The EU states want to finally decide on further easing for farmers today. After large and violent farmers’ protests in several European countries, the EU institutions agreed, among other things, that looser environmental regulations should be made possible and that smaller companies should be exempt from controls. The EU Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, had proposed the corresponding changes, and the EU Parliament approved them almost three weeks ago.

The EU states had already spoken out in favor of the changes in a special agriculture committee on Wednesday; the decision now only needs to be approved at ministerial level before the new rules can come into force. Germany abstained from the vote on Wednesday.

The measures are not without controversy. Politicians across party lines have advocated that farmers need to be relieved. Because many farms in Germany are fighting for their survival – between 2020 and 2023, 7,800 farmers in Germany alone gave up their businesses, according to the Federal Statistical Office. However, with regard to the specific EU relief measures, critics fear that they could have a negative impact on the environment.

At least consumers will probably initially notice little of the new rules. The German Farmers’ Association (DBV) does not assume that food prices will change significantly. These depended primarily on global harvest volumes. Sebastian Lakner, agricultural professor at the University of Rostock, sees it similarly. The costs for agricultural raw materials are often only a small part of the food costs. “That means that even if wheat prices were to rise, it would hardly be noticeable in the final product,” said Lakner.

Fewer environmental regulations for farmers

Essentially, the changes are about relaxing environmental standards that farmers actually have to adhere to in order to benefit from billions in EU agricultural subsidies. Several of these standards can be weakened in the future, but the EU states have a lot of leeway when it comes to implementation. This means, for example, that fewer areas have to be left fallow to protect the soil.

The EU states should also be able to issue exceptions to environmental requirements if “in the event of unforeseen climatic conditions” farmers cannot comply with the rules. It is also planned to exempt small businesses with an area of ​​less than ten hectares from controls and penalties. Lakner sees these changes as a step backwards. Fallow land is important for biodiversity, but scientific recommendations have been ignored. The lack of controls is also problematic, as it means that one cannot expect that environmental regulations will be adhered to. “With these changes, the EU Commission is losing all environmental credibility,” said Lakner.

The German Farmers’ Association (DBV) announced that farmers support environmentally friendly agriculture, regardless of EU agricultural policy. The association is urging Germany to change its national rules so that environmentally friendly measures by farmers – such as flower strips for bees and other animals – are more worthwhile. The FDP agricultural politician Carina Conrad also insists on better incentives for farmers. “Efficient environmental policy does not work through blanket set-aside,” said the deputy group leader.

The federal government did not agree to the easing at EU level due to concerns about environmental protection. “After the internal government discussion, Germany ultimately abstained because the EU Commission’s proposals mean a blanket lowering of protection standards,” said the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, led by the Greens.

Farmer Representative: Urgently Needed Relief

“For agricultural businesses, the changes that have been decided primarily mean an urgently needed initial relief,” said DBV President Joachim Ruckwied. The federal government is now required to implement the EU proposal one-to-one. However, further relief would have to be consistently pursued by a new EU Commission. In the summer, after the EU elections, the EU Commission will also be replaced. Conrad speaks of a “direct economic advantage” that companies would have if they had to leave less land fallow in the future.

Lakner expects minor relief for companies. “However, nothing will change in terms of the main causes of bureaucracy in agriculture, namely the reporting and documentation requirements in animal husbandry,” he told the dpa. Environmental problems will not disappear as a result of the relief, so it can be expected that similar or stricter environmental regulations will return in the short or medium term.