To look across the rolling fields of Jean-Claude Thibert’s Normandy farm is to see the past, present and future of the European countryside.
A pig farm, in business for 50 years, occupies the front of his 90-hectare plot on the edge of a scenic valley not far from Mont Saint-Michel. Behind the piggery stretch fields of corn, which has proved more lucrative than pork with today’s rising grain prices.
But Mr. Thibert’s most recent efforts, on the rear 15 hectares of his land, are examples of Europe’s most dramatic and least publicized agricultural innovation - the complete abandonment of farming. Like hundreds of thousands of farmers across Europe, he has taken money from the European Union to cut out agriculture entirely and turn his fields back into wild forest. When he gets older, he says, he might join the growing population of farmers who are ending generations of agriculture and letting the forests return.
Europe’s accomplishment, little understood even by its practitioners, offers valuable lessons for other countries. You can’t help asking: Would it be in the Canadian government’s interest to spend more money to turn the country’s fields, especially those that require agricultural subsidies, back into forests?
Given the continent’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and to this week’s attempt in Bali to reduce greenhouse emissions, you might think that the European Union is eager to shout about its aggressive regreening. Instead, it’s a phenomenon I discovered only after speaking to peasant farmers in the far-eastern fringes of Europe.
There, where as much as half the populations of these poor ex-communist countries are family farmers (in Canada, our agricultural population is more like 2 per cent), a debate is raging among these farmers over whether to take EU money to turn farms into woodlands. In the wealthier Western European countries, a large number have answered Yes: Thanks to EU programs, Ireland’s forest cover has increased to 10 per cent of the country’s land from 5 per cent in the 1980s. Spain has seen a similar doubling.
According to a study released last month with absolutely no fanfare by the United Nations Ministerial Conference for the Protection of Forests in Europe, the continent’s forest cover has expanded by almost 10 per cent since 1990, and a much larger greening seems to be under way, reversing centuries of deforestation. The greatest share of this growth is a result of deliberate policies designed to turn farmland into woodland.
It is safe to say the European continent now has more forest than at any time since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
You can see the results if you care to look. On the back forty of Mr. Thibert’s farm, a thick glade of oak, chestnut and poplar trees, lined with walking trails and visited by hunters, mushroom gatherers and nature seekers, covers land that was productive field a decade ago and joins the forests of other farmers who have turned the clock back on their land. Across the valley, you can see dozens of erstwhile farms reverting to wild nature.
The European Commission’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development - the most expensive department in the 27-nation federation, responsible for a huge and controversial system of agricultural subsidies that eat up 44 per cent of the EU’s tax revenues - is launching a new “afforestation” program this month, with a budget of $3.6-billion over the next six years, that it hopes will turn hundreds of thousands of hectares back into forest and encourage thousands of families to get out of farming.
That follows a program in the 1990s that reforested 1.5 million hectares of land for $1.5-billion and one that ended in 2006 that produced a still-unknown level of greenery - possibly as much as a million hectares - for $3.5-billion. Forestry experts say equal amounts of forest cover are being generated for free, by farmers simply abandoning marginal farmland, in wet, rocky and mountainous areas, especially in southern Europe and the Balkans.
For Mr. Thibert, it was a question of economics and aesthetics. Some of his fields were damp or hilly, making them difficult to farm. So when he learned that EU money would cover half the cost of reforestation and then provide $450 per hectare per year to manage the forests for 14 years (seven years for the faster-growing poplar trees), he jumped at the opportunity.
“It made sense for me - a third of my fields were just too much work to farm and it was worth the money to make them wild again,” Mr. Thibert said. “Besides, it looks very attractive. Some day I might turn it all back into forest.”
That is the hope of many EU bureaucrats, and of many of the continent’s national governments. Farmland has become an unaffordable luxury for governments. The world has far too much land under cultivation. This produces either enormous surpluses of unneeded food, as in the West, or it produces the situation in the poorer two-thirds of the world: inefficient, subsistence-level farms that ought to be turned into more compact, high-employment, high-efficiency farming businesses.
Europe faces both problems, too many farmers in the east and too many farms in the west. The result is $57-billion in agricultural subsidies that anger African governments, bewilder European taxpayers and distort markets. The solution has been a move toward a new system: Instead of being paid for the food they produce, farmers will soon be paid for the land they administer.
And once they’re being paid the same amount regardless how much food they produce in an economy that has too much food, an obvious question arises: Why not pay them for land that produces no food at all - especially when that land is producing an even more valuable commodity, carbon reduction? A hectare of forest will “sink” 150 tonnes of carbon, easing the continent’s Kyoto Protocol commitments on reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“We wanted to give new possibilities to farmers for new activities on their land, and provide opportunities for land uses other than farming,” says Ignacio Seoane, a forestry official with the European Commission. “But the measures for the period from 2007 to 2013 are also focused on environmental measures.”
This should be a cause for boasting. But it remains obscure - it took me weeks to find out how much forest has been produced in Europe (and precise figures are still unknown).
In part, this has to do with the strange nature of Europe: The “afforestation” grants are paid by Brussels to the 27 member countries, which each administers them in its own distinctive way; there are no Europe-wide goals or statistics and each nation defines “forest” and “farmland” as it chooses.
But there are also huge political barriers. The family farm remains a mythic institution around the world, even though it’s one of the worst businesses and biggest sources of human misery in many places. To detach people from their land, or to detach their land from its crops, is to unleash a controversial form of change. In France, the farmers unions wouldn’t introduce me to people like Mr. Thibert, so resistant are they to the idea of grants for reforestation of agricultural land. It took a regional forestry organization to put me in touch with him.
In Eastern Europe, where these programs could have their most dramatic effect, I found farmers embroiled in debate over the merits of giving up farms for forest.
“I have thought about taking the money to plant trees and give up my farming life,” said Marian Snarski, the 55-year-old head of a farming family in the village of Tatari, in Poland near the border of Belarus. The money is better than what he receives each year from his crops. In fact, his largest source of income - larger than EU and Polish farming subsidies combined with his crops - is his oldest daughter, who works cleaning floors in London and sends half her pay home each month.
But he doesn’t trust the system, which pays money only after the trees have grown. And he can’t imagine how to live without a crop to harvest. “I’ll take the afforestation money when I retire and start getting my pension at 65,” he says. “I’ll do that, and I know that most men around here will, if they still have money for this. It’s not good land and I don’t want my children to be farming on it.”
There is worldwide debate over what to do with farmland that doesn’t produce much food. In Western Europe and North America, there is a parallel debate over what to do with farmland that produces unneeded food.
Both debates have been suspended by a sudden, artificial rise in grain prices mainly caused by U.S. subsidies for ethanol fuel production, which have driven up the price of corn, wheat and other grains, raising the price of bread and pasta and drawing farmers back to cropland.
But most experts agree that the larger move is toward less farmland used more efficiently, and therefore more forest. The question is how to make this transition with minimal human pain.
“Since the two world wars ended here, we have watched a lot of land go back to forest. It’s like watching history reverse itself,” says Giuliana Zanchi, a forestry expert from the University of Padua in Italy. “When I was a child, the hills above me in northern Italy were covered with fields, because you farmed even cold and rocky land to feed your family. Now, we have opportunities to do things more efficiently, and I’m watching those hills turn back to trees.
“It’s a strange thing, watching nature come back.”