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A new decade, a new CAP

Five leading European farming and environmental NGOs, who between them boast several million members, have jointly published a blueprint for a new Common Agricultural Policy. In an unusual and very modern step, they have published a draft proposal and opened it for consultation. They will produce a final version in 2010. The proposal, which runs to 28 pages, is for a radical reorientation of the CAP away from a productivist and income support model towards a ‘public money for public goods’ ethos.

The proposal, which comes from BirdLife International, the European Environmental Bureau, the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and WWF, begins with a fierce critique of the current CAP. It is argued that most of the €55 billion spent by the EU on the CAP “still goes to a very small number of large or resource intensive farms, and all too often to those engaged in unsustainable practices.” The leaps in agricultural productivity in the EU over the past 50 years have

“been based primarily on unsustainable use of natural resources and has brought significant negative environmental effects.”

Specifically, the proposal refers to over-exploitation of water, over-reliance on fossil fuels inputs, soil erosion and depletion of soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, decline in the character of landscape, pollution of rivers and seas and increased pesticide residues in foods. Climate change means this model of intensive agriculture will become ever less sustainable than it already is. Meanwhile, European farming has shed much of its workforce and many of Europe’s remote rural areas are in apparently terminal social, environmental and economic decline.

What is proposed is a new set of objectives for the CAP to replace those set out in the founding treaties and which – quite unbelievably – are transposed word-for-word into the new Lisbon Treaty. The new objectives, it is argued, should be as follows:

• To create the environmental conditions to sustain long-term agricultural production through the protection of ecosystems and their services (soil, air and water) and the sustainable use of natural resources;
• To accelerate the transition toward resource-efficient farming that is less dependent on fossil inputs and more resilient in the face of climate change and other external pressures;
• To promote conditions for the production of safe, healthy and high quality food;
• To maintain and enhance (wild) farmland biodiversity by halting and reversing declines;
• To maintain (domesticated) agricultural biodiversity ;
• To contribute to achieving ‘good status’ in European freshwater systems and adjacent coastal waters;
• To contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation;
• To support the maintenance of landscapes and a rural heritage rich in aesthetic, cultural or historical value;
• To contribute to the rural vitality of areas highly dependent on agriculture and where this is important to support the viability of those farming systems which underpin the delivery of public goods;
• To promote enhanced animal welfare;
• To support sustainable food systems which better connect producers and consumers.

To deliver on these objectives, the CAP must move away from ‘a logic of dependency and compensation’ to ‘a new contract between farmers and society’ in which farmers are rewarded for their role as land managers providing tangible benfits to society. Public money should be tied to the provision of public goods and no public money should be used to support activities which have adverse environmental impacts (the ‘polluter pays’ principal that is already enshrined in the EU Treaty but which in relation to agriculture is more honoured in the breach than in the observance). The proposal is clear that the current system of cross compliance, in which farmers are apparently paid for observing the law, is not acceptable:

“Payments should not, as a general rule, be made to farmers or land managers for respecting this mandatory baseline.”

Not only that, but the proposal argues the mandatory baseline should be raised with the addition of EU laws on water, soil, pesticides and industrial emissions.

Where the proposal starts to get even more radical is when it asserts that that certain farming systems consistently deliver more public goods than others yet these farming systems are not currently well-supported in the current CAP. The proposal identifies organic farming and high natural value (HNV) farming as the farming systems that should be most heavily supported in the new CAP. Conventional farming, it is argued, does not produce public goods to anywhere near the same extent. Where they do, “this is highly dependent on the management decisions taken by the farmer and is often not an inherent product of a conventional farming approach”.

In the context of the CAP, the revolutionary nature of this approach cannot be overstated. Since its inception the CAP has been based around the idea of maximising production by rewarding the most productive, intensive and conventional agriculture. Recent rhetoric about the sustainability of ‘European model of agriculture’ is mostly just that: rhetoric. The dirty secret of European farming is that much of it is among the most intensive in the world. With a large population to feed from a relatively small area of (fairly expensive) land, European farmers choose to apply more chemical fertilizers and pesticides than farmers elsewhere in the world and have to stock their animals more densely. Unsustainable water use is a problem for agriculture the world over, but as the proposal points out, “agriculture accounts for over 60% of total water use in southern EU countries”, much of which is being extracted from underground aquifers far faster than it is be replenished. What BirdLife, WWF and their partners are proposing is a fundamental reorientation of the CAP away from a production-maximising paradigm of agriculture to a sustainability-maximising paradigm.

The proposal argues that the CAP of the past is in part responsible for this unsustainable path and the current CAP does very little to check it, in some cases continuing to reward intensification. It follows that what is required is the complete sweeping away of the current first pillar of the CAP – the market mechanisms, export subsidies and ‘compensatory payments’ for historical cuts to intervention prices that between them amount for the bulk of current CAP expenditure. In their place is proposed five core schemes:

1. Basic Farm Sustainability Scheme. This would be open to all farmers and land managers and would aim to achieve a ‘green transition’ for conventional farming and drive improvements in biodiversity, resource use and landscape character. The payment would be a flat-rate area payment, decoupled from production. The rate would vary by member state or region, within upper and lower limits set at an EU level.

2. High Nature Value System Support Scheme.
This would support the maintenance or recovery of farming systems that deliver high levels of public goods but are threatened by marginalisation, abandonment or conversion to intensive farming. Member states would have flexibility to vary the rates of payment according to national priorities.

3. Organic System Support Scheme.
This would aim to increase the amount of organic farming in the EU through support for conversion to, and maintenance of, organic farming.

4. Targeted Agri-Environment Schemes. These would be used to address specific problems such as species or habitat loss, soil erosion and salination, water pollution etc. These contracts would be very detailed and targeted.

5. Natura 2000 and Water Framework Directive compensation schemes.
These would provide compensation to farmers or land managers subject to specific restrictions arising from these two compulsory EU regulations.

The existing investment grant aids in the CAP’s rural development programmes would be retained but restricted to the provision of public goods and not aimed exclusively at “improving the competitiveness of individual producers”. Investment grants would only be awarded to farms that are already participating in organic, HNV or agri-environment schemes. Farm advisory and agricultural extension services would be provided to address knowledge-gaps among farmers, help them in their ‘green transition’ and assist in the drawing up of land management plans and help with marketing for HNV and organic farms. There would also be separate, non-farm based measures for rural communities threatened by abandonment.

New objectives will require new delivery mechanisms but the proposal makes the case for retaining a common European approach on the grounds that “the EU has the covernance structure to pursue collective action at the required scale”.

While the proposal does defend the idea of a common European agricultural policy, it is neverthless a radical departure from the shared view of European Commission’s DG Agri, the European Parliament’s agriculture committee and most farm ministries and farm unions that basically European farmers are on the right track in terms of sustainability and they just need a substantial, relatively no-strings-attached stream of financial aid to keep them going. What BirdLife, WWF and their partners are saying is that most European farmers are actually on the wrong track and will need to change their ways if they’re going to become sustainability in the future.

Such a radical shift in the paradigm of European farm policy will inevitably result in massive changes to the allocation of the CAP budget at a farm level. Intensive farms producing few public goods would see their support reduced while extensive, HNV and organic farms would get much more. A transitional period is suggested but there is no denying that the politics of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ is toxic. Though not impossible as shown by Michel Barnier who used the CAP ‘health check’ to take money from French barley barons and give it to livestock farmers in upland areas.

The proposal implies a big shift of resources away from supporting conventional farms towards supporting HNV and organic farming. Opponents will inevitably be argued that if the result is that the ‘basic stewardship’ flat-rate scheme (BFSS) is funded at too low level there may well be a large swathe of more commercially-oriented farms that decide not to participate at all and instead to embrace an even more intensive method of production to make up for lost subsidy revenues.

Getting the balance right between achieving suffciently high participation in the BFSS, setting farm-level requirements that represent better value for public money than the current CAP direct payments while delivering a real increase to funding for HNV, organic and agri-environment policies will be a real challenge. If, as is proposed, this balancing act is left to member states, there is a very real risk that the new policy framework will simply be ‘retro-fitted’ onto the existing allocation of subsidies of the currenty CAP, for instance by rebadging SPS/SAPS as the Basic Farm Stewardship Scheme, the existing Less Favoured Area scheme as the HFA scheme and continuing to keep existing organic and agri-environment measures with their relatively low level of funding.

It is to be expected at such an early stage that a proposal such as this should focus on aims, objectives and instruments rather than numbers. Tactically it may be necessary to maintain the coalition that is behind the proposal and to attract more supporters. Sooner or later, however, there will need to be some more detail in the proposal on the allocation of resources between the five core schemes, even if it is just EU guidelines for maximum and minimum payment rates.

The consultation is open and you can read the proposal in full and contribute your own views, over here.

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One Reply to “A new decade, a new CAP”

  1. One of the greatest problems with the current CAP is that huge amounts of money go to food “transformers” – ie industrials who are forced to buy EU produce with which to make their products (milk-based, sugar-based, etc). These are not farmers. Indeed they themselves may be one of the causes of “industrial agriculture”. What reason is there for a continued CAP support of their businesses?

    I wish these NGO’s luck. Whilst their proposals look eminently sensible to me (as a taxpayer and therefore CAP contributer), I must draw attention to the recent Paris meeting of 22 EU member nations’ agricultural ministers. The French view of their joint agreement was more or less CAP as usual.

    Play the Environmental card! Let’s have real fines directly onto the real polluters. EU agriculture currently uses more petro-chemical products (fertilisers, herbicides, etc) than many other industries. (Though, in France, one must not call agriculture an industry). They are polluting water-courses, destroying wild-life and impoverishing their soils.

    Bon courage, mes braves!

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