How the Agricultural Lobby Is Sabotaging Europe’s Green Deal

Yves here. The European Commission is moving forward with  “Green Deal” plans that are concrete enough to elicit serious opposition. Europe’s version of Big Ag is playing an important role in the sandbagging. That  is intriguing since farming and related services are far less concentrated in the EU than in the US, if nothing else due to countries’ effort to protect their own producers, both for “preserving our food culture” and employment reasons. Needless to say, the bureaucratic turf wars are intense too.

By Hans Wetzels, a freelance journalist from the Netherlands. He is working on a dossier about the European Green Deal for investigative platform Follow the Money. Originally published at openDemocracy

Walking by the Rue de la Loi 130 in Brussels, you wouldn’t necessarily know that one of the most powerful agencies in the EU-machinery resides here. Located right above the subway station of Maalbeek, torn apart by the horrific terrorist attacks of 2016, the main offices of the Directorate-General for Agriculture & Rural Development (in short: DG AGRI) of the European Commission (EC) look grey and inconspicuous.

But looks can be deceiving. Agriculture is an absolutely crucial dossier within the European Union. Up until the 1980s, almost three-quarters of the total budget was spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In 2019 the CAP still ate up 36 percent of all EU-money – totaling 59 billion euros. For decades, technocrats hidden in the anonymous offices at the Rue de la Loi could decide how that money was supposed to be spent in every far corner of the EU.

Twin Strategies

The monopoly position of DG AGRI, however, is coming to an end. In December 2019, the then brand new EC president Ursula von der Leyen took office and immediately announced a Green Deal: an all-encompassing roadmap that should transform Europe into the first climate neutral economic bloc by 2050.

According to the Commission, the Green Deal will turn the EU into a world leader in green financing and sustainable innovation, and allow EU diplomats to engage in Green-Deal-diplomacy, while also creating millions of new jobs. To realize this grand vision, a true tidal wave of new legislation, political strategies, reduction goals and financing proposals is planned.

In May 2020, Dutch EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans, responsible for the Green Deal, published two policy strategies aimed at making agriculture more sustainable. The twin strategies have been dubbed the Farm to Fork strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy – and should by 2030 have dammed in pollution, cut pesticide use in half, halted soil erosion and protected insect populations. In order to do that, the Commission plans flower strips alongside fields all over Europe, wants to plant three billion trees, clean up 25.000 kilometers of river beds, and plans to drastically increase the number of protected nature reserves to create green corridors. Farmers are expected to slash the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and will have to let 10 percent of their fields lie fallow, while VAT rates on ecologically grown fruits and vegetables will decrease.

How the Green Deal proposals will materialize is far from certain though. According to the Commission itself, a lot will depend on the willingness of national governments, different EC departments and the EU parliament to translate the proposals into actual policy. A translation that will be easier said than done – with DG AGRI in the lead, the European farming lobby has immediately made sure that binding reduction goals for pesticides can’t materialize easily.

‘Excessive’ Demands

As soon as the first policy proposals for the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies started circulating within the European Commission, high level civil diplomats of DG AGRI set to work. Besides halving the amount of chemical pesticides used in EU agriculture, the Green Deal also proposes to quickly increase the acreage of land cultivated by ecological standards to approximately 30 percent – from 8 percent right now. A conversion that quick is nothing short of ‘excessive’, writes DG AGRI diplomat Tassos Haniotis in an internal EC document openDemocracy was able to obtain. Because of the ‘limited supply response in arable [organic] crops’ (translation from Brussels speak: the amount of organics EU farmers are actually able to grow) the Green Deal could even lead to a growing amount of imported food, Haniotis fears. Thus he concludes that the desired shift to organic farming ‘should remain demand driven’ – not enforced by the European Commission.

Haniotis is an agricultural economist and expert in EU-US trade relations. He was co-writer of several big free trade agreements and has worked in several positions within the Commission for years; starting off as a consultant in the United States, he was head of cabinetin the EC itself and nowadays leads one of the twelve directorates that make up DG AGRI.

Decisions on how to make their respective agricultural sectors more sustainable would be better left to national governments, Haniotis argues. Besides that, the Greek diplomat warns that the measures currently proposed would leave the ‘strategically important North African market’ without its usual European wheat supplies – ‘leading to price increases in North Africa’ and leading to ‘these countries becoming dependent on imports from Ukraine and Russia.’

Competing Departments

At first sight it may seem a little strange that a top-level EC diplomat rages against plans laid out by the very same European Commission he works for. In this light it’s important to realize how the most powerful institution of the EU is actually organized. The EC is headquartered in a thirteen-story-high colossus in the center of the European Quarter in Brussels, named the Berlaymont. The Berlaymont houses the 27 EU Commissioners, one from each EU member state, their cabinets and a whole bunch of supporting departments, human resources, the ICT department and the general secretariat.

The 27 directorates-general (DGs – de facto the ministries of the EU) responsible for their respective policy areas, are housed in different offices spread out throughout Brussels. The DGs all compete amongst each other for money, the best diplomats and civil servants, and who gets assigned to which policy dossier. The powerful trade department (DG TRADE) is housed inside the EC headquarters itself; DG AGRI at a convenient walking distance. The environmental department (DG ENV) has to make do with a spot on the edge of town.

But that hierarchy isn’t set in stone – and the Green Deal may change power relations in the European Commission. Now that the environmental consequences of intensive EU agriculture are becoming clearer, more departments are claiming influence over what was once exclusively DG AGRI’s domain. EU Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans assigned authoring the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies to the health department (DG SANTE) and DG ENV respectively. AGRI Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski wasn’t even invited to the presentation of the twin strategies.


An important reason why agricultural policies are being drawn away from DG AGRI is simple: from an environmental point of view, their policies simply don’t work. In a recent report, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) concludes that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has not really been performing when it comes to protecting biodiversity. The amount of birds, butterflies and flying insects in Europe has steadily continued to decline and is now one third less than in 1990. The effects of CAP on biodiversity, according to the ECA, are ‘limited’ at best.

Scientists and the environmental movement have longer been arguing for pesticide reduction, now finally laid out in the Green Deal. Violette Geissen is professor in Soil Physics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Together with a team of scientists, she has researched the effects of pesticides and fertilizers on soils in eleven European countries. In more than 80 percent of the soils they researched, the team found chemical residues, often decades old. ‘There are almost no soils left in Europe which are not contaminated by a cocktail of several chemicals,’ Geissen says. ‘When considering a chemical for market admission, EU institutions usually focus on the effects it has on mortality rates among soil organisms. But there are hardly any tests to find out how chemicals affect bee populations, or how much accumulates in river beds. Luckily the Commission is finally showing some ambition now, because we’re coming to the point that there is not much life left in most European soils.’

The Right Dossiers

Joost de Jong is from the Netherlands and worked as a policy officer for DG AGRI between 2004 and 2007. As somebody who knows the department inside out, the harsh resistance to the Green Deal hardly comes as a surprise. ‘DG AGRI doesn’t want interference with what they consider as their policy area. Especially when reduction goals for pesticides are concerned,’ De Jong explains. ‘To safeguard their position within the Commission, receive enough money from the EU budget and get assigned the right dossiers, DG AGRI is heavily dependent on political support from Germany, Spain and France. Naturally, its civil servants closely follow the wishes of farmers’ lobbies from there, which usually is highly productive and large-scale agriculture.’

De Jong recognizes the position document authored by Haniotis as part of an Interservice Consultation (ICS): an interdepartmental negotiation that gives all the DGs the opportunity to provide input on policies. ‘The environmental DG has always been quite low in the EC pecking order,’ says De Jong. ‘By assigning the Biodiversity Strategy to them, Timmermans has given off an important signal about his intentions. But in the end, all directorates-general have to approve. That’s why, as far as I know, there has been a lot of political infighting about goals for ecological agriculture and slashing pesticide usage.’

Big Farming

The close ties between DG AGRI and big farming lobbies have been the subject of criticism for years. Environmental action group Pesticide Action Network (PAN) in May 2019 managed to uncover 600 secret documents showing that EC diplomats had tried to weaken legislation regulating the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals by proposing to change definitions of what an endocrine disruption actually entails, in order to limit economic impacts on farmers. During public consultations before the Farm to Fork strategy, German chemical giant Bayer Crop Science wrote in a letter to the European Commission that the company ‘took note of the European Commission’s intention to reduce dependency on chemical pesticides’ – proposing ‘measures to ensure that new innovative solutions are brought faster to the EU market’ and noting such policies would probably be better off left in the hands of national governments.

To reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture, in 2009 the European Commission first introduced a Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD). But implementing such an EU regulation can be difficult. To measure the amount of chemicals used on European fields one first has to have reliable data – statistics that, according to researchers for the European Court of Auditors (ECA), are hard to come by because privacy laws prohibit statistical agency Eurostat from publicly making available commercial information about chemical products. To circumvent this data gap, the ECA researchers analyzed sales numbers and concluded that no significant decrease of chemical usage was found since the introduction of the SUD. Between February and September 2019, the research team went out in the fields to interview farmers and policymakers in France, Lithuania and the Netherlands, and conducted evaluations of national policies – and also found lacking compliance with EU rules by national authorities and even by the European Commission itself.


To coerce governments into complying with the Green Deal, the EC plans a complete SUD overhaul by 2022 and wants to make access to organic pesticides a lot easier. However, the biggest hurdle for Frans Timmermans will be to align the Green Deal with the CAP – especially as negotiations for a new CAP period have already been underway for several years. That might prove a crucial problem for Timmermans, De Jong fears: ‘The Commission doesn’t really have a strong position towards the member states when policy proposals, such as the Green Deal, have not yet been captured in binding regulations.’

The CAP was first conceived in 1962 as a strategy to provide affordable food to citizens and a fair wage to farmers and has since then been periodically renewed, cut, and subject to negotiations between member states. During the current ongoing negotiations it was, for the first time, agreed that EU member states themselves will decide how to implement EU rules and allocate budgets. Therefore, every European country is currently busy writing up a National Strategic Plan, which will be handed in to the European Commission in Brussels. To realize the goals set out in the Green Deal, Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, the Commission is more or less counting on EU member states to take them into account when formulating a National Strategic Plan – according to an EC working document presented in May.

Power and Control

Inside the European Commission, however, there seems to be another bump in the road: the 27 National Strategic Plans will all be reviewed by DG AGRI – the department actively lobbying against binding rules. Through this detour, the EU farming lobby has conveniently managed to win back control over the Green Deal, says De Jong: ‘If you compare the final version of the Farm to Fork strategy to earlier drafts, you can already clearly see the fingerprints of DG AGRI. The goal for ecological agriculture in the EU all of a sudden went down from 30 to 25 percent. You mustn’t underestimate the power Frans Timmermans wields, but sometimes even he simply gets no for an answer.’

Dutch conservative politician Esther de Lange has been a member of the European Parliament for the EPP (European People’s Party) since 2007. She was born in a small village in the hilly south of the Netherlands. ‘Proposing reduction goals right now is, of course, worthless timing,’ she comments on the Green Deal. ‘The future is very insecure for many family farms around Europe, especially since markets have basically evaporated due to corona. Without a viable business model for farmers, reducing their dependency on pesticides will be hard.’

Because of the tight spot European farmers are in, and the fact that they not only have to compete on internal EU markets but also on world markets, De Lange doesn’t have expectations of overly ambitious goals in the National Strategic Plans. Too much national ambition would cause unwanted regulatory burden on farms and could worsen their competitive advantage over neighboring countries: a political risk no government is willing to take. ‘A level playing field is crucial for the internal market to function,’ De Lange explains. ‘The Netherlands sells most of its agricultural produce inside the EU. The Dutch government going at it alone, being more ambitious than for example Germany or Poland, would be a scenario we want to prevent. First, the Green Deal will have to guarantee decent farm incomes and fair prices. Measures that seem to be lacking from the current plans.’

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    For historic reasons, the Agriculture industry has had a disproportionate amount of influence and power within the EU – the CAP was the first real megabucks policy that developed as the EU coalesced in its current form the 1960’s and 70’s. Unfortunately, in memory of WWII food shortages, the focus of policy was always on self reliance, which was interpreted as encouraging high production levels at all costs.

    It should be pointed out of course that one of the most positive outcomes of Brexit for EU environmental policy is that the UK was always notoriously the most retrograde voice for agriculture – partly because in the UK its own policy had been hijacked by big farmers (often at the expense of small farmers all over the UK). The UK successfully, as one example, torpedoed the Soils Directive, which would have put a legal obligation on member states to protect soils in the same way that ground and surface water protection is under EU control.

    From what I understand, the second major internal obstacle is Germany, thanks to its huge agrochemicals industry. Traditional high intensive countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands also tend to be foot-draggers when it comes to greening agriculture, especially the latter under its enthusiastically neoliberal government. France and southern countries tend to be more enthusiastic about Green policies for agriculture as their smaller farms benefit less from existing subsidies and would be looking to benefit from a change.

    Incidentally, Ireland is often an outsized voice in agriculture, its Commission member always muscling in on Agriculture even if its not his or her actual role. But rather unfortunately the new government here just lost its second Agriculture minister in 2 months – the last one due to an unfortunate incident involving a police breathalyser, this one because of his attendance of a covid restriction breaching dinner.
    Neither were considered sympathetic to green policies, despite the presence of the Green Party as part of the government, so perhaps it will be third time lucky. Incidentally, Phil Hogan, the EU Commissioner for Trade, was also at that dinner.

  2. Matthew Saroff

    This is a change.

    It used to be (particularly in France) that it was the small (tiny) family farms driving a EU policy disproportionately.

  3. td

    Any jurisdiction that tries to move to sustainable forms of agriculture immediately runs into a wall of increased costs. If the state does not pick up the tab, the farmers fairly quickly go bust and the food consumption is supplied by non-green imports.

    So the green production needs to be subsidized internally and barriers have to set up against cheap non-green imports. This raises the price of food and the consumption of the lower 80% of the economic spectrum will need to be subsidized as well. All of this is tough to do in a free-trade area like the EU unless all the members are on board.

    There is a real cost to the biosphere of non-green agriculture and attempts to reform immediately convert that to immediate cash demands. The natural tendency of political leaders is to try to dump the burden on producers who naturally enough, fight back. As usual, there’s lots of blame to go around but any progress will only come from careful planning and negotiation.

    Any country that tries to seriously go green is going to have a spotlight on it immediately. Expect massive intervention from a host of agendas.

    1. a different chris

      > and the consumption of the lower 80% of the economic spectrum will need to be subsidized as well.

      In America it already is… and that’s why the farther down the economic ladder you go the fatter they are. It isn’t like gobs of people in Western Europe are on the verge of starvation. How much food do we need? This is a real area where “quality over quantity” is a serious argument to be made.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The lower down the economic ladder you go, the more the shinola food fades away and the more the shitfood takes its place. Till it becomes all shitfood, all the time at the bottom of the ladder. Where the food junkyards and the shitfood lagoons are all the food there is.

  4. a different chris

    >and noting such policies would probably be better off left in the hands of national governments.

    hahaha yeah they said that with a straight face? That’s always the right-wing position, consolidate power where you want it and where you don’t want to do something, give the responsibility to groups that you know are going to fight each other.

    I mean look at this – “clean up 25.000 kilometers of river beds” – yeah how does one nation do that when the upriver nation doesn’t want to? I’m not a World Government person (imagine the type of people that would get to the top of that ladder – shudders) but in this one area we don’t have a choice.

  5. Clark Landwehr

    You cannot have a carbon neutral economy. Its an oxymoron. Our economy is a dissipative system that has to consume more all the time or it will die. You would have to end all economic growth. Endless growth is what our civilization is based on. You cannot run our civilization on batteries or solar or wind. Its a fantasy. Check with the 2nd Law.

    1. c_heale

      Economic growth and thr second law of thermodynamics camnot be conflated. Economics (apart from the physiocrats) has zero basis in physics. Especially neoliberalism which is complete bullshit. There is a massive nuclear fusion reactor (our Sun) which is powering life on Earth. We can utilise this to have some kind of human society, and we have had many human societies which were much closer to carbon neutral than the last 300 or so years of industrialization. Humans have been on Earth for several million years. However since we have used up all the easily available oil, our modern oil based industrial society (the last 70 odd years) is over. Imo our only hope is have a future society of subsistance agriculture involving a much smaller world population. That is if global warming doesn’t make humans extinct.

  6. Will

    I am an independent pest control advisor in bountiful California. My customers all grow a variety of crops and a large portion of many of their operations are organic.

    Bureaucrats think there is a simple relationship between pesticide and fertilizer inputs and yield but it is not that linear. We spray organic fields just as often as the conventional fields. When measured in pounds per acre there are way more pounds per acre applied to organic fields. Though it can fairly be argued those pesticides are less toxic. But things are more complicated than that. The most widely used pesticides in conventional farming are actually organic materials such as petroleum oils, sulfur, Bt’s and copper. Many of the conventional pesticides could be considered organic except for the process of how they are derived from fungi or bacteria or the carriers they are mixed with to stabilize them keeps them from being registered organic.

    In the end the entire organic industry rides on the back of a handful of very effective pesticides that have dual use in conventional farming. However the overuse without a viable rotation in ever increasing organic acreage WILL lead to resistance. Once these materials become ineffective the entire organic industry will be at risk.

    As for organic fertilizers, that is a scam. Most of them come from conventional sources such as soybean or corn processing waste, feather, bone, fish carcass or blood waste from animal processing or animal manure. So animals raised on GMO grain grown with conventional fertilizer and pesticides are turned into organic fertilizer down the line. So the organic nitrogen being purchased was originally a molecule of nitrogen floating in the air that was compressed with energy from natural gas to make conventional nitrogen fertilizer. Then that nitrogen molecule was applied to a GMO corn plant that turned into feed for a steer who’s manure or corpse was then used as an organic fertilizer source. We call this Nitrogen Laundering ?

    Anyway, good luck EU. You can always buy some food from us Americans when you run out.

    1. Late Introvert

      Thank you Will for another great example of the diverse knowledge base on NC.

      Question for you: is it true that organic farms in CA are using waste water from fracking for irrigation?

      1. Will

        Thanks Introvert!

        That isn’t a straight yes or no question. Where fracking water is used it is blended with clean water to meet water quality standards. This is not a widespread practice. From what I remember it was one water district that provided this water to a large mandarin orange grower. The grower is a very large operation that made Cuties brand mandarins famous. Certainly they may have some organic acres in that area. There is a huge difference between using this blended water on a fresh leafy vegetable crop and a tree fruit. They are not applying it directly to the product like would happen to the vegetables. Instead it is applied to the soil around the tree and there it can be taken up by the roots.

        Remember this water is considered safe by the nanny state of California.

        My training is in soil science and it would seem to me that applying a trace amount of petroleum and fracking chemicals like acetone to the soil with water, air, light, heat and nitrogen fertilizer is going to create quite a smorgasbord for the bacteria in the soil who will consume or “bioremediate” the trace fracking residues in the water immediately.

        Here is a link to a story from our public broadcasting about the practice:

        And the truth is that petroleum is considered organic by certifying agents around the world. The most widely used organic pesticide in the world is petroleum oil which is also the most widely used conventional pesticide in California. Petroleum is natural and thus products derived from it like mineral oils (refined short carbon chain oils) are perfectly acceptable organically. I guarantee you that 100% of the organic mandarin oranges on the market are sprayed foliarly with petroleum oil. I myself own organic lemons and I spray them with organic 415 and 440 petroleum oils several times a year.

        Here is a link to one of the products I use:

        Note that it says right on the label it is for organic production. This is a slightly heavier oil for tree fruit production, but interestingly other petroleum oil products have labels allowing their use directly on vegetable crops up to and including the day of harvest.

        Even more interesting is that solvents similar to the chemicals used in fracking are commonly used in most conventional liquid pesticides. So all of our fresh produce is being sprayed with trace amounts of these solvents already and has been for 80 years. Xylene for instance was a common solvent in pesticides. Xylene is a carcinogen. It is also used in school laboratories around the world.

        If any one of the many political forces against fracking or the use of recycling fracking water in orchards was really concerned or thought there was a real problem all they would have to do is sample Cuties mandarins in the market and test them for chemical residues. The negative press alone from problematic results would end the practice instantly.

        It is an interesting subject though!

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