Set-aside: ensuring the environmental benefits

Ariel Brunner in a recent post lamented the fact that the EU has proposed to set the rate of compulsory set-aside to 0% for the 2008 harvest without putting in place alternative measures to secure the environmental benefits which set-aside land provides. The reason why the decision only concerns autumn 2007 and spring 2008 sowings is that a decision to eliminate set-aside can only be done in the context of a global review of arable crops policy. This will be undertaken as part of the CAP Health Check, when the Commission has promised an analysis on how and by which means we can address the positive environmental side effects of set aside. A recent policy options paper for the UK Land Use Policy Group discusses four main options which the Commission might consider.

The four options are:

  • Extend cross compliance to include elements which safeguard the general environmental protection benefits which are currently delivered by set-aside. For example, a proportion of eligible land could be required to be left uncropped or ungrazed to provide an area of habitat or environmental protection, or wider buffer strips alongside watercourses and other environmentally important features could be required as part of cross-compliance.

  • Develop the ability of agri-environment schemes (in terms of scope and budget) to incorporate specific environmental maintenance and enhancement benefits currently delivered by set-aside

  • Introduce a new environmental set-aside to oblige and guide farmers to retain on-farm environmental benefits. This would retain existing set-aside rules but decouple it from any supply management role and give it a clearer environmental focus. It is open to the objection that the Commissioner and many member states have made clear their desire to set aside ‘set-aside’ as part of the campaign to simplify the CAP.

  • Develop energy crop schemes to support energy crop growing on all land as part of a coherent package of measures designed to support biofuel and biomass production, subject to safeguards to minimise or mitigate adverse environmental effects.

The report favours a package of measures in which:

  • General, countrywide environmental protection benefits arising from set-aside would be delivered through adapted cross-compliance conditions;

  • Specific, high-value environmental benefits arising from set-aside would be delivered through agri-environment schemes, and

  • The environmental benefits arising from energy crop growing are maintained and enhanced by extending the energy crops supplement to energy crops grown on former set-aside land.

The report acknowledges strengths and weaknesses with each of these proposals but it provides a useful benchmark against which to evaluate the Commission’s proposals when they appear.

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