EU pumps four times more money into farming animals than growing plants | Farming

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The EU has made polluting diets “artificially cheap” by pumping four times more money into farming animals than growing plants, research has found.

More than 80% of the public money given to farmers through the EU’s common agriculture policy (CAP) went to animal products in 2013 despite the damage they do to society, according to a study in Nature Food. Factoring in animal feed doubled the subsidies that were embodied in a kilogram of beef, the meat with the biggest environmental footprint, from €0.71 to €1.42 (61p to £1.22).

The EU, which plans to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, spends nearly one-third of its entire budget on CAP subsidies. “The vast majority of that is going towards products which are driving us to the brink,” said Paul Behrens, an environmental change researcher at Leiden University and co-author of the study.

The subsidy scheme, which pays more to farms that occupy more land, results in “perverse outcomes for a food transition” because livestock take up more space than plants and are inefficiently fed crops that could have gone to people, the researchers found. To produce the same amount of protein, beef requires 20 times more land than nuts and 35 times more than grains.

Behrens said the political inertia meant the EU was maintaining this system in the face of an environmental crisis. “We’re incentivising the worst-case scenario,” he said.

To calculate the full extent of EU support for animal products, the researchers linked subsidy records to an academic database on food flows and traced public money through the supply chain in 2013, the latest year for which the latter held data. The CAP has been reformed twice since then but the split in direct subsidies – before factoring in trade flows – has stayed roughly constant for animal- and plant-based foods.

The researchers found that 12% of subsidies were embodied in products that were shipped outside the EU, mostly to upper-middle and high-income countries. China consumed more of the EU’s farming subsidies than the Netherlands, while the US consumed more than Denmark, the study found.

Mario Díaz Esteban, an ecologist at the National Museum of Natural Science in Spain, who was not involved in the research, said the results were “as solid and clear as they are devastating”.

Other experts expressed caution over the size of the estimated subsidies flowing to animal products.

Much has changed since 2013, the year the study was investigating, said Florian Freund, an agricultural economist at Braunschweig University, who was not involved in the research. He co-wrote a study in 2022– using a dataset from the OECD that was more recent but less complete – that found about half of EU subsidies went to animal foods.

He said: “The study illustrates that most subsidies do not support an urgently needed transition towards healthy and sustainable diets.”

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Alan Matthews, emeritus professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, said the research oversimplified the economic mechanisms at work. The study implicitly assumed that subsidies were fully reflected in the prices at which commodities trade, he said, which was “far from being the case”.

Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of the accelerating death of wildlife around the world and is responsible for 12%-20% of the planet-heating pollutants making extreme weather more violent. In its latest reform for the period 2023-27, the EU decided to set aside a quarter of direct CAP payments for “eco-schemes” that give farmers incentives to farm in an environmentally friendly way.

The research comes as European governments have watered down several green policies in the face of furious farmer protests. On Monday, a key pillar of the EU’s green deal came close to collapse when eight countries withdrew their support for a law to restore nature. On Tuesday, EU member states agreed with a commission proposal to weaken and delay some of the environmental conditions farmers must meet to receive subsidies.

Activists have called on the EU to add more green strings to the CAP without cutting the overall amount farmers receive.

The move to healthier and more sustainable diets must also work for the farmers producing the foods, said Marco Springmann, a researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. “Providing them with the right support is essential for a just transition that works for people and the planet.”