When the European Commission presented a framework for the 2014-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), it marked the most ambitious effort to link farming to environmental performance since the programme was launched in 1962.
Dacian Cioloș, a Romanian agricultural economist who was a Commissioner at the time, unveiled in October 2011 what he called “a new partnership between European citizens and its farmers to meet the challenges of food security, sustainable use of natural resources, and growth”.
But over the next two years, the proposed environmental standards became some of the most toxic issues in a debate that was historic in itself. Under powers gained in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, for the first time, the European Parliament had more than a rubber-stamp role in approving the CAP.
For their part, national leaders who were simultaneously juggling snowballing financing and debt crises wanted more say over how to spend and administer CAP funds. At a cost of around €55 billion annually, the CAP accounts for 40% of total EU expenditures.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister of Agriculture, and a lead negotiator of the 2014-2020 policy during his country’s EU presidency in the first half of 2013, called the ultimate deal a good one for farming.
“I think we have found a balance that everyone can agree with,” said Coveney, a former MEP. “This has been new for everybody. But we do have a responsibility to deliver what in my opinion is the most important sector in Europe, that being the agri and food industry.”
But with the ink barely dry on the agreement, member states complained that some of the administrative measures contained in the new framework were unmanageable.
In a letter dated 15 December 2014, and obtained by EURACTIV.com, agricultural ministers from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Sweden, and the UK called for a “simpler, more effective CAP with jobs and growth at the heart of this policy”. They specifically called for changes relating to new regulations on crop diversification, requiring farmers to maintain permanent grasslands and so-called ecological focus areas, or EFAs, that are designed to encourage biological diversity.
Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan admitted that the new CAP was “more complicated than it needs to be,” and announced new measures of simplification, including:
- Increased flexibility in mapping requirements for Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs);
- An extension of the deadline for aid applications; and
- More flexibility on eligibility conditions for voluntary coupled support.
“For everybody's benefit, we need to make things simpler,” Hogan said. “This is one of my main objectives over the next few years — reducing administrative burdens while making sure that all interests are defended."
In addition, the Commission reduced the number of on-the-spot checks through better sampling methods; increased the level of preventive preliminary cross checks, and provided the possibility of modifying parcel declarations for greening after submission.
“I proposed a new, fairer system of penalties for errors, as well as a ‘yellow card’ system for first-time mistakes. This should hopefully end the stress and anxiety that many hard working farm families feel when filling out detailed forms,” Hogan said, adding that the opportunity for preliminary checks of aid applications to be made by authorities before the application is formally closed will see errors reduced as farmers are proactively helped to ensure that their applications are accurate.
“The next round of CAP simplification will see 200 existing EU regulations reduced to 40 or 50, cutting red tape for farmers, operators, and national administrations alike,” the EU official underlined.
In an interview with EURACTIV, Hogan also said that the CAP itself was not static.
“It has evolved considerably over the last 20 years. Indeed, many of the elements of the 2013 Reform are phased over several years – such as the fairer distribution of CAP Direct Payments within and between member states, or the greening requirements aimed at halting monoculture and soil sealing, which are only starting to have an impact now,” he noted.
Making the CAP “greener”
“Green” policies play a key role in the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). While €44.2 billion was spent under the Environment Axis in 2007-2013, approximately €112.5 billion is earmarked for 2014-2020.
Green funds accounted for at least 25% of the Rural Development Pillar in 2007-2013, while they represent at least 30% in 2014-2020, under both Pillars (Direct Payments and Rural Development). Regarding Direct Payments, the “Greening” part will be introduced in the 2016 EU budget.
However, the new CAP may not be as “green” as the European Commission claims. A study by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and BirdLife Europe found a €1 billion decline in the actual funding for “green” measures meant to benefit the environment on farmland.
The EEB noted that over 80% of protected extensive grasslands in Natura 2000 sites were in an “unfavorable condition”. Agriculture is also responsible for 10% the EU’s emissions of greenhouse gases.
The report stated that the original idea behind the reform of the post-2013 CAP was to ensure public money was being used to pay for public goods.
“This was translated into good agronomic practices linked with farmers’ direct payments and more ambitious measures for the environment in Rural Development,” the NGOs said. However, “this intention rapidly disappeared, leaving us with very weak basic regulations,” they claim.
The European Commission defended its “greening” policy, saying that for the first time, direct payments to farmers were linked to a prescribed list of environmental practices.
“Based on the notifications received so far, half of EU’s farmers are now obliged to carry out environmental practices on 80% of the farmland,” an EU spokesperson told EURACTIV.
The official explained that it was now a legal requirement to spend at least 30% of the EU rural development budget on a number of environmental and climate measures.
“Looking across the 118 Rural Development programmes, we are actually spending almost half (49%) of the budget on these measures, so going beyond that legal requirement,” the spokesman said, adding that this includes around 16% earmarked for payments for Areas with Natural Constraints, which “help prevent land abandonment and thereby maintaining biodiversity in the farmed landscapes.”
“Emissions stemming from agriculture have declined by 24% since 1990, while total output of agricultural production was maintained thanks to land management using modern technologies, improved knowledge and specific practices combat climate change,” the spokesperson said.
Another report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) recently found “unreasonably high costs” related to EU-funded schemes to support environmentally-friendly agriculture in the UK, Italy, Denmark, and Portugal.
Only 5 of the 28 audited projects proved to be cost-effective, according to the report, published on 21 January.
Asked by EURACTIV, the Commission’s agriculture spokesperson, Daniel Rosario, underlined that the weaknesses identified by EU auditors were mainly related to the management of projects at the national level.
The EU official also sought to put play down the scheme’s significance for the EU budget, saying the green farming projects “account for roughly 0.6% of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) budget for Rural Development” in the 2007-2013 period, or €614 million.
Looking forward, Rosario said the EU executive had taken steps to offer better guidance to member states for the implementation of the 2014-2020 rural development programmes (RDPs).
However, he said that “a balance needs to be found” and warned about “the risk of excessive administrative burden” and “financial constraints” placed on the member states who often balk at excessive red tape coming from Brussels.
Supporting young farmers
Another key objective of the EU’s rural development policy is to replace an ageing workforce on European farms.
Farmers aged under 35 represented just 6% of all holding managers in 2013, according to a survey by Eurostat. 31.1% were managed by people aged 65 or over, and a further 24.7% by managers aged 55 to 64.
This raises questions about the long-term viability of the sector. To try and address this, the Commission says the new CAP will provide nearly 180,000 young farmers with an installation grant.
“In addition to this, the recent CAP reform supported the Commission initiative to provide a 25% top-up to the direct payment amounts for young farmers under 40 for the first five years after they enter the sector,” Rosario stressed.
New markets closed
Access to new markets is another area where the EU hopes to make a difference for struggling farmers.
However, this promise failed to materialise. A Russian embargo on Western food products combined with the lifting of EU milk quotas in March 2015, falling Chinese demand and changing dietary habits, led to a drop in prices for beef, pork, and milk. The fruit and vegetable sector was also severely hit.
The Commission had to react in an emergency, unlocking €500 million in aid to farmers, as angry protesters took the streets of Brussels. On 10 June 2016, the EU executive also extended for a further year the safety net measures for the European fruit and vegetable sector, which were due to expire at the end of the month.
The safety net measures were first introduced in 2014 in response to the Russian ban on the import of EU fruit and vegetables.
“The global economic situation and the worldwide economic growth is not the best, particularly the situation in China. 3% less economic growth in China means 1% less worldwide,” said Peter Pascher from the German Farmers’ Association. Pascher told EURACTIV it was time to reconsider EU sanctions against Moscow and find a solution to the conflict.
Trade and access to global markets: The “third pillar”
The Commission has described international trade as the "third pillar" of the CAP.
The EU executive believes that European agriculture should be market-orientated and competitive on the global stage. This is reflected in the CAP’s Rural Development pillar, which aims at supporting 360,000 farm modernisation projects and improve access to new markets for EU produce.
But the EU executive has been heavily criticised for its negotiation stance with foreign countries.
In an interview with EURACTIV, Greek Minister of Agricultural Development Evangelos Apostolou said Europe should defend the interests of producers who face low-cost competition from third countries. “It is also important to develop a European export credit tool to encourage exports along with the use of financial instruments for granting soft loans,” he added.
The Commission retorts that it always carries out a careful impact assessment before sealing any new trade agreement.
“Bilateral trade agreements provide considerable opportunities for the EU agri-food sector as a whole,” Hogan told EURACTIV, adding that the EU’s increased global trade in agriculture products has helped the EU agri-food sector expand, thereby providing additional growth and jobs.
“In global terms, EU agricultural exports have performed much better than most other sectors in recent years and the EU has become a net exporter, especially for added-value products. This would indicate that commercial deals have not harmed European agriculture. Indeed, as people in Asia and Africa have more disposable income, we see they want to consume European food and drink, and our trade agreements open up these growing markets.”
Geographical indications: A “hot potato” for TTIP
Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture, recently told EURACTIV that Washington respected Europe’s claim for geographic protection of food in ongoing EU-US talks over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
But he said this should not prevent similar US products from being marketed under brands used on the American market.
“This is not an easy issue. It’s an issue that is going to require a lot of work, and some very creative thinking to be able to navigate this thicket where you want to protect value, but you don’t want to do it at the expense of products that have been marketed under that name for a considerable period of time,” Vilsack told EURACTIV.
Athens stepped up its threats in response, saying it was ready to veto a TTIP deal unless it ensures increased protection for key agricultural geographical indicators.
Athens is particularly concerned about traditional feta cheese, which is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) crucial for Greek livestock. Similar concerns were expressed by Rome regarding Parmesan cheese.
New plant breeding techniques in legal limbo
Related to EU-US trade talks is whether so-called new plant breeding techniques should be considered as GMOs under European law.
NBTs focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering. They are seen as a promising new field for the agri-food sector and “are even necessary to meet the challenges of global changes such as population growth and climate change”, according to a report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EU executive’s in-house scientific body meant to inform policymaking.
Backers of the technology say NBTs should not be considered as GMOs because no foreign DNA is present in the resulting plants, which might have developed naturally. To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling GMOs to Europeans through the back door.
The European Commission has delayed a much-awaited legal analysis of whether new plant breeding techniques should be considered GMOs or not. The analysis was supposed to have been completed by the first quarter of 2016.
A Commission source told EURACTIV that the process was still ongoing and that there was no particular timeframe for its completion.
“Plant breeding techniques can be very promising because in a way we are accelerating the classical breeding of plants,” said Jan Huitema an MEP from the Liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. “In a lot of those techniques, we don’t talk about GMOs that use genes of others species into plants, but we stick to the gene or the gene cocktail of the plant itself. So the outcome of those new breeding techniques is not different than we could have with classical breeding,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.
Jon Parr, Chief Operating Officer at Swiss agri-food giant Syngenta, agrees that Europe should take a science-based approach. Speaking to EURACTIV, he said innovation in plant breeding is critical to improving crop productivity without compromising on the quality or environmental sustainability of production.
“In this respect, new breeding techniques that bring together the best which nature has to offer are critical. Such techniques can help to improve the nutrition and taste of food or ensure it is more tolerant to climatic stress or can resist better the diseases which destroy crops,” Parr said.
Europe, he continued, is blessed with some of the best breeders in the world, whether they work at large companies like Syngenta, or independently.
“Together, they have helped put Europe in a leadership position. What I think we need now is a robust, predictable, and science-based legal framework to ensure that Europe can maximise its competitive advantage and enable all stakeholders to share in the social, economic and environmental benefits that can be delivered through new plant breeding techniques,” Parr stressed.
But green campaigners do not share the same view. In a joint position paper published in March, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Europe and IFOAM stressed that EU GMO legislation should be fully applied to NBTs.
“Legal analysis shows that they are covered by EU GMO law. If they were to escape EU regulations, any potential negative effects on food, feed or environmental safety would go unchecked. European consumers, farmers, and breeders would have no way to avoid GMOs,” the paper reads.
“The Commission should leave no doubt that all products of genetic engineering are subject to EU GMO law which requires a rigorous risk assessment, detectability, and labelling.”
CAP beyond 2020: Entering the digital era
Meanwhile, discussions have already started about the future CAP, beyond 2020. Evangelos Apostolou, the Greek Agriculture Minister, said a group had begun work on the subject.
The group “is monitoring the evolution of the CAP in the first year of its implementation and provides us with opinions on the issues that are raised,” he told EURACTIV, saying the goal is to propose reforms both at EU and national level.
“Our thoughts for the future CAP are being formed now, but the basic principle is to move forward to a fairer CAP, with a more balanced distribution of aid to enhance both the sustainability and profitability of farmers,” he said.
In the European Parliament, a group of lawmakers from the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) recently called on the Commission to adopt a new farm strategy that puts agriculture at the heart of society and responds to the strategic challenges of the 21st century.
Marc Tarabella (Belgium), Eric Andrieu (France), Jean-Paul Denanot (France), Nicola Caputo (Italy) and Tibor Szanyi (Hungary) signed an opinion article in La Libre in which they denounce the CAP’s inability to support the farming sector. The CAP, they say, has neither helped to guarantee farmers’ revenue, protect jobs or stabilise prices.
On the Liberal side, Jan Huitema MEP (ALDE) says the CAP should focus on investments to improve farmer’s competitiveness on global markets and reduce their dependence on subsidies.
He recently authored a draft report saying innovations were being blocked because of restrictive EU legislation. “It is not always unwillingness, but most of the time the EU legislation is old,” he wrote.
One promising area is the development of digital tools for agriculture. According to some, an “agri-tech revolution” is underway and new methods like precision farming are emerging as an innovation-driven solution to environmental issues related to agriculture.
Precision farming is based on the optimised management of inputs in a field according to actual crop needs. It involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing, and the Internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and water.
The Commission believes that the development of precision farming practices will provide EU farmers with new opportunities to increase their productivity.
Precision farmers are able to make the best use of pesticides and fertilizers, contributing to soil and groundwater protection while increasing production efficiency. By using sensors, farmers are able to identify specific areas of the field in need of a particular treatment and to focus the application of chemicals on these specific points only, reducing the amount of chemical used and preserving the environment.
The quality of products is improved as a result, and energy consumption reduced significantly.
According to data provided by the European Agricultural Machinery (CEMA), there are 450 new machinery types in Europe, which employ 135,000 people directly, and 125,000 via distribution and service networks.
Support schemes exist under Pillar 2 of the CAP to promote farmers’ ability to invest in Precision Farming technologies such as for example, precision fertilizer spreaders.
The European Parliament recently adopted a report on technological solutions for sustainable agriculture, which recognised precision farming as particularly promising for the future.
“We take the view that the principles underpinning precision farming can generate significant benefits for the environment, increase farmers' incomes, rationalise the use of agricultural machinery and significantly increase resource efficiency, including the use of water for irrigation,” the report reads, encouraging the Commission to promote such technologies.
But MEPs also acknowledged limits to the widespread adoption of precision farming techniques, including their adaptability to all farm types and sizes.