Redirecting EU CAP payments to sustainable farming

Unsustainable farming is the largest threat to Europe’s unique biodiversity and the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) makes up the largest part of the EU budget. That is why EU policymakers need to ensure that direct payments under the next CAP are awarded to farmers in exchange for environmental and social returns, IUCN argues at a debate in Brussels on the financing of EU agricultural policy after 2020.

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Currently, the CAP direct payments are designed to provide EU farmers with a safety net against volatile market prices. A smaller proportion of the payments is allocated to farmers for taking measures to protect the natural environment.

However, recent assessments have shown that more work needs to be done to rebalance these payments and ensure that they better help Europe to protect its biodiversity and tackle climate change, including a recent European Court of Auditors’ report, which found that the ‘greening’ measures were “unlikely to significantly enhance the CAP’s environmental and climate performance.”

The future payments’ system needs to better support farmers taking effective measures to support biodiversity, soil quality and reduce carbon emissions, Alberto Arroyo Schnell, Senior Policy Manager for the IUCN European Regional Office, argued during the panel discussion, ‘Financing EU agriculture after 2020: What future for the CAP?’, organised by the EurActiv news network in Brussels.

Unsustainable agriculture has been shown to be the largest source of species and habitat loss in Europe. In addition, a recent study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) shows that the provision of ecosystem services, such as habitat maintenance, pollination, regulation of freshwater quality and soil formation, are under threat due to intensive agriculture and forestry practices. “It is a healthy exercise to question whether actions which damage our natural capital should be financed with public money,” added Mr Arroyo Schnell.

MEP Herbert Dorfmann, the MEP responsible for the European Parliament’s comments on the European Commission’s recent Communication on the “The future of food and farming”, said the CAP payments should be redirected for the benefit of farmers and also to better meet taxpayer expectations. He warned against budget cuts for farmers, particularly in light of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, which will have an impact on the total funds available for European programmes. He added that the value of direct payment entitlements should be recalculated, directing funds away from large landowners receiving payments based mostly on the size of their land “to people who really farm.”

MEP Molly Scott-Cato said that the CAP has started to move away from its ‘productivist’ model but that more needed to be done to couple food production with social and environmental returns. She also said the budget for the CAP should be maintained.

Tassos Haniotis, Director for Strategy, Simplification and Policy Analysis in the European Commission’s Agriculture and Rural Development Directorate General, said the CAP had been a success "economically and in promoting jobs and growth" but “it is clear it is has been less of a success for the environment.” He added the new CAP would have to make its objectives on social, economic and environmental concerns clearer and more emphasis should be placed on measuring performance and achievements. He also highlighted the consensus among panellists to ensure there is sufficient budget for this policy in the future. Paulo Gouveia, Chief Policy Advisor at Copa-Cogeca, said farmer incomes are 40% lower than in other economic sectors in Europe and so that resources need to remain available to support farmers.

Mr. Haniotis added that the new CAP would afford Member States more flexibility. “You cannot address soil erosion by having a specific rule mandating crop rotation at the EU level, for example.” However, participants said it would be important to ensure that greater flexibility for Member States does not lead to a reduction in efforts to tackle biodiversity decline and climate change, or a lack of control over how EU taxpayers’ money is spent.

João Pacheco, Senior Fellow at Farm Europe, said that it is clear that “a better job needs to be done” on environmental and economic issues, and issued a call for support for investment in smart technologies to improve performance in this respect. MEP Scott-Cato said she was “not convinced” that “high-tech and high-overheads farming” interests many of the farmers she represents, and that low-input, organic farming is an attractive alternative in many cases. She added that she would like it be possible for farmers to share expensive technologies they might find useful.

“Public money should go to public goods; farmers should be rewarded for meeting Europe’s climate and environmental objectives. Our environment cannot wait seven more years for a transition towards more sustainable agriculture: we have to seize this moment to reform our CAP,” concluded Mr Arroyo Schnell.

A video summary of EURACTIV’s event can be found here.

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