Farmers who get EU support would have to set aside 7% of their land as wooded areas or habitats as part of the EU executive's draft proposals for a greener Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that will be considered over the next year.
Farm advocates say converting cultivatable land to permanent green space would undermine other EU priorities, including making farmers more productive in an era of global food supply concerns and demand for biofuels to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
Jose Baecke, president of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), told a European Parliament conference yesterday (23 November) that preserving land for green space is “counterproductive” and “absolutely not in line with the greater demand for food production.”
Baecke instead urged the CAP resources be used to boost the efficiency of food production through better resource management, farm innovation and to address the “exodus” of young people from rural areas.
Gerd Sonnleitner, president of the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations, or COPA, also said the policy was counterproductive amid global calls for higher food output to address rising populations and climate change impact in rapidly growing regions.
“Is it really sensible to remove this land from production, even though the G20 are calling for more production?” Sonnleitner said. “Is it really a good idea to be setting aside this land when we are trying to aim for growth?”
Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş has defended the reform proposals, including provisions to boost open space, saying they are aimed at improving productivity while ensuring sustainable agricultural growth.
Referring to the green space proposals, he said: "I am surprised to see that people - I've been explaining this three times already - still insist on this error with set-aside. I tell you once more. This is not set aside. I repeat. This is not set aside".
Some farm groups are urging the Commission to boost environmental support through the smaller, so-called second pillar of the CAP that promotes rural development and habitat conservation. Others also suggest that the set-asides be voluntary.
About 80% of EU farms would be affected by the green-space requirement, some parliamentary estimates show.MEPs along with Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş listened to concerns from farming and conservation groups at yesterday's CAP hearing organised by Poland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Parliament to play major role for the first time
The parliament's discussion is a precursor to a year-long of jockeying over the farm-support programme. Although budget details must still be worked out, the Commission’s 7-year, €371.72-billion draft farm-support programme would account for 36% of EU's spending if approved and benefit some 10 million farmers.
The discussions in Parliament over CAP are significant. This is the first time in more than 50 years of European agricultural policy that the Parliament will play a central role in shaping the CAP under powers it gained through the Lisbon Treaty that went into force two years ago.
Several farm ministers questioned whether the policies will reduce requirements that farmers must follow to receive direct payments – accounting for some 70% of CAP spending – a contentious issue with farm co-ops and trade unions. Other proposals call for diversifying the types of crops grown.
Besides the green space set-aside, MEPs from the newer EU countries also contend the Commission proposals do not do enough to progressively erase direct payment gaps between the east and west – one of the goals of revamping the CAP.
Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete (European People's Party), speaking at an Agricultural Committee hearing on Tuesday, said farmers in her country would receive 54% the EU average direct payment under the draft CAP proposals despite pledges for levelling the playing field over a generation.
On 7 November, agriculture ministers from most EU nations joined the Agriculture Committee to discuss the CAP. Several ministers at that meeting expressed concerns about the green-space requirements adding more layers of bureaucracy.
"I saw we had a lot of points in common with the Council, so we really hope that the Commission and Council will help us to find a good solution for the future of the agricultural sector," Paolo De Castro, the committee chairman, said after the earlier meeting.