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What the EU’s Green Deal could mean for Regenerative Agroforestry

Recently, key strategies of the European Commission’s Green Deal have been published, describing a transition towards a fair, healthy, and environmentally-friendly food system. As part of the Green Deal, these two strategies – the Farm to Fork strategy and the 2030 Biodiversity strategy – outline how the EU wants to guide the interplay of farming, food, and nature in the coming decade. The momentum for transformation to sustainable food systems in Europe is great. What could the role of Regenerative Agroforestry be?

The European Green Deal sets out how to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. It maps a new, sustainable and inclusive growth strategy to boost the economy, improve people’s health and quality of life, care for nature, and leave no one behind. 

It is an initiative proposed by the European Commission. Although not finalised, the Green Deal could become important for transforming Europe – recent unveiling of two key strategies show how the European Commission plans to transform food systems. Which makes us wonder: do they mention agroforestry?

Keep reading to learn more about the new Green Deal and how it relates to Regenerative Agroforestry.

The various elements that constitute the Green Deal (Source: European Commission).

Unveiling of key Green Deal strategies

The Farm to Fork Strategy is at the heart of the Green Deal. It comprehensively addresses the challenges of sustainable food systems and recognises the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet. The 2030 Biodiversity Strategy stresses the need to safeguard nature for the resilience and wealth of our societies, also reminding us that nature is at the foundation of our food systems.

Recently, the two strategies were jointly unveiled by Commissioners Frans Timmermans (Executive Vice-President), Stella Kyriakides (Health and Food Safety), and Virginijus Sinkevičius (Environment, Oceans and Fisheries).

From left to right: Frans Timmermans, Stella Kyriakides, and Virginijus Sinkevičius presenting the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies (Source: EU Commission Audiovisual service).

The two strategies are intertwined, and it stands out how both clearly link to the importance of resilient food systems and thriving nature for societal wellbeing and the economy (pointing at the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the economic benefits of working with nature). Further, they clearly stress how the EU wants to become a leading example for initiating global change.

The Green Deal and the strategies will likely influence the new EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for post-2020, which is currently still in reform. The CAP, good for roughly 40% of the total EU budget, is hugely important for agriculture across the Union, for instance through providing farmers with income support and through influencing rural landscapes and supply chains.

Let’s dive deeper into both Green Deal strategies and the new CAP and explore their facets – and, more specifically, look at what they could mean for Regenerative Agroforestry.

The Farm to Fork strategy: Transforming food systems

As the name correctly captures, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy  seeks to holistically transform how Europeans value food sustainability. From the consumers at the end of the chain to the producers at the beginning of the chain, implementation of the strategy will involve changes across the entire food system.

With the EU being the biggest importer and exporter of agri-food products, efforts to transform the food system have to involve policies that help raise standards globally to avoid externalisation and export of unsustainable practices. As such, the F2F strategy intends to make European food the global standard for sustainability. 

The EU wants to reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system and strengthen its resilience, ensure food security in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, and lead a global transition towards competitive sustainability from farm to fork and tapping into new opportunities (Source: European Commission).

The F2F wants to make the environmental impact of the food chain neutral or positive environmental, wants to safeguard that everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious, sustainable food, and wants to ensure that the most sustainable food also becomes the most affordable. 

Minimising external inputs, counteracting climate change

When looking at the production side of the food chain in specific, the strategy aims to:

  • Reduce dependency on pesticides and halt biodiversity loss, reducing the overall use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50% and reducing the use of more hazardous pesticides by 50% by 2030. Actions include promoting Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which includes the use of alternative control techniques such as crop rotation and mechanical weeding
  • Reduce use of antimicrobials and ensure animal welfare, reducing overall EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and in aquaculture by 50% by 2030. Actions include new regulations on veterinary medicinal products and medicated feed
  • Reduce excess fertilisation, decreasing the use of fertilisers by at least 20% and decreasing nutrient losses by at least 50% in 2030, whilst ensuring that there is no deterioration in soil fertility. Actions include enforcing legislation for integrated nutrient management and more precise application of nutrients
  • Foster organic farming, having at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030. Actions include the creation of an Action Plan on organic farming that will help Member States stimulate both supply and demand for organic products, as well as greening of the new CAP, in which eco-schemes’ will offer a major stream of funding to boost sustainable practices, such as precision agriculture, agro-ecology (including organic farming), carbon farming, and agroforestry. 
  • Adapting to climate change, improved plant protection from emerging pests and diseases. Actions include experimenting with new innovative biotechnology techniques as well as facilitating the registration of seed varieties and to ensure easier market access for traditional and locally-adapted varieties.
  • Mitigating climate change, is an overarching goal of the Green Deal, and carbon farming efforts will be rewarded by the EU
The Farm to Fork Strategy is a key component of the European Green Deal (Source: European Commission).

Making the vision a reality requires better enforcement of existing legislation as well as crafting of new legislation. For instance, the Commission will make a legislative proposal for a framework for a sustainable food system before the end of 2023. It also requires continued technical and financial assistance from existing EU instruments, such as cohesion funds and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). 

Regenerative agroforestry becoming increasingly relevant

The F2F strategy mentions how food systems need to move towards the best use of nature-based, technological, digital, and space-based solutions to deliver better climate and environmental results, increase climate resilience and reduce and optimise the use of inputs (such as pesticides and fertilisers). It further outlines that whilst such solutions require human and financial investment, they also promise higher returns by reducing costs and by creating added value.

Hence, it is clear that Regenerative Agroforestry could be of great importance for the implementation of the F2F strategy. Regenerative Agroforestry is a nature-based solution that reduces the needs for external input whilst reducing costs and generating added value for people and planet. In addition, Regenerative Agroforestry can help to mitigate and adapt to climate change, for instance through storing carbon in soils.

Wakelyns Agroforestry, Suffolk UK, mixed timber and potatoes, part of the AGFORWARD project (Source: AGFORWARD project / ORC / Flickr).

The new developments within the EU Green Deal show that the EU commission is acknowledging the potential of agroforestry as well. Indeed, the EU could well become important in providing institutional and financial support that could help to make regenerative agroforestry and other regenerative practices mainstream. The F2F strategy mentions two potential pathways.

Making climate-friendly practices financially viable

First, the F2F strategy mentions carbon farming as a new green business model currently in development. This model wants to reward farmers employing practices that remove CO2 from the atmosphere either via the CAP or other public or private initiatives (carbon markets). A new EU carbon farming initiative under the Climate Pact will promote this new business model, which provides farmers with a new source of income and helps other sectors to decarbonise the food chain.

In an EU-led multi-stakeholder roundtable aimed at exploring the options for EU carbon farming, livestock management, peatland rewetting, afforestation and agroforestry, and carbon sequestration in mineral soils are explored as viable carbon farming options. It is clear that there is high potential for scaling agroforestry in Europe as the EU-funded AGFORWARD project for fostering research and innovation on agroforestry pointed out. 

Agroforestry at Tolhurst Organics CIC, part of the AGFORWARD project (Source: AGFORWARD project / Flickr).

However, there are still some challenges to implement carbon farming on the EU level. For instance, two barriers to EU-wide rewards for agroforestry are: 1) Limited knowledge on agroforestry; and 2) difficulties in ensuring simple yet robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) to accurately reward farmers given the context-specificity and diversity of agroforestry systems. Yet, we are confident that with increasing knowledge on agroforestry and with advancements in MRV these barriers could be overcome.

Eco-schemes: Incentivising sustainability and beyond

Second, the F2F strategy mentions how new EU ‘eco-schemes’ – 100% EU-funded voluntary schemes for farmers – will offer a major stream of funding to boost sustainable practices, such as precision agriculture, agro-ecology (including organic farming), carbon farming, and agroforestry. Eco-schemes are a key component of the new CAP.

Based on 9 objectives, the future CAP will continue to ensure access to high-quality food and strong support for the unique European farming model (Source: European Commission).

Eco-schemes will be included within the “first pillar” of the CAP. The first pillar refers to the CAP financial share for income support, direct payments where farmers generally receive income support based on their farm’s size in hectares, through funds from the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF), whereas the second pillar refers to the CAP financial share for rural development, which invests, for example in regional food chain organisations, through funds from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD).

With the eco-schemes under the first pillar, the new CAP could be a more ambitious way to promote sustainability in agriculture. This is because: 1) the first pillar budget represents 70% of the total CAP budget; 2) because the first pilar budget applies to the majority of the EU’s utilised agricultural area, and; 3) since Member States could in theory decide to dedicate 100% of their first pillar budget for eco-schemes.

With the CAP under reform, a new way of working mean that Member States gain more agency and new result indicators are monitored (Source: European Commission).

As part of this new ‘Green Architecture’ of the CAP, eco-schemes could help farmers to introduce new practices and evolve towards more sustainable models. This is under the premises that EU member states design and implement them well, since more autonomy is given to Member States, who can decide the actual content of environmental and climate actions supported under the first pillar.

For agroforestry specifically, where the transition process towards full adoption could be long-term and complex, IFOAM EU suggests that agroforestry could perhaps be better supported as part of the second pillar instead of the first pillar, tapping into funding for agri-environment-climate measures (AECM).

The development of these EU instruments (carbon farming, eco-schemes and AECMs) could function as a catalyst for generating momentum to make regenerative agroforestry and other sustainable agricultural practices mainstream.

Comparison of the CAP’s current architecture and the proposed new green architecture (Source: European Commission, reprinted by IFOAM).

The 2030 Biodiversity strategy: Protecting and restoring nature

The 2030 Biodiversity strategy is an effort to step up the protection and restoration of nature to put biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030. 

The EU acknowledges that – despite existing legal frameworks, strategies and action plans to protect nature and restore habitats and species – protection has been incomplete, restoration has been small-scale, and the implementation and enforcement of legislation has been insufficient.

The 2030 Biodiversity strategy aims to: 1) better protect nature by improving and widening the network of protected areas into a ‘Trans-European Nature Network’ and, 2) better restore nature by developing an ambitious ‘EU Nature Restoration Plan’.

Protecting and restoring for thriving landscapes

In specific, the strategy includes the establishment of protected areas for at least 30% of land in Europe, and the restoration of degraded ecosystems, through goals including (with goals overlapping with the F2F strategy not mentioned): 

  • Halting and reversing the decline of farmland birds and insects, in particularly pollinators, by bringing back at least 10% of agricultural area under high-diversity landscape features such as hedgerows
  • Halting soil degradation, including stepping up efforts to protect soil fertility, reduce soil erosion and increase soil organic matter
  • Planting 3 billion trees by 2030, including the use of agroforestry in rural areas

To make this a reality, the EU wants to realise €20 billion per year for biodiversity through various sources, including EU funds, national and private funding. Natural capital and biodiversity considerations will be integrated into business practices.

Hedgerows – rows of shrubs or trees planted as boundary lines – such as these in the United Kingdom, offer warmth, protection and a place to nest for a wide range of species: butterflies, bats, birds, hedgehogs, and dormice (Source: Sam Abell / National Geographic).

Regenerative agroforestry enables life

The 2030 Biodiversity strategy mentions how the uptake of agroforestry support measures under rural development should be increased as it has great potential to provide multiple benefits for biodiversity, people and climate.

Largely overlapping with the F2F strategy, the 2030 Biodiversity strategy includes a strong focus on making agriculture nature-inclusive and nature-friendly, and mentions agroforestry as a key component.

Agroforestry elements, such as individual trees or hedgerows could become integrated within the landscape in a mosaic of human settlements and nature, where they can be multi-beneficial elements for the benefit of agricultural production as well as wildlife habitat.

For instance, traditional hedgerow systems in France provide protection for cattle, successfully constraining cattle movement, the regulation of runoff and soil erosion, improved landscape aesthetics, and successful designation of property limits, with firewood production and the protection of wild fauna being supplementary benefits.

The years to come: Investing in knowledge and innovation

To move towards sustainable food systems in the EU, the Commission has planned several steps that they’d like to see taken within the coming years. 

Next to two Green Deal and CAP components that were already mentioned (carbon farming and the eco-schemes and associated CAP reforms) there are further developments to keep an eye out for. As explained in the F2F strategy, big achievements have to be made in Research and Innovation (R&I) as well as knowledge creation and dissemination.

Under the R&I programme called Horizon Europe, which is proposed at a budget of about €100 billion in total, the European Commission proposes to spend €10 billion on R&I on food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture and the environment as well as the use of digital technologies and nature-based solutions for agri-food.

One ‘mission area’ of the Horizon Europe programme is soil health and food, aiming to develop solutions for restoring soil health and functions. As the F2F strategy envisions, new knowledge and innovations will also scale up agro-ecological approaches through a dedicated partnership on agro-ecology living laboratories.

Stimulating research and innovation on soil health and food is part of the Horizon Europe programme (Source: Thomas Gamstaetter / Unsplash).

To further enable innovation, the InvestEU Fund will stimulate investment in the agro-food sector by de-risking investments by European corporations and facilitating access to finance for small and medium enterprises and mid-cap companies.

The Commission will also promote effective ‘Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems’ (AKIS), for knowledge exchange involving all food chain actors. In addition, the ‘Farm Sustainability Data Network’ (improving on the existing ‘Farm Accountancy Data Network’ (FADN)) will collect data on the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategy targets and other sustainability indicators, allowing the benchmarking of farm performance against regional, national, or sectoral averages. 

What the future holds is up to all of us

This year is a “crucial one” for agroforestry in Europe, said Patrick Worms, Senior science policy advisor of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and president of the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF) in a recent interview

The European Commission’s Green Deal sets out a roadmap for what they see as a sustainable European future. As this article discussed, many different elements of the Green Deal could be promising in catalysing our mission to make agroforestry mainstream.

Just recently, the Commission has proposed to reinforce the budget for rural development (second pillar) for the next years by €15 billion. This is part of a recovery plan from the COVID-19 pandemic (“Next Generation EU”), acknowledging the importance of rural development, and giving an extra push towards achieving the ambitious climate and environmental targets within the new Biodiversity and F2F strategies.

We need collective action

However, despite these formidable efforts, the Commission can only do as much as this – beyond their ability to craft legislation and provide technical and financial support, it is up to member states to contribute to a Greener Europe. Especially now that, under the new architecture of the CAP, much of the detailed rule-crafting and decision-making is repatriated to the Member States.

Member states should take serious action, given that widespread political support for a greener Europe is needed. A recent survey among European citizens shows that Europeans care a great deal about the environment – which indicates the base for political support is largely there already!

Researching the attitudes of European citizens towards the environment reveals that Europeans care a great deal about the environment (Source: Special Eurobarometer 501).

There is a role for all of us here: without public and private support for Regenerative Agroforestry, member states will not support it far and deep. So we need to make sure that we work to advance it: we need knowledge creation and dissemination, investments, new legislation, and new business models on Regenerative Agroforestry.

So – whether you are a student, a farmer, a banker, or an agroforestry-enthusiast in general – everybody, ‘from farm to fork’, is needed in order to make the transition towards making agroforestry mainstream successful.


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