Options for keeping the Common Agricultural Policy within the Green Deal

by Rafael Leite Pinto (Master in EU Law – University of Minho)

1. Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) goals within the Green Deal

Presented in 2019, the Green Deal intends to pave the road for a sustainable European Union, cutting emissions by 40% until 2030 and achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050. At her first State of the Union speech, commissioner Ursula Von der Leyen updated the 2030 goal to 55%, following the Parliament’s goal of cutting emissions by 60%.  Within the Green Deal, the Commission revealed several strategic plans including the “Farm2Fork Strategy” and “Biodiversity Strategy”. These plans unveiled the most ambitious goals ever when it comes to reducing the environmental impacts of food production, such as a 50% reduction in pesticide use until 2030; 50% reduction in soil nutrient loss; 50% reduction of antibiotic use in animal farms; increase of the total share of organic farming land to 25%; establish 30% of land and sea as protected areas; plant 3 billion trees; halt and reverse the decline of pollinators; and invest 20 billion euros per year on biodiversity.

Despite the bold target setting, several issues related to the implementation of the necessary measures have been raised. Mainly the compatibility of the proposed Common Agricultural Policy post-2020 and the established goals. The first proposal by the Commission, published in 2018 showed some improvement in agri-environmental measures but was largely classified as insufficient[i],[ii] even for the less demanding goals at the time. In its “How the future CAP will contribute to the EU Green Deal” document, the Commission refrained from further developing the proposal, repeating the previously announced measures. That said, a later published Staff Working Document[iii] concluded that the proposed CAP could have a potential contributory effect to the Green Deal goals, as long as it was approved by the Parliament and the Council in the exact terms proposed, or more demanding ones. Problem is, historically, CAP proposals are diluted in the trilogue and this time was no different. At the end of 2020, a final agreement was reached, and the new CAP was voted in what has been classified by NGO’s as “a kiss of death” for nature in Europe[iv]. Both, the Parliament and the Council voted to soften the proposed agri-environmental measures leading to public outrage and campaigns such as “#votethisCAPdown” and “scrapthisCAP”. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) accused the European Union’s institutions of ignoring the Green Deal and the evidence when it comes to agriculture’s environmental impacts[v]. For Greenpeace, the new CAP represents the death of small farmer’s and possibly the Green Deal[vi].

In fact, it seems that agriculture could stop the Union from achieving the Green Deal goals. In order to achieve these goals, the Union set specific targets for each sector within the Emissions Trading System (ETS), such as a 43% reduction in emissions from energy production, aviation and industry, with 2005 as baseline. As for agriculture, it is included in the so called “Effort Sharing”, for sectors not incorporated within the ETS, like transportation and construction. Together, these sectors should achieve a 30% emissions reduction. According to researcher Alan Mathews, for agriculture to contribute to this 30% decrease by 2030, compared to 2005 figures, it would have to reduce emissions by 29% between 2016 and 2030, that is, for agriculture to contribute to the objectives of the Effort Sharing, emissions must fall by almost 3% per year until 2030, reversing the current trend of stagnation[vii]. Since 2005, emissions have not decreased significantly. However, it is estimated that, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2030, agricultural emissions in the Union, as a whole, will only fall by 2,3% compared to 2005, not per year, but in total[viii]. In the best-case scenario, highly subsidized technological advances can reduce the sector’s emissions by 20%[ix]. A study by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) also came to similar conclusions, stating that for agriculture to contribute to environmental objectives, an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is required by 2050[x].

Despite this, no specific target was established to reduce agricultural emissions within the CAP or the Green Deal. A proposal to set said target failed to get Parliament’s approval, although the same parliament voted to increase the overall emission’s reduction target for 2030, from 40% to 60% by 2030.

2. The environmental impacts of agriculture

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture is responsible for 23% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, of which livestock farming represents about 80%[xi]. It is estimated that, with the projected reduction in the use of fossil fuels and the predicted increase in the consumption of animal products, in 2030 agriculture could represent 27% and, in 2050, 81% of the emissions allowed to reach the goal of the Paris Agreement, to keep the temperature increase below 1.5ºC[xii].

In the European Union, agriculture occupies about 40% of total land, of which up to 71% is dedicated to the livestock sector[xiii]; however, about 31% of the land needed for food production for the Union is located outside its borders[xiv]. This means the Union needs an area almost its own size to produce enough food to feed the entire population.

According to official data from the Union, agriculture is responsible for 10% of emissions, a number that fell by about 20% between 1990 and 2005, but has remained stable, registering even a slight increase. However, several studies point to substantially higher values, just for livestock production, between 10% and 17%[xv],[xvi],.According to an analysis by Greenpeace, based on the EAT-Lancet Commission for sustainable diets, for the Union to meet its environmental objectives and for the global temperature to remain below a 2ºC increase, meat consumption should be reduced by 71% by 2030 and 81% by 2050. Although an increase in emissions from food production is expected, it is estimated that the adoption of a plant-based diet can reduce the sector’s emissions by 55% in 2050, when compared to 2007, and reduce mortality from diet by 8.1 million deaths per year[xvii].

Therefore, we can conclude that there is no large-scale environmental impact problem with agriculture. The problem is with livestock farming and by addressing it, the Union could easily curb the impact of food production. Despite this, at least half  the CAP’s budget may be allocated to livestock farming. In addition, the Green Deal did not set specific targets for reducing emissions in the livestock sector.

With the “Farm2Fork Strategy”, the Union seems to be taking the first steps towards the transition from a Common Agricultural Policy to a Common Food Policy, which promotes the adoption of healthy and sustainable diets. Something that both scientists and NGO’s have been advocating. However, the initial proposal failed to address the impacts of animal farming. The recommendations for a healthy and sustainable diet are clear: a transition to plant-based diets is required to achieve the environmental goals[xviii]. Technological improvements will not be sufficient to maintain the industry’s impact within these targets. The Commission acknowledges this in the communication of the strategy but fails to enforce concrete measures or targets to reduce the consumption of animal products, only general measures that may or may not involve the sector and have a potential positive impact. At the same time, in the same document, there are several suggestions of other measures that may have a more significant impact but are not directly apart of the 27 proposals. In particular, it suggests a thorough review of any proposals in the National CAP Strategic Plans that intend to allocate coupled payments to animal agriculture; advocates the ban on marketing campaigns for low-priced meat; stresses the need to introduce tax incentives that support the transition to a sustainable food system and promote healthy diets, including the use of VAT and the introduction of new taxes that make food prices cover externalities on an environmental level; and aims to stimulate the increased availability of vegetable meats. Here, the Commission shyly demonstrates support for the introduction of a carbon tax on food but did not include it in the final proposals.

 Hereupon, it is safe to say that the Commission is no longer ignoring the impacts of animal agriculture, now it seems that it is just ignoring the most effective measures to solve it, compromising the Green Deal as a whole.

3. Options to reduce the environmental impacts of animal farming

As previously stated, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2030, agricultural emissions in the Union, should only fall 2,3% compared to 2005, not per year, but in total. In the best-case scenario, highly subsidized technological advances can reduce the sector’s emissions by 20%. On the other hand, cutting animal protein intake in half, which would still be above current recommendations, can reduce emissions by 40%. For comparison purposes, all the environmental measures adopted within  CAP 2013-2020, in Pillar I and II, may have reduced emissions from agriculture as a whole by 26 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, compared to a scenario where the measures were not adopted (the emissions were not reduced by this amount, it is just an assessment of the current scenario against a pre-2013 business as usual scenario), that is, the equivalent of less than 3% using the values of the studies presented above.  According to a 2019 report from the IPCC, a worldwide adoption of a plant-based diet could reduce annual emissions by approximately 8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. To put this number into perspective the total emissions of the Union are around 4,5 billion tonnes per year[xix].

It becomes clear that to reduce the environmental impacts of food production the Union needs to tackle meat production and consumption and that could be achieved with several measures.

3.1. Introduce a carbon-tax on meat products

The introduction of a carbon tax for agriculture is an old debate. The Commission has been addressing this subject for almost four decades now, affirming that agriculture cannot be exempt from the polluter-pays principle and that the prices of food should reflect the externalities caused, but so far, no action has been taken.

Several papers have studied the efficacy of such tax in the Union and all concluded that it would be an effective measure. Not only that, but it could be the most effective measure ever adopted to curb the environmental effects of food production. With some studies finding a total emission reduction of 3%[xx]. Not for agriculture, but the Union as a whole. As positive externalities, the tax could improve the diets of European citizens, reduce the total burden of disease, and gather resources to fund a transition to more sustainable production methods. The latter is an important, adjacent discussion since the way in which the funds are used could increase or decrease the effectiveness of the tax. Besides being used to support farmers transition to the production of other products, it should also be used to create incentives for the consumption of healthy and sustainable foods, like pulses, nuts, vegetables, and fruits.

3.2. End EU funded campaigns that promote the consumption of animal products

Despite being aware of the environmental impacts of animal farming and the fact that the average citizen eats too much meat, the Union is still funding campaigns to promote the consumption of this products. Examples of this paradox include campaigns such as “#letstalkaboutEUpork”, “Love Pork” campaign, the “Proud of EU Beef”.

3.3. Create awareness campaigns for the environmental impact of diets including an eco-label for food products

Studies show that public perception of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture is low and that when this perception increases, meat consumption decreases. Knowing this, the Union could finance campaigns to inform its citizens of the ecological footprint of food products, showing how eating more plant based could benefit the environment and health.

3.4. Create an eco-label for food products

Within the scope of the “Farm2Fork” strategy, the Union is debating the introduction of mandatory nutritional labels “Front of Pack”, that is, on the front of the packaging, as these seem to improve consumers’ food choices. Some studies show that environmental and social labeling is more efficient than nutritional labeling to change consumer choices. Knowing this the Union could introduce an eco-label for food products based on their carbon footprint. Although a 2019 thesis concluded that the impact of environmental labeling on meat consumption is extremely small, when compared to the impact of a carbon tax it should still have a positive impact.

3.5. Launch nutritional recommendations that reflect both, health and sustainability criteria

Still regarding the information given to the consumers, in 2019, Canada launched new nutritional recommendations based on sustainability criteria. In these recommendations, the amount of animal protein has been substantially reduced. In the same manner, Denmark just published similar recommendations in 2021.

Although most of the population does not follow nutritional recommendations, this measure can be effective in raising public awareness. In addition, health professionals must adhere to official recommendations, as do public canteens, which could end up having a significant impact. The teaching of nutrition, either at the basic level or at the higher level, can also have a positive effect.

3.6. Support the development of plant based and lab grown meats

Another option that seems particularly effective in curbing meat consumption is the development of alternatives, such as plant-based meat and lab-grown meat. According to Beyond Meat, one of the leading companies in the sector, the production of its hamburgers requires 99% less water, 93% less agricultural area, 90% less carbon dioxide equivalent emissions and 46% less energy. As for the impact on health, the preliminary literature appears to be positive, at least in comparison with the products they intend to replace.  Therefore, the Union could heavily support the development of this products and become a worldwide leader in the sector.

3.7. Set a max quota for the number of livestock animals produced each year

A less explored measured in the literature, to reduce the impact of animal farming, would be the establishment of a maximum quota for the number of animals produced or imported each year in the Union. The milk quota system has shown that such measures can be an effective tool to reduce total production and the number of animals. During the term of the milk quota system, the number of cows in the EU-10 decreased by 38%. By restricting supply, prices would increase which could create a similar effect to that of the tax. Although it does not include the consumer awareness component, this can be achieved through other means. This hypothesis will be more effective than limiting animal density per area, since the latter can lead and increase of the total agricultural area used.

3.8. Set a specific goal to reduce the environmental impact of livestock farming and animal product consumption

As previously stated, the Union has not set a specific target to reduce the impacts of livestock farming. We propose that and emissions reduction target is set, along with targets to reduce meat production and consumption.

3.9. In the short-term end couple support to livestock farming and in the long-term phase-out all subsidies

According to the think tank IEEP, about 10% of direct payments are coupled to production and of these 10%, 41% are spent on cattle production, 20% on dairy products and 12% on goats, leading to an increase in production which in turn increases the environmental impacts of the CAP.  The new CAP should not include couple support to produce animal foods.

Over the long-term, the Union should phase-out all animal farming subsidies, the same way it is phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. From a scientific perspective it is hard to justify maintaining subsidies that pose incentives for the consumption of products that most Europeans are already consuming in excess, causing devasting impacts for the environmental and public health. Besides, in the context of a climate emergency, we should strive to produce as much healthy, sustainable food as possible in the most efficient way possible, to feed the world’s growing population, and producing food by raising animals is inherently inefficient.


[i] Gillman, Steve. “CAP | How Does Commission’s Proposed Eco Scheme Compare to Greening? | ARC2020.” Agricultural and Rural Convention, 24 Feb. 2019, www.arc2020.eu/how-does-commissions-proposed-eco-scheme-compare-to-greening.

[ii] Pe’er, Guy, Aletta Bonn, et al. “Action Needed for the EU Common Agricultural Policy to Address Sustainability Challenges.” People and Nature, edited by Kevin Gaston, vol. 2, no. 2, 2020, pp. 305–16. Crossref, doi:10.1002/pan3.10080.

[iii] European Commission, Analysis of links between CAP Reform and Green Deal, SWD(2020) 93 final, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/food-farming-fisheries/sustainability_and_natural_resources/documents/analysis-of-links-between-cap-and-green-deal_en.pdf

[iv] Birdlife International. “Press Release: European Parliament Parties Give Nature Kiss of Death.” Birdlife, 2020, http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/news/press-release-european-parliament-socialists-EPP-renew-CAP-deal-Leak-13Oct2020  

[v] WWF, “EU Parliament and Council Ignore the Green Deal and Plough on with An.” WWF, 21 Oct. 2020, http://www.wwf.eu/wwf_news/media_centre/?uNewsID=987041

[vi] Greenpeace, Greenpeace European Unit. “EU Parliament Signs Death Sentence for Small Farms and Nature, Greenpeace.” Greenpeace European Unit, 20 Oct. 2020, http://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/issues/nature-food/45172/eu-parliament-signs-death-sentence-for-small-farms-and-nature-greenpeace

[vii] Matthews, Alan. “The GHG Emissions Challenge for Agriculture – CAP Reform.” CAP Reform, 12 Apr. 2019, http://capreform.eu/the-ghg-emissions-challenge-for-agriculture/

[viii] Van Doorslaer et al, “An economic assessment of GHG mitigation policy options for EU agriculture” Joint Research Center, 2016. https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/publication/eur-scientific-and-technical-research-reports/economic-assessment-ghg-mitigation-policy-options-eu-agriculture

[ix] Ibidem.

[x] Lóránt A & Allen B, “Net-zero agriculture in 2050: how to get there?” Report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, 2019, https://ieep.eu/publications/net-zero-agriculture-in-2050-how-to-get-there

[xi] IPCC, 2019: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2020/02/SRCCL-Complete-BOOK-LRES.pdf   

[xii] GRAIN, “Emissions impossible: How big meat and dairy are heating up the planet”, 2018. https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5976-emissions-impossible-how-big-meat-and-dairy-are-heating-up-the-planet

[xiii] GreenPeace, “Feeding the Problem- the dangerous intensification of animal farming in the EU”, 2019. https://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/issues/nature-food/1803/feeding-problem-dangerous-intensification-animal-farming/ 

[xiv] European Commission, “Science for Environment Policy, thematic issue: Global Environmental Impacts of EU Trade in Commodities,” 2013, http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/pdf/44si_en.pdf

[xv] Bellarby, Jessica, et al. “Livestock Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Mitigation Potential in Europe.” Global Change Biology, vol. 19, no. 1, 2012, pp. 3–18. Crossref, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2012.02786.x.

[xvi] Leip et al. “Impacts of European Livestock Production: Nitrogen, Sulphur, Phosphorus and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land-Use, Water Eutrophication and Biodiversity.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 10, no. 11, 2015, p. 115004. Crossref, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/115004.

[xvii] Springman et al. “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, no. 15, 2016, pp. 4146–51. Crossref, doi:10.1073/pnas.1523119113.

[xviii]European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism, “A scoping review of major works relevant to scientific advice towards an EU sustainable food system”, p.10, 2019. https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/scoping-review-major-works-relevant-scientific-advice-towards-eu-sustainable-food-system_en 

[xix] IPCC, Climate and Land, Chapter 5 Food Security”, 2019. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/2f.-Chapter-5_FINAL.pdf

[xx] TAPPC, “Aligning food pricing policies with the European Green Deal”, 2020. https://www.tappcoalition.eu/nieuws/13130/eu-parliament-to-discuss-dutch-proposal-for-a-fair-meat-price-5th-of-feb


Picture credits: Pexels.


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