Farmers' organisations worry that the European Commission’s plans to make the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) more environmentally friendly could leave producers drowning in paperwork.

Yet researchers who have studied farm support programmes such as the EU’s CAP say simplification of incentive schemes to encourage sustainable agriculture may not achieve the desired results at all.

Paul Wilson of the University of Nottingham in Britain says conservation and biodiversity schemes need fixed goals with administrative oversight, “rather than simply rolling out general environmental schemes that will achieve some things but not necessarily the targeted types of things that you want.”

Wilson and a research team from Britain, Denmark, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the United States contend that EU-style “payments for outcomes” are not as effective as “payments for actions”.

The EU spends some €5.5 billion on incentives to promote conservation, the study says, a figure that could rise dramatically under the Commission’s CAP proposals for 2014-2020 that include requiring land to be taken out of active cultivation to create ecological ‘focus areas’.

‘Simple and efficient’

The EU executive’s plans for the ‘greening the CAP’ centre on:

  • Improving biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Using direct payments to encourage farmers to rotate crops as a way to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use;
  • Preserve at least 7% of land for focus areas such as buffer areas or permanent grassland to help reduce emissions.

Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş has called the proposals for the next CAP – covering 2014-2020 - “both simple and efficient”.

Yet farm groups and some national representatives have testified in the European Parliament they fear the EU executive’s greening proposals could cause administrative headaches and even drive smaller farmers out of business – defeating goals to encourage small-scale production and to bring young people into a rapidly ageing industry.

The organisation representing Europe farmers and farm cooperatives – Copa-Cogeca - says the Commission’s greening proposals would introduce new layers of reporting while threatening farm income by requiring, for example, that 30% of direct payments to linked to greening performance.

In a briefing paper issued in February, the organisation calls penalties for non-compliance with greening measures “unacceptable”.

Referring to the Commission’s ecological focus areas requirement, Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, called the proposal counterproductive in economically tough times and amid demands for higher world food production.

Pesonen said in an interview that new greening requirement would entail “high-level administrative burden, meaning the farmers will have reporting responsibilities, and most probably the cost of production will go up.”

The ecological focus area requirement “means when the farmers are already struggling to make their ends meet, they are facing a situation where part of the land is taken out of production.”

Too generic?

But others say setting performance requirements may be the best way to achieve ecological results in a diverse, 27-nation bloc.

Henk Westhoek, part of a team from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency who analysed the CAP’s conservation proposals, told EurActiv that generalised approaches are not the most effective way of achieving results.

“It’s obvious in the work the Commission is proposing that quite generic measures have to be applied from north Sweden to the south of Spain, and there have been questions how effective are these measures,” he said a telephone interview.

He suggested that better approaches would be to encourage farmers to work together – for example through cooperatives – to achieve environmental goals on a wider scale rather than through a patchwork approach based on single farms.

“We have a very good example of this in the Netherlands, where half of our country is covered by farmers’ cooperatives who work together on green environment measures, which is very effective and also very stimulating for farmers.”

The University of Nottingham’s study on farm schemes – ‘The cost of policy simplification in conservation incentive programs’ – was conducted before the Commission unveiled its CAP proposals in October.

But Wilson said any “broad-brush approach” to ecologically friendly farming is “a little simplistic”. He acknowledged that more focused ecological requirements would create additional administrative burdens at the national and regional level to ensure compliance.

“It’s not about micromanaging farmers and increasing administrative burden on farmers in any way,” he said, noting that his study included input from farmers.

Solutions, he said, require policymakers to decide the biodiversity targets that make sense for regional conditions with corresponding administrative management at a national level – “different payments, in different areas to achieve different environmental outcomes.”