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European Parliament endorses nature restoration law as farmers fear financial fallout

BRUSSELS, March 2, 2024 – The European Parliament has voted in favor of a landmark nature restoration law amid right-wing pushback and farmer protests. While environmentalists see the new law as a historic opportunity to restore nature in Europe, landowners question how it will be financed.

The Nature Restoration Law, a pillar of the European Green Deal, aims to restore at least 20 percent of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. According to the EU, over 80 percent of European habitats are in “poor shape.”

Member states must restore at least 30 percent of habitats covered by the new law, from forests and grasslands to rivers and coral beds, from “poor” to “good” condition by 2030, increasing to 60 percent by 2040 and 90 percent by 2050, to support these targets.

Copa-Cogeca, an organization representing EU farmers, generally supports the new law but regrets “the way it has been constructed or pushed through,” which, it claims, was “flawed from the start.” It stresses that landowners will need support to make long-term changes happen with short-term investments.

But for The Restore Nature coalition, consisting of Bird Life Europe, Client Earth, European Environmental Bureau and WWF EU, the law is “a symbol that Europe can, and will, commit to fighting for the survival of our planet.”

“We are relieved that MEPs listened to facts and science and did not give in to populism and fearmongering. Now, we urge member states to follow suit and deliver this much-needed law,” the coalition said in a statement.

Fights with farmers
The Nature Restoration Law was adopted with 329 votes in favor, 275 against and 24 abstentions. The law still requires formal approval from member states, which is expected to occur later this month or in April.

Member states will need to improve biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems, with a special focus on restoring drained peatlands, which is seen as one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions in the sector.

The European Parliament views the law as an “emergency brake,” meaning agricultural targets can be suspended under “exceptional circumstances” if they severely reduce the land needed for sufficient food production for EU consumption.

The European People’s Party [EPP] has repeatedly claimed that the law will threaten EU farmers’ livelihoods. Before Tuesday’s vote, EPP chairman Manfred Weber said the law is “badly drafted” and “never up to the task in front of us.”

“Inflation is today driven by the rise of food prices in supermarkets. We have to ask our farmers to produce more and not less to stabilise inflation,” he added.

For Slow Food, an organisation promoting local food and traditional cooking, the Nature Restoration Law represents a positive change for the food industry during an escalating global environmental crisis.

“The passing of this law is the best response to the disinformation campaign waged by the agro-industrial lobbies in recent months against the policies of the European Green Deal and the objectives of the Farm2Fork Strategy,” Marta Messa, secretary general at Slow Food, tells Food Ingredients First.

“If implemented, the law would work toward active conservation of biodiversity and true ecological transition. Reintroducing natural elements into agro-ecosystems — for a healthier agriculture rich in biodiversity — could favor the use of agro-ecological methods in food production.”

Dairy cattle (Internet photo).

However, according to Copa-Cogeca, European farmers, forest-owners and cooperatives will continue working with national governments to ensure the “flawed law” is implemented with minimal harm to primary sectors.

Last month, environmentalists accused policymakers of favoring discontented farmers over long-term climate change mitigation after the European Commission revealed new plans to weaken its agriculture-related GHG emission targets.

“Ecocide” criminalisation
The Nature Restoration Law was not the only pivotal legislation MEPs approved this week. The European Parliament also backed a new directive criminalizing large-scale environmental damage. After months of negotiation between the Parliament, Commission and Council, 499 MEPs voted in favor (100 against, 23 abstained) to update the Environmental Crime Directive.

The new text sets stricter and harmonized financial penalties for ecological destruction, including up to 5% of a company’s annual worldwide turnover, limited to €40 million (∼US$43.4 million), and up to 10-year prison sentences for individuals, like CEOs.

The updated law also extends the list of environmental crimes to include the illegal timber trade, “serious breaches” of EU chemicals legislation, depletion of water resources and pollution caused by ships.

Circuthon Consulting founder Paul Foulkes-Arellano says it is “astonishing” that the law passed since so much other environmental legislation has been watered down in Europe.

“Those are tough penalties, but we will only know how effective the legislation is when CEOs are behind bars. Once people are jailed, that will make all C-suites sit up and listen,” he tells Food Ingredients First.

“Those penalties are in addition to existing protections — last year, 3M was forced to invest approximately €571 million in previously agreed remedial actions to reduce the risk of PFAS contamination harming humans and the environment in Flanders, Belgium.”

In a press conference, European Parliament rapporteur Antonius Manders said the new law is not “meant to build more prisons, rather that we introduce prevention and the precautionary principle.”

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