The European Parliament has rejected campaigners' demands to tie the majority of farm subsidies to protection of the environment.
It now looks inevitable that farmers will continue to receive most of their 58bn-euro (£50bn) annual subsidies for doing little more than owning land.
MEPs agreed that farmers should work for 30% of their payments by operating in a way that benefits wildlife.
But they delayed and watered down the changes proposed by the EU Commission.
Environmentalists were demanding that 10% of farmland should be secured for wildlife through subsidies. MEPs decided the figure should start at 3%, stepping gradually to 5% and maybe ultimately 7%.
Greens had mustered a big public campaign for radical reform. A poll from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England suggested that 84% of people wanted farmers to protect wildlife and the countryside.
The chair of the parliament's agriculture committee, Paolo De Castro, said: "We have struck a proper balance between food security and improved environmental protection, so that the new EU farm policy can deliver even more public goods to EU citizens.
“But it also must be made less bureaucratic and fairer to farmers, not least to empower them to cope with crises."
The MEPs will now go into negotiation with the European Council and Commission over the future shape of subsidies.
Environmentalists are bitter overall at the parliament decision – but relieved that MEP turned down amendments weakening the Commission's plans for the so-called “greening” of the Common Agricultural Policy even further.
The MEPs rejected a proposal that farmers could be paid twice over for helping wildlife - a plan declared illegal by the Commission. They also agreed that farmers who break laws on, say, hormones or pollution, should lose some of their subsidies as a consequence.
Tycho Vandermaesen from the green group WWF said: “It is a relief that some of the more ridiculous proposals to undermine the greening have not been accepted. But overall this is a very weak package - this is very far from what the citizens of Europe have been demanding.”
The BirdLife campaigner Trees Robijns accused the MEPs of confusion and incoherence. “This is very, very disappointing. Obviously it is not as completely awful as it might have been but this was supposed to be a radical reform of the CAP and we are not seeing that.”
She was angry that MEPs turned down an opportunity to oblige farmers to earn subsidy by obeying the existing Water Framework Directive and Birds and Habitats Directives.
“They also refused to offer much-needed protection for wetlands and carbon-rich soils,” she said. “MEPs continually refuse to support the most valuable and vulnerable farming systems in Europe. These high nature-value farming systems face a harsh choice between abandonment and intensification.”
The CAP costs each British taxpayer around £400 a year, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Some of that cash will continue to subsidise tobacco farmers, following Wednesday’s vote - despite Europe-wide efforts to reduce smoking.
Parliament did agree that income from subsidies should not exceed 300,000 euros for any individual farm. But critics warn that farmers will simply split farms administratively, to gain their maximum subsidies.
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