The European Parliament’s agriculture committee has voted to weaken key environmental proposals made by the European Commission while agreeing to reduce subsidies to big farms. These and other proposals will be considered by the full Parliament in March.

In two days of voting on more than 7,000 amendments to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2014-2020, MEPs also backed the extension of protections for sugar producers and grape growers, defying Commission recommendations to extend liberalisation to nearly all agricultural sectors.

The votes focused on the two main financial pillars of the CAP, direct payments to farmers and rural development; new environmental regulations; as well as proposals to phase out price supports for sugar and planting right for wine producers.

The committee’s recommendations - which came during marathon voting sessions on 23 and 24 January - must now be voted on by the full Parliament at its 11-14 March plenary.

Delays in approved a long-term EU budget and turf battles over the CAP rules already mean that the new regulations are unlikely to take effect until 2015.

>> Read: CAP reform far from a done deal and Irish minister says stalled EU budget shouldn’t delay CAP talks

A summary of the issues and voting follows:

‘Greening’ the CAP

The committee backed the European Commission’s proposal to require that 30% of direct payments (the CAP’s so-called first pillar) be linked to farmers’ environmental performance - such as diversifying crops, leaving up to 7% of land uncultivated to promote biodiversity, and creating permanent pastures.

>> Read: Cioloş joins environmentalists in defending greener CAP and Green farming agenda faces EU budget axe

But bowing to pressure from farmers’ organisations and some EU members states, the committee voted to exempt small farms from the so-called greening rules, as well as growers who meet individual member states’ environmental certification programmes.

Under amendments adopted by the committee, farmers with less than 10 hectares of cultivatable land will be exempt and those with 10 to 30 hectares can apply for exemptions. According to the Parliament, the exemptions will apply to 82% of the EU’s farmers.

The Commission had recommended that only organic farmers should be exempt from greening schemes.

The committee also called for devoting at least 25% of the second pillar of the CAP, which provides co-financing for rural development, to conservation works. Environmental groups and Green MEPs sought much stricter ecological standards on the use of the rural development funds and for cross-compliance with other EU environmental policies, and vow to carry their fight to the plenary.

€300,000 cap on payments

Responding to criticism that rich people – including the British royal family – and large farms unfairly benefit from CAP subsidies, MEPs backed Commission plans to cap payments to big farms.

They vote to end direct subsidies for non-farmer organisations - such as golf clubs and even airports - that do not obtain most of their income from agriculture.

They agreed to place a €300,000 ceiling on payments to any single farm and to cut subsidies by 70% to farms receiving between €250,000 and €300,000. Subsidies would fall by 40% for farms receiving between €200,000 and €250,000, and by 20% for those getting €150,000 and €200,000.

The moves, if eventually adopted, represent one of the most frequent criticisms of the CAP payment scheme that corporate-owned farms and non-farmers are reaping the benefits of a system designed to support family farming.

Still, the committee rejected amendments for deeper cuts to big farms, and ignored Commission recommendations and exempted farmers’ cooperatives from the payment ceiling.

They also backed an amendment to allow national governments to transfer savings from the first pillar to rural development projects.

More money for eastern growers …

Under pressure from farmers in the newer EU countries, MEPs took a step to reduce the east-west difference in direct payments to farmers.

>> Read: Baltic farmers demand equal treatment under new EU budget and Cioloş: CAP money slowly shifting eastwards

The agricultural committee voted that no country’s farmers should get less than 65% of the EU average payment - a significant boost for a country like Latvia, where farmers now get 33% of the EU average.

Under the Commission’s proposed system, member states with direct payments below 90% of the EU-27 average would close one-third of the gap as of 2014, with disbursements gradually rising to 90% of the EU average by 2020. The committee struck the 90% figure to make it the actual average.

"The committee has voted for a stronger redistribution of aid among member states, as it is difficult to accept differences of roughly €300 per ha between farmers in different member states", said Portuguese MEP Luis Manuel Capoulas Santos (Socialists and Democrats), who was the committee rapporteur on direct payments.

… and young farmers

MEPs also supported the EU executive’s plan to devote 2% of the CAP to encourage young people to get into farming.

The committee recommended that farmers under age 40 get a 25% bonus on the direct payment in the first five years they farm. But they capped the payment at 50 hectares, replacing the Commission’s plan for a limit based on the average farm size in each member state.

>> Read: Young farmers sound alarm on CAP reform

It also called for additional payments to small farmers of up to €1,500, €500 more than the Commission recommended.

Market support

MEPs also backed the extension of protections for sugar producers and grape growers, defying Commission proposals to remove market support and eventually liberalise all agricultural markets.

Supporters contend that the protections are needed to support vital agricultural sectors and protect them from cheap competition from aboard and to protect the wine sector, one of Europe’s premier industries.

>> Read: Sweetener groups line up against EU sugar quota extension and Grape growers fight to keep planting limits

Both sugar producers – who face an end to prices supports starting in 2016 - and vine growers – who faced the loss of planting rights starting in beginning in 2016 – had the support of French MEP Michel Dantin (European People’s Party), who has fought to extend help for the sugar and vine sectors to prevent what he has said would “lead to closure of farms."

Dantin was the committee’s rapporteur on the market support regulations.