Scientists at the University of Oxford and the Thünen Institute in Braunschweig have investigated how a healthier and more climate-friendly agriculture can be developed by redesigning global agricultural subsidies. The results have now been published in the journal Nature Communications.
Worldwide, more than 200 billion U.S. dollars are spent annually on government services for agriculture. The main focus is on supporting existing agricultural systems and farms, and less on the production of healthy and climate-friendly food. Given that agriculture, including transportation, processing and distribution of food, is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and that many serious diseases can be traced to unbalanced diets, it seems worthwhile to rethink the current system.
In a new study, Dr. Marco Springmann of Oxford University and Dr. Florian Freund of the Thünen Institute for Market Analysis explored options for reforming agricultural subsidies that would improve climate-friendly production and public health. Using model calculations, they ran through several variants - all of which have in common that a portion of the subsidies are linked to the cultivation of food that is both healthy and sustainably produced. That means more horticultural products such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, and less livestock.
Currently, just a quarter of agricultural subsidies are used for horticultural products. The remainder is paid for cereals and oilseeds (about one-third), much of which is used in animal feed - or goes directly to livestock production (meat and dairy farms). If agricultural subsidies were used entirely to promote foods with beneficial health and environmental attributes, this would result in a 19% increase in production of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes in OECD countries (including the EU, USA, and Japan), and a 3% increase in non-OECD countries such as China, Russia, and India. Greenhouse gas emissions would decrease slightly, mainly due to reduced consumption of meat and dairy products and of staple foods associated with the increase in horticultural products (In OECD countries -1.7%, in non-OECD countries -0.2%).
Consumption of fruits and vegetables would increase significantly due to the change in supply: by 10% in OECD countries and by 5% in non-OECD countries. This would reduce diet-related mortality by about 440,000 persons per year, according to the model calculations.
However, the results of the study also show that there are a number of trade-offs. If agricultural subsidies were completely eliminated, this could be economically and environmentally beneficial, but have a negative impact on population health. In contrast, redirecting all subsidies to the production of healthy food that is produced in a climate-friendly manner would improve public health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but would have negative economic impacts.
An approach in which subsidies are more evenly distributed across all countries and all payments are linked to the production of healthy and climate-compatible food proved most promising. However, even if countries maintained their current national subsidy levels and coupled only half of the payments, this would help improve health and sustainability.
Whether and to what extent agricultural subsidies are reformed depends on the will of policymakers, the public, and the relevant interest groups. The tough negotiations surrounding reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provide a glimpse of how difficult such an undertaking is. However, a "public money for public goods" approach is now being promoted in wide circles in the EU and the UK, with farmers being rewarded more for their environmentally responsible actions. Scientific models such as those in the aforementioned study can provide policymakers with an important framework to base their decisions on.