Countries across the European Union are finishing new rules for handing out 43 billion euros ($58 billion) in annual EU farm subsidies, a change that has spooked conservationists in drier, pastoral nations like Spain.
A quirk in new EU guidelines could provoke farmers in Mediterranean countries -- where vast, unirrigated pasture and grasslands are a mainstay -- to chop down trees and bushes to avoid subsidy cuts, according to groups lobbying on their behalf. Spain’s agricultural ministry yesterday said that it won’t penalize grazing on wooded areas. Still, ecologists plan to keep pushing until they see the new rules, according to Ana Carricondo, a Spanish coordinator at Seo/Birdlife.
The 28 countries face an Aug. 1 deadline to produce new rules, after the EU last year ordered that aid be given out based on the area of a farmer’s land, rather than on historical production. Because the EU won’t let forested areas be included for subsidy claims, each nation must decide to what degree it penalizes lands whose utility is reduced by trees and bushes.
The changes come into effect in 2015, and they may allow new lands to qualify for subsidies that didn’t get them this year. That will heighten competition for the aid, which is set to remain relatively stable through 2020. Spain received about 5.2 billion euros in direct EU farm aid in 2012.
The changes pit farms that are sustained on rain-fed wooded pastures against more modern, intensive farms with irrigation and chemical fertilizers, according to Spain’s Platform for Open Cattle Farming and Pastoralism. Should traditional cattle or grain farmers respond by clearing trees, erosion control and biodiversity will suffer.
"Although the envelope of money coming into Spain remains more or less the same, the area of land eligible is likely to increase," Roger Waite, a European Commission agricultural spokesman, said in an interview. "We would hope that in the new rules, farmers would not be encouraged to chop down trees."
The U.K. is likely to release its plans this week, he said.
In Europe, communities that live from traditional grazing and cereal production on open pasture or public lands are increasingly competing on price with intensive farming, where animals live in enclosures and eat manufactured feedstock to reduce costs and preserve profits.
The survival of many depends on how EU aid is parceled out. Permanent grasslands decreased in coverage by 6.4 percent in the EU and 12 percent in new member states from 1993 to 2011, according to an article in Science magazine last week.
"This is more of an issue for Mediterranean countries, because they’re drier and with more shrubland," Carricondo said in an interview. "We want a signal that the traditional pastures of Spain are still valued."