly enforced. This policy ignores past deforestation, however; specifically land cleared before 2008 when the policy was renewed for a second time. After that point, farms built on former forests are deemed ‘sustainable.’
To put this in perspective with EU consumption, this greenwashing of deforested-based farms includes 9Mha of land (mainly in the Amazon and Cerrado) that was deforested between 1990 and 2008. The reason for this mass-clearing of land was to meet the rising demand from the EU for oilseeds for animal feed and biodiesel – of which doubled between 1986 and 2016. The EU grew very few oilseeds itself, 7% out of the entire growth of crops on the continent. The bulk of its imports come from 8 countries, mainly Brazil; the majority of which are soya beans and palm oil which make up around half of the EU’s crop imports.
More problems arise due to geopolitical tension, for example, in the present climate China is buying more soya beans from Mercosur countries than the US due to the US-China trade war. This increases the pressure on land use and increases the likelihood of deforestation to meet demands.
The EU directly permits farming practises that are explicitly prohibited in Europe, creating a double standard. One example of this is the use of GM organisms, which have been severely restricted in EU agriculture since 1999. Yet Europe imports GM soya beans and maize from Brazil, Argentina, the US and Canada.
Many GM crops are resistant to herbicides, for example 80% of soya in the US and Brazil is unaffected by glyphosate – a herbicide restricted in the EU. Europe’s trading partners use double the amount of fertiliser compared to the EU and herbicide application have doubled for some crops in the US over the past 10 years.
In order to make sure the Green Deal lives up to its name, the following things must be done:
– Sustainability standards must be synced up. The EU must enforce sustainability checks for imported agriculture products with custom checks and develop and promote a clear certification and labelling scheme. While the EU cannot enforce other countries’ standards, it can enforce the rule that any goods entering the European market must meet EU regulations. This will encourage external producers to raise their standards, as some farmers in Brazil have already.
– Asses global impacts. The impacts caused by sourcing products from external producers must be considered in their entireties. It is not enough to simply say that the EU is carbon neutral if it is directly fuelling the destruction of the planet from someone else’s country.
– Roll back bioenergy production. The renewable energy targets, such as the inclusion of 10% of biofuel in diesel by the end of the year are the main drivers of the upsurge of soya-bean imports from Brazil, by 2% in 2019 alone. Reducing or even banning imports of bioenergy feedstocks would support sustainability goals.
– Assess Europe’s carbon footprint globally. Under the Paris agreement, only the emissions produced within the nation are covered, the emissions embedded in goods consumed there but externally sourced are ignored. Each EU citizen currently imports around 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per year in goods entering the EU. The Green Deal must assess, publish and try to decrease the global carbon footprint rather than just their own.
– Decrease consumption. Meat and dairy products are the most damaging to consume in terms of the environment, reducing the consumption of these would reduce the need for agricultural imports. Educational programmes would increase awareness and demonstrate the link between consumption choices and environmental degradation.
– Increase domestic production. The EU’s reliance on agricultural imports is a result of decades of policies and events which have resulted in a reduced space of farmed land. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) set subsidies based on area as opposed to production with the intention of reducing food production overall in the 1990s-2000. Some of this abandoned land should now be returned to farming to reduce pressure in other countries.
– Embrace ‘sustainable intensification’ practises. New technologies like gene editing (CRISPR-Cas) can enhance the dibble mass, height and pest resistance of plants without using genes from other species – this would increase the crop yield.
There are a variety of things Europe must do to ensure that the EU Green Deal is not simply another example of privileged western countries forcing developing countries to sacrifice their country’s land and environment. While it is certainly a step in the right direction for consciousness-raising the environmental issues surrounding the carbon-zero net goal. The deal must be reformed and the EU must look at their global carbon footprint, going above and beyond the Paris Agreement that has fallen short. In order to truly lead the rest of the world in the fight against climate change, it must acknowledge and improve its mechanisms of sustainable agriculture.