This article is part of our special report Can the next CAP measure its green performance?.
Phil Hogan, the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner, announced that the next CAP will be “more ambitious” in terms of its environmental objectives, by ensuring farmers are on board in greening agriculture through broader use of precision farming techniques.
Speaking at an event on Thursday (28 September), Hogan unveiled some of the initiatives that will take centre stage in the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The event, titled “Water and agriculture in Europe: time for an integrated approach”, was co-hosted by the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think tank, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a global conservation organisation.
Breaking the silos
Agricultural policy has long had an “island status”, in the words of Hogan, who said this has created inconsistencies between other connected policy areas, primarily environment.
“Silos have to be broken down more and more if we want to make progress”, Hogan said.
To foster coherence among EU policies, the agriculture and environment Commissioners adopted in April a working document highlighting actions to ensure sustainable water management in agriculture. Two of these initiatives were announced at the meeting on Thursday.
The European Commission is exploring the potential of new technologies to increase the efficient use of resources in agriculture, such as robots for measuring water use in wine production, sensors for monitoring plant growth, and drones to spot and treat plant diseases in a localised way – something known as precision farming.
“We have taken some actions to support data-driven farming and precision agriculture. Water efficiency can only be addressed by making use of new technologies such as big data, sensors and artificial intelligence. These will help farmers to both increase the economic output and the environmental performance of farming,” Hogan said.
Hogan announced a platform for on-farm nutrient management, which will provide farmers with detailed information on the growth and status of their crop. This would allow for an efficient and targeted use of water and chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. The platform will be freely accessible online and compile data from a variety of sources, including the satellite programme Copernicus.
— Phil Hogan (@PhilHoganEU) September 28, 2017
Supporters of precision agriculture say it enables farmers to “do more with fewer resources”, therefore reducing environmental impacts. But detractors cast doubts on the accessibility of this technology to the majority of EU farmers, a third of whom are aged 65 or older and lack digital skills.
Another issue is affordability. To access expensive inputs, large economies of scale would be necessary. But European agriculture is a patchwork of small or very small farms, which are often unable to provide a viable income for farmers and their families according to Eurostat.
Hogan’s second revelation was an information initiative on best water management practices, in partnership with the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, allowing member states to pick and choose their preferred measures for water management and agriculture.
Andrea Kohl, chief policy officer for WWF Europe, called for more effort to ensure water is used sustainably in agriculture. Particularly, she said the Water Framework Directive should be incorporated into the CAP.
The transition to sustainable agriculture should be the core objective of the new CAP, she claimed, saying direct payments to farmers (the first pillar of CAP and a political taboo), should be replaced by a system that incentivises sustainable farming practices.
“What you see in the current CAP is a lot of good intentions in the area of greening, but provisions were watered down to the point that they weren’t really attractive for farmers anymore.” Greening refers to the second pillar of the CAP, which covers environmental subsidies paid to farmers for implementing so-called greening measures.
Hogan: “A mix of carrot and stick”
Hogan agreed that enlisting farmers’ support is key, saying; “It has to be a mix of carrot and stick.”
The carrot is represented by payments under CAP scheme, he said. “But we have to justify the money that we spend under CAP on the basis of common objectives across the Commission.”
He said the Commission has a “higher level of ambition on the environment, but we have to work in partnership with the people who can deliver this, and these are farmers”.