The time has come for a Just Transition in agriculture

A just transition urgently needs to be planned and enacted for European agriculture. A new paper by IEEP looks into how, at a critical moment in decisions over how CAP subsidies are spent.

There are many ways to frame the environmental transformation of European agriculture that is needed to meet biodiversity, climate, Farm to Fork and related goals by 2030 and beyond. In other sectors, like energy supply and transport, ‘just transition’ is the term most often used. The term emphasises the importance of addressing social and economic aspects of fundamental change in a fair way. In EU agriculture and land use though, the term has yet to enter the mainstream. This may even have contributed to a reluctance to change in this pivotal sector, particularly if farmers feel that fairness to them has not had the recognition it merits.

Now, however, is the time to apply the term to agriculture, to acknowledge the major changes needed in the sector and to plan positively for an ambitious and fair transition programme. The transition signalled by the EU Green Deal requires strong technical, structural and behavioural change in agricultural production, distribution and consumption. Both the impacts on rural land use and the adjustments needed in the wider food system must be included in the picture. Delaying transition defers and potentially amplifies long-term costs.

However, in many cases, a just transition for agriculture will not entail phasing out production and switching to an entirely new product, as with coal or petrol-fuelled cars. Transition also encompasses adopting ecologically sustainable forms of food production, which can involve multiple adjustments to farm management, some quite radical. European agriculture should have a healthy future.

Agriculture is also, unlike other sectors, having a large EU fund at its disposal: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Decisions on what the next CAP will fund has reached a critical phase, with the European Commission’s rigorous assessment of Member States’ plans for 2023 onwards getting underway. Although it has not been designed explicitly as a strategy for Just Transition, the new CAP is of key importance, covering most of the period to 2030. It contains a range of policy tools and financial allocations that could be used to aid transition and fairness. These include aid for investment on farms, the new eco-schemes to incentivise the uptake of more environmentally friendly land management, and the capacity to target help on areas and farms with particular hardships. The Commission has the opportunity to help raise the ambition of Member States in relation to the transition and new policy targets and to pinpoint unhelpful proposals that should be dropped. Signs that some Member States, such as Germany, are reviewing what to include in their plans are encouraging. There is now a moment of urgency as governments need to ensure that their plans are grasping the transition rather than adhering to business as usual.

To contribute to this critical and complex debate, new report from IEEP published on 18 January sets out:

  • the relevance of Just Transition to agriculture and land use;
  • some key issues arising in its application to the complex web of European farms;
  • the challenge of identifying winners and losers;
  • and a first list of policy components to include in a focused EU plan.

These policies include enhanced engagement with the farming community, investment in building skills and capacity, better use of CAP payments, targeted supplementary aid and greater fairness in the food chain, from farmers to consumers.

Trying to map out coming changes in a more explicit way could help to identify the possible effects on farmers and farm workers, as well as on the environment and food production. There are likely to be both winners and losers as GHG and other polluting emissions are reduced, some forms of farming become significantly less intensive, more land is devoted to habitat enrichment and carbon sequestration and more efficient use of resources become critical in farming. The pursuit of healthier diets may lead to reduced demand for livestock products at the same time. Some livestock farms will be losers on this scenario, but other farms may gain, for example from higher farmgate prices for more sustainably produced foods.

In addition to individual farms and businesses, there are likely to be rural regions and communities where incomes are more vulnerable to change than others. However, some regions will benefit from the new conditions and opportunities and there will be others where governments are ready to commit considerable sums of national aid to support aspects of transition. The envisaged National Programme for Rural Areas in the Netherlands, with a multi-billion Euro budget and aim to cut nitrogen emissions by 50% alongside other measures for nature restoration, climate and water quality, may be an example. Transition is an EU-wide challenge with a cohesion dimension: fairness between Member States is amongst the issues that a Just Transition plan should address.

Measures to support a just transition must pay due regard to farmers as primary producers and land managers, but they must also take account of others potentially affected, including farm and food chain workers, consumers and rural communities.

The policies deployed to achieve a smart and just transition must include both the means to assist and compensate where this is fair, reasonable and effective alongside the capacity and willingness to regulate where this is necessary. It is now urgent to bring these together in a concerted EU plan for transition, within which the CAP could make a significant contribution. Strengthening this contribution is one of the key challenges for agriculture policy in 2022.

© Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash  

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