Is Europe green, actually?

I have always considered Europe to be one of the most progressives places in the world. But it turns out that this is not so in some important ways. A recent article in the New York Times (December 25, 2019) says that EU farm subsidies are both corrupt and destroying the European environment. So, Is Europe green, actually?

A surprisingly large part of the European national budget goes to agricultural subsidies. These subsidies are 40% of the annual EU budget. They add up to over $65 billion a year. And it turns out that all of this money is not making Europe greener. In, some ways, all of these billions are destroying the European environment.

Nitrate pollution from over-use of commercial fertilizers is a big problem in the EU.  It is ending up destroying the oceans and ocean beaches in the north of Europe.  And this nitrate pollution is paid for by farm subsidies in the EU.  On left is a map of farm subsidies in Northern Italy and France.  At right is a map of Nitrate Pollution in this same area.  The two maps are almost exact matches.  The darker the color the more nitrates.   New York Times chart.  So, Is Europe green, actually? Not so much.
Nitrate pollution from over-use of commercial fertilizers is a big problem in the EU. It is ending up destroying the oceans and ocean beaches in the north of Europe. And this nitrate pollution is paid for by farm subsidies in the EU. On left is a map of farm subsidies in Northern Italy and France.  At right is a map of Nitrate Pollution in this same area. The two maps are almost exact matches. The darker the color the more nitrates. New York Times chart.

Exactly how the European farm subsidy gets spent is a big secret. The New York Times tried for a good part of 2019 to figure out exactly who this money goes to and exactly how is spent. The Times Reporters had a very difficult time getting the data to write this article and were sidetracked and lied to and deceived every step of the way by both the EU government and the recipients of the subsidies. Finally, after piecing together what data they could convince the EU to give them and investigating farmers and governments and administrators all over Europe, they came up with some pretty distressing answers.

This article is based on the facts that several reporters finally managed to extract on what is really going on with European farm subsidies.

The big picture is that the people receiving all of these agricultural subsidies are some of the most powerful people in Europe. These folks have no interest in revealing how this money is actually spent and most of all they are not interested in reducing the flow of the money even a tiny bit.

And how all this money is actually spent is pretty scary. Most of it is actually going into the destruction of the European environment.

Imagine being a bird here. Imagine being a butterfly here, there is no food for you.  As a result birds and insects and butterflies  are dying in droves in the EU.  Picture from  New York Times.  So, Is Europe green, actually? Not so much.
Imagine being a bird here. Imagine being a butterfly here, there is no food for you. As a result birds and insects and butterflies are dying in droves in the EU. Picture from New York Times.

The EU claims to be one of the most environmental of all world governments. Their overall greenhouse emissions have dropped radically over the last ten years. But this is not the entire picture.

Let’s begin with the damage done to the environment by the use of massive amounts of fertilizer used all over Europe. European farmers are able to buy huge amounts of fertilizer for their fields because of the massive agricultural subsidies they get from the EU. The runoff from these fields enters the river systems of Europe and finally ends up mainly in the oceans north of Europe, the Baltic Sea mostly.

All of this extra fertilizer dumped into the oceans causes the growth of green algae. This is a known problem all over the world from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi delta to large bodies of water all over the world. Heavily fertilized fields dump nitrates into the oceans, this stimulates green algae, and this kills our oceans.

Some of the green algae also turns up on Northern European beaches, sliming them with hundreds of thousands of tons of the stuff. These fields of algae then rot and give off hydrogen sulfide gas which is poisonous and kills everything it comes into contact with including fish, wildlife, and humans. People and animals have been dying on the Northern European beaches for quite some time now. They are not dying in huge spectacular numbers, but people are dying after contact with algae on the beaches.

It took a long time for the EU government to even admit there was a green slime problem on their beaches and even longer to admit that it was killing people, dogs, wildlife, birds, whatever,   Now they are finally admitting that there is a problem and they are trying to deal with it by scraping up the slime and removing it.  But it looks like they have to long way to go to solve the problem .   The slime seems to be winning.   New York Times picture.    So, Is Europe green, actually? Not so much.
It took a long time for the EU government to even admit there was a green slime problem on their beaches and even longer to admit that it was killing people, dogs, wildlife, birds, whatever, Now they are finally admitting that there is a problem and they are trying to deal with it by scraping up the slime and removing it. But it looks like they have to long way to go to solve the problem . The slime seems to be winning. New York Times picture.

The green algae in the oceans also dies and sinks to the bottom where it uses up all the oxygen in the water and creates huge dead zones. The result is very large areas of the Baltic Sea in which nothing is now alive. It is a sterile waste land.

The same thing happens in ponds anywhere which have excess nitrates. There is an algae bloom caused by the exponential growth of algae. With nothing to limit the algae growth, the population explodes overnight, all the oxygen is used up, the algae dies and rots and any left over oxygen is used up and a dead pond is the result. Some of the more poetic observers have noted that this may be a metaphor for the exploding growth and future extinction of human beings. This is surely an over-simplification though.

The same thing is true of course in the Gulf of Mexico near the outlet of any of the rivers that dump into the Gulf, primarily the Mississippi. In every case there is the same de-oxygenated dead zone that is totally devoid of life.

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Another major problem in Europe is the birds. Birds are dying in large numbers all over Europe. This is most due to the rapidly increasing size of farms in Europe. Famers all over Europe are being encouraged to increase the land they are plowing and to eliminate hedgerows between fields. This ends up destroying most of the food that birds live on. And so birds are dying in very large numbers all over Europe. And the same thing is happening with butterflies and other insects.

Actually birds are not only dying in Europe, they are dying all over the world. It seems that in the last 50 years people have just taken over too much of the world, destroying wildlife habitat everywhere and pumping too many agricultural poisons into the world. In the last ten years this has become obvious to many people all over the world. Some bird populations and declining by 50% to 90% all over the world.

Farmland in Upstate New York,
Farmland in Upstate New York,

Below is a quote from the New York Times article about the size of this ecological disaster in Europe. It is all finally catching up with us.

“We are talking about a collapse,” said Frans van Alebeek, an ecologist with BirdLife Netherlands, a wildlife protection group. “There are tipping points in ecology, where entire systems just suddenly collapse. I don’t know how much farther we can go.”

Today, European farms unfurl to the horizon like carpeting. But the vast beauty is misleading.  Butterflies are vanishing and insects are dying off, threatening to unravel the food web that supports life.

Partridges were once ubiquitous, nesting in tall hedges where chicks fed on seeds and insects. But for years farmers have cleared more land to maximize profits and qualify for more subsidies, replacing hedges, flowers and tall grass with crops. The heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides has worsened soil contamination, leaving partridges and other birds without food.

European Union officials have known for nearly two decades about the dire consequences of agricultural policy on wildlife.   In 2004, scientists released two reports that blamed farm subsidies for a decline in bird populations and “severe adverse effects on farmland biodiversity.”

Internal reports were equally gloomy. A  2004 document  predicted that farmland wildlife would decline once new European Union members became eligible for subsidies.   Studies have shown those predictions to be correct.”

This graph shows the decline of the partridge and the turtle dove in the Netherlands between 1950 and 2018.  Populations of both species are now under 2000.  As you can see, the decline is devastating.  Both species have gone rom robust numbers to almost nothing.   New York Times.  So, Is Europe green, actually? Not so much.
This graph shows the decline of the partridge and the turtle dove in the Netherlands between 1950 and 2018.  Populations of both species are now under 2000. As you can see, the decline is devastating. Both species have gone rom robust numbers to almost nothing. New York Times.

“The Gray partridge is a chunky, shy farmland bird. It is what scientists call an indicator species, a sign of a healthy balance between humankind and nature. If the partridge population declined, say, 20 percent, scientists would grow alarmed. Yet in less than three decades the partridge population in the Netherlands has fallen more than 90 percent. Britain has experienced similar declines.”

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Another problem is who the huge European agricultural subsidies are going to . It turns out that the major recipients of the funds are some of the most powerful and wealthy landowners in Europe. It seems these landowners are also dominant politicians who are creating something like a new feudal system in many parts of Europe. The landowners have all the money and all they power and they dole it out to the peasants in return for their loyalty and fealty.

The main problem seems to be that the people who manage the EU subsidy programs are mostly the same people that the subsidies are going to. For example Andrej Babis is both a billionaire agriculturist and the prime minister of the Czech Republic.

According to the New York Times article, “Mr. Babis is Exhibit A of how the system benefits the wealthy and connected. His government shapes agricultural subsidies in the Czech Republic. It also gave $42 million in European subsidies last year to his domestic companies, according to a New York Times analysis. His holdings in Germany, Hungary and Slovakia received another $7 million.

Subkowy, a farming village in northern Poland. The entire country was designated a "nitrate-vulnerable" zone last year.  New York Times Photo.
Subkowy, a farming village in northern Poland. The entire country was designated a “nitrate-vulnerable” zone last year. New York Times Photo.

All of the farm subsidies are meant to support small farmers and to sustain rural communities. However, it looks like a large part of the $65 billion that is annually spent on farm subsidies in the EU is actually going to a lot of people who are anything but small farmers.

“In November, a New York Times investigation revealed that the subsidies underwrite oligarchs, mobsters and far-right populists. The Times also showed that some national leaders use the money to enrich friends, political allies and family members.”

So, not only are the EU farm subsidies destroying the environment in the EU they are also supporting some of the wealthiest and most politically objectionable people in the world. And this group of people is also one of the least democratic in Europe. Some of the new autocrats we read about daily belong to this group.

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Many reformers have tried to fix the European agricultural subsidy problem. Lots of people know the program is rotten to the core and that it is destroying the European environment and enriching the wrong people. But many big farmers and agricultural corporations in the EU that receive subsidies are very powerful and very rich. As soon as it looks like any kind of reform is in the works, all kinds of lobbies immediately jump into action. The lobbies are everything from local farmers who block major highways for miles with their tractors to many of the EU’s highest officials and parliamentarians and the wealthy leaders of many of the countries that make up the EU.

Barn in upstate New York
Barn in upstate New York

Any legislation that has anything to do with limiting agricultural subsidies looks impossible to pass. It looks a lot like banning firearms in the US. Just like in the US, there are massive amounts of money along with widespread corruption involved. Fixing the agricultural subsidy problem in the EU looks a long way off to me.

I have to say that this New York Times article really shocked me. I have always thought that the EU was one of the most progressive countries in the world. I have always been impressed by how much better European democratic socialism is than our American government which is largely bought and paid for by the very rich. And I have always admired the way many of the EU countries have provided top notch free medical care and old age pensions and supported the rights of working people. And I always thought that the EU led the world in the fight against climate change and for ecology. For example, Germany has always been highly praised for the excellence of its wind turbine program.

Farm in Upstate New York
Farm in Upstate New York

I have known for a long time that the EU had a very generous farm subsidy program that was probably more generous than was needed, but I had no idea that the situation was anything like what this New York Times article reveals.

It seems clear to me that I was wrong in at least some ways about what Europe is actually like. After reading this New York Times article and several other articles, I’m thinking that I need to know a lot more about what is actually going on in the EU. It looks like I have been pretty naive. The answer to my question, Is Europe green, actually? is not very encouraging.

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More reading about EU agricultural subsidies

Killer Slime, Dead Birds, an Expunged Map: The Dirty Secrets of European Farm Subsidies

The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions

Who Keeps Europe’s Farm Billions Flowing? Often, Those Who Benefit

We Just Wanted to Talk E.U. Farm Policy. Why Was Someone Always Looking Over Our Shoulders?

Birds are going extinct all over the world

The end of birds, butterflies and bugs

Farm in upstate New York
Farm in upstate New York
Portland Head Light, low tide.  Maine
Portland Head Light, low tide. Maine


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