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More than 80% of the EU's farming subsidies support emissions-intensive animal products

April 11, 2024

More than 80% of the EU’s agricultural subsidies go to the production of animals or animal feed. These products are responsible for 84% of the EU’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions. That is revealed in a new study by three Leiden researchers published in Nature Food. "If we continue without transitioning towards a more resilient system, it will ultimately be self-defeating," said Paul Behrens, one of the contributing authors.

The EU member states spend a huge amount of money subsidising the bloc’s agriculture. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) accounted for €57 billion in 2013, making it the largest expense in the EU budget. New research from Leiden University and Chatham House shows that the majority of this money goes to the production of animals, and the cultivation of plants such as corn, wheat, and grass to feed these animals.

Of the yearly €57 billion , approximately 80% or €46 billion goes to farmers involved in animal production or the production of animal feed. Excluding non-food animal products, such as leather, it amounts to €39 billion. Surprisingly, more funding is directed towards the production of animal feed (€21 billion) than to the animal production itself (€18 billion). Behrens, a senior author, notes that the production of feed often remains somewhat ‘invisible’ to the public, as people see fields full of plants without considering their purpose is to feed animals.

PhD candidate Nienke Kortleve calls the high number extraordinary ‘but unsurprising’, given that the CAP system primarily focuses on land use. The larger the area of land used, the higher the subsidy, and animals occupy the majority of agricultural land. Approximately 75-80% of the land that is required to produce food for EU citizens is dedicated to the raising of animals and the growing of feed. The production of fruits, vegetables, and cereals for direct human consumption requires significantly less space.

The production of animals is also responsible for the bulk of the EU’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Animal-based products subsidised by the CAP lead to 84% of Europe's food-related greenhouse gas emissions. This high number conflicts with the ambitious climate target set by the EU, which aims to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030, ultimately reaching zero by 2050. Agriculture currently contributes about 10% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions.

Transitioning from an animal-rich diet to a plant-rich diet could contribute to these climate targets. Behrens finds it remarkable that "CAP subsidies give preference to high-emitting animal products". Mogollón, also a senior author, points out that besides planetary health, "the subsidies tilt the playing field against plant-based foods that occupy much lower land". Lower-impact foods such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts remain relatively more expensive than they would be with equal support.

Changing the distribution of subsidies is not a straightforward process. Behrens recalls the time when subsidies were based on the amount farmers produced, rather than the land area they used. That led to overproduction, and tons of unused butter and milk.

The current system presents new challenges. Meanwhile, farmers across Europe are unhappy, and climate change is already affecting food production and damaging crops. It all underscores the need for change. ‘If we continue without transitioning towards a more resilient system, it will ultimately be self-defeating’, says Behrens. 'It’s better to change before the circumstances force you to.’

The researcher gives one example of a possible solution involving a change in land use. ‘Some small farmers are struggling’, he says. ‘They are making losses, with these CAP subsidies being their only support. Encouraging them to change how they use their land for public good such as drawing down carbon or improving biodiversity while maintaining the same level of subsidies could be a useful and a sustainable option for some.’

On 1 April, the journal Nature Food published the article by Anniek Kortleve, José Mogollón, and Paul Behrens, all three from Leiden University, along with Helen Harwatt from Chatham House in London. The Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly known as Chatham House, is a British think-tank based in London.

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