Seeking a Sustainable Agricultural Landscape at the Expense of the European Farmer

Photo uploaded by Tom Fisk, from Pexels.
Photo uploaded by Tom Fisk, from Pexels.

In an effort to maintain more friendly and stable food systems throughout Europe, the European Union (EU) has implemented several new policies for Europe’s farmers. The main directive, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), sets forth several objectives and initiatives to benefit the European agricultural landscape.[1] Not all initiatives, however, have been well-received by farmers who are worried that the new measures will negatively affect the agricultural market’s competitiveness.[2] As the need for sustainable and secure farming systems increases, European lawmakers will need  to consult directly with European farmers to more effectively address these farmers’ needs and concerns.

The CAP has been implemented across Europe for over forty years.[3] It is the longest-running EU policy and currently accounts for 31% of the 2021-2027 EU budget.[4] The CAP differs from other EU regulations as one of the policy’s central components is the direct and indirect financial transfers made to agricultural producers.[5] Such financial transfers, however, are conditioned on farmers meeting basic standards known as cross-compliance.[6] Cross compliance, or, conditionality, requires all farmers to comply with statutory management requirements (SMRs), regardless of whether a farmer is receiving support under the CAP.[7]

Farmers who are receiving monetary support under CAP must also comply with Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) in order to receive their funds.[8] Amongst other things, GAEC directives seek to maintain permanent grassland, protect wetlands, maintain soil structure, and preserve soil potential through crop rotation.[9] One GAEC directive requires at least 4% of a farmer’s arable land to be devoted to non-productive features in order to maintain natural growth.[10] Another measure requires farmers to reduce their respective fertilizer use by at least 20%.[11] In response to some of these initiatives, farmers across Europe are protesting in the streets, worried that such measures will make Europe’s agricultural sector less competitive against imports.[12]

Farmers across the continent have been expressing their frustration at the CAP’s seemingly contradictory goals. Morgan Ody is a French farmer and represents the French farming union.[13] In an interview with journalist, Astha Rajvanshi, Ody lamented, “On the one hand we’re asked to farm more sustainably; on the other, we’re asked to keep producing as cheaply as possible, which puts us in an impossible situation.”[14] While complaints differ based on where farmers are from, many farmers are encouraging the EU to soften environmental regulations to limit competition.[15] In Eastern Europe, farmers are particularly concerned about a tariff-free exemption that was granted to Ukrainian goods entering the EU market.[16] The tariff exception was established to support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion and allows prices on imported Ukrainian goods to remain low when entering the EU.[17] This flood of Ukrainian produce into European markets forced neighboring countries, such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania, to lower their prices. These countries have since found themselves unable to compete and profit from their comparable crops.[18]

In response to farmer protests stemming from CAP and the war in Ukraine, the European Commission met at the end of January 2024 to propose several adaptative measures and rethink some of the GAEC conditionalities.[19] GAEC 8, which originally required a portion of a farmer’s land to be left fallow, was revised this spring to allow farmers the choice of either leaving their arable land non-productive or establishing new landscape features such as hedges or trees.[20] Additionally, under GAEC 8 farmers will still be able to receive CAP benefits by growing nitrogen-fixed groups such as lentils or peas.[21] Compliance with either condition, leaving land fallow or establishing new features or nitrogen-fixed crops, will allow a farmer to receive financial support under CAP.[22] The Commission also proposed to exempt farmers with farms under ten hectares (around 25 acres) from the conditionality requirement penalties.[23] Small farms represent 65% of CAP beneficiaries and will now have a significantly smaller burden to comply with in order to receive CAP benefits.[24] The new plans seek to allocate 32% (around €98 billion) of the total CAP budget for farmers’ voluntary actions.[25] Rather than withholding payments for noncompliance, the proposed plans seek to incentivize farmers to comply with CAP’s objectives and allow for more flexibility regarding compliance.[26] These changed conditions are intended to provide a balance “between offering appropriate relief and flexibility to farmers facing numerous challenges on the one hand and protecting biodiversity and soil quality on the other hand.”[27]

While the adopted revisions seek to alleviate some of the pressures farmers have been facing, they are undoubtedly not the only revisions that need to be made. President of the European Commission, Ursusla von der Leyen, stated, “Only if our farmers can live off their land will they invest in the future. And only if we achieve our climate and environmental goals together, will farmers be able to make a living.”[28] The amended initiatives adapted in response to the farmers’ protest is certainly a step towards achieving a more balanced dialogue between farmer and lawmaker. However, in order for the EU to fully achieve its environmental goals, there needs to be more dialogue between the legislature and farmers to fully address the realities of the European agricultural landscape.

[1] Key Policy Objectives of the CAP, European Comm’n, (last visited Jan. 30, 2024).

[2] See Laura Gozzi, Why Europe’s Farmers Are Taking Their Anger to the Streets, BBC (Jan. 26, 2024, 5:58 AM),

[3] Ann-Christina L. Knudsen, Farmers on Welfare: The Making of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy 3 (2009).

[4] EU Publications, Agriculture, (last visited Apr. 7, 2024). 

[5] Knudsen, supra note 3, at 3.

[6] Council Regulation 1307/2013, art. 4 (L347/608) (EU) (last visited Jan. 30, 2024).

[7] Conditionality, European Comm’n, (last visited Apr. 7, 2024).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Gozzi, supra note 2.

[11]  Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Weekend Edition Saturday, Farmers Encircle EU Headquarters in Tractors to Protest Agricultural Policies, NPR, at 01:47 (Mar. 30, 2024),

[17] Id.

[18] Gozzi, supra note 2.

[19] See European Commission Press Release IP/24/781, European Farmers Exempted From Rules on Land Lying Fallow (Feb. 13, 2024).

[20] European Commission Press Release IP/24/1493, The Commission, Commission Proposes Targeted Review of Common Agricultural Policy to Support EU Farmers (Mar. 15, 2024).

[21] European Commission Press Release IP/24/582, The Commission, Commission Proposes to Allow EU Farmers to Derogate for One Year From Certain Agricultural Rules (Jan. 31, 2024).

[22] European Commission Press Release IP/24/1493, supra note 21.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] See id.

[27] European Commission Press Release IP/24/781, supra note 20.

[28] Id.