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EU Shifts Subsidies from Crops to Land Stewardship

Mountainside farms near Innsbruck, Austria. For centuries, grazing has preserved these meadows, with their wildflowers and birds.
Dan Charles, NPR
Mountainside farms near Innsbruck, Austria. For centuries, grazing has preserved these meadows, with their wildflowers and birds.
Jean-Luc Gautier (left) of Brittany says he became a farmer to feed people. He finds it insulting to be paid to be the government's gardener.
Dan Charles, NPR /
Jean-Luc Gautier (left) of Brittany says he became a farmer to feed people. He finds it insulting to be paid to be the government's gardener.
George Danby bought this pasture in England's Fens to preserve it for posterity -- and for his cattle.
Dan Charles, NPR /
George Danby bought this pasture in England's Fens to preserve it for posterity -- and for his cattle.

Government payments account for about 15 percent of all farm income in Europe. Starting this year, most of those payments won't be based on how much food farmers produce, but on how they manage the environment — a fundamental change in European agricultural policy.

The policy shift was partly a result of international pressure to end Europe's substantial subsidies to farmers, which critics say undermined free trade. But as Dan Charles reports for Morning Edition, it also stems from growing European unease with the way large-scale agricultural denudes land and alters the landscape.

Web Extra: For NPR.org, Dan Charles looks at how the changes are being implemented in EU-member country England.

Environmental Stewardship in England

In the parish hall of the English town of Wrangle, amid some of the country's finest farming land, about 50 farmers hear about a new way to earn money — and demonstrate their capacity for good works.

They've gathered to learn about a new government program called "Environmental Stewardship." Under this program, British farmers can earn points for doing things that create a healthier, cleaner or just prettier landscape. If they earn enough points, the government pays them a subsidy.

Two representatives from the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs go through the long list of ways to qualify for this subsidy. Farmers can earn points by leaving their drainage ditches or hedgerows untrimmed (so birds can nest there) or leaving wheat or corn stubble on fields over winter (it's good habitat for small animals and ground-nesting birds). They can plant blocks of "wild bird-seed mixture" (plants like millet, kale or mustard that birds feed on) or "pollen and nectar flower mixture."

The farmers listen quietly, raising occasional questions about exactly what they'll need to do. They seem quite willing to cooperate.

Afterwards, in private conversations, they say it shouldn't be difficult to collect the necessary points. One farmer plans to leave the stubble on all his fields over winter. Another says he'll get enough points just for doing what he's always done, grazing cattle on some pasture that he rents from the village. "It's money for nothing, really," he says. "And it if helps the environment, all well and good."

A New Mission for Farmers

The meeting in Wrangle is typical of scenes in farming communities all across Europe this year, as farmers come face to face with the European Union's new environment-centered agricultural policy. Programs like Environmental Stewardship represent the carrot side of this policy, but there's also a stick: tighter environmental regulations.

The central idea behind the reform, which took effect at the beginning of this year, is simple. European officials no longer want to support the overproduction of wheat, milk or beef. They want their subsidies instead to pay for public benefits: cleaner water, more habitat for wildlife such as birds, and a landscape that's enjoyable to walk through.

Translating that idea into practice, though, isn't simple at all, as the area around Wrangle shows very clearly.

Wrangle sits in the middle of the Fens, a lowland area of eastern England that used to be marshland. Four hundred years ago, this land was under water or at least very soggy. Draining began in Roman times, but intensified when Dutch engineers arrived in the 17th century. Since then, it's been turned into England's answer to California's Imperial Valley, covered with flat, fertile fields of vegetables. Essentially, the Fens are now an assembly line for food.

As the land was drained and agriculture took over, an entire ecosystem of water-loving creatures disappeared. Even the geography changed. As underground beds of peat dried out, the ground sank. Today, at high tide, much of this area is below sea level. Water from drainage ditches has to be pumped uphill into the sea.

In such a profoundly altered landscape, what's "natural"? And if a farmer near Wrangle wanted to live in harmony with nature, what nature would that be?

An Old-Fashioned Farmer, Ahead of His Time

George Danby's farm, a few minutes' drive from the Wrangle Parish Hall, represents one answer. Danby describes it as "more traditional, more old-fashioned" than the farms that surround him.

"We've kept cattle; other people have gone out of them," he says. "We've kept our fields small. A lot of people have amalgamated the fields and filled in the drainage ditches. We've kept ours."

He's also started farming organically, eliminating pesticides. "We're doing a lot of hoeing, while others are going fast on the sprayer and then going out for drink later," he says with a smile.

Fifteen years ago, some pasture came up for sale near Danby's farm. "We managed to buy it privately before the auction. So it wasn't bought and leveled and plowed up. We wanted to keep it as it was," he says. When government officials responsible for historical preservation looked at it later, they recognized the characteristic pattern of square ditches and elevated land called "dialings" that farmers created in the Fens during medieval times. Danby's field is now listed as an archeological monument and preserved for posterity.

Songbirds such as skylarks and gray partridges are much more likely to thrive on Danby's farm than on the intensively cultivated vegetable farms nearby, mainly because his pastures, trees and drainage ditches offer a greater diversity of plant and insect life. It's not the ecosystem that once existed here, before drainage. But it's more nature than a vegetable field supports. Perhaps equally important, Danby's kind of farming is culturally appealing. There's a little bit of everything on Danby's farm: a few chickens, some cattle, a bit of pasture and some grain fields. It seems less like a factory than a craft.

The people running the UK's Environmental Stewardship program would probably be satisfied if environmental subsidies pushed farmers a short distance in George Danby's direction. They don't expect more — their main goal is to get lots of farmers involved, rather than force those farmers to make major changes.

Some ecologists argue that this approach is fundamentally mistaken. David Kleijn of the Netherlands' Wageningen University has been monitoring several "agri-environmental" programs in Europe. Much of the time, he says, it's difficult to see much benefit from "broad and shallow" programs that promote small changes across wide areas.

If you really want to help rare species of wildlife, Kleijn says, you need to make major changes in particular targeted regions. In parts of Belgium and France where farmers drained chronically wet pastures during the 1950s, creating fertile (and profitable) fields, Kleijn suggests turning the clock back, halting drainage and allowing the water table to rise again. Since farmers would no longer be able to grow crops on that land, they'd have to be generously compensated. That land would become part farm, part nature park.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.