Sunday

16th May 2021

Opinion

Europe needs a greener Common Agricultural Policy

  • European farmers manage 48 percent of the land in the EU so farmers will play a key role in realising these ambitions (Photo: Emmanuel)

The new EU Commission has an ambitious agenda to make the European Union a global leader on environment, biodiversity and climate action.

European farmers manage 48 percent of the land in the EU so farmers will play a key role in realising these ambitions.

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If the EU truly wants to be a green leader, it needs a greener Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that can be an active tool for member states in the green transition.

The commission's reform proposal from June 2018 is a step in the right direction.

It introduces important innovations such as the so-called eco-schemes where member states will have to set-up green schemes for the climate and the environment in pillar 1 which is otherwise mainly used for income support.

However, we must be even more ambitious.

The income support of pillar 1 remains important to European farmers. This means that the requirements for support have a significant impact on farmers' behaviour.

The commission proposes to maintain the existing rules which require that the areas live up to the criteria of agricultural activity.

It means that if parts of the areas develop into bushes or wet areas above a certain size, these areas become ineligible for support.

This give farmers an incentive to remove these areas to the detriment of environment, biodiversity and the fight against climate change.

Unintended consequences

From a sustainability perspective this is clearly an unintended consequence.

Farmers should be given an incentive to keep small biotopes and wet areas on their field.

Therefore, we propose to give member states the voluntary option to let small biotopes such as trees, bushes and wet areas be eligible for direct support if these natural areas develop within the existing agricultural area.

This would make life simpler for farmers and make the incentives of the Common Agricultural Policy greener.

It would also be beneficial in the fight against climate change if member states had the option to keep income support for agricultural areas that have been rehydrated for climate reasons.

The hydration of soils is an efficient climate mitigation measure and may also serve as a part of climate adaptation by preventing flooding of other fields and cities.

Afforested agricultural areas should also be eligible for direct support no matter if the afforestation is supported or not by the agricultural budget. It should be the actions by farmers that count and not the source of financing.

Some may fear that this would be a Pandora's Box that would give member sates the option to support non-agricultural areas or expand the area eligible for support. However, the proposal will not lead to an expansion of the overall area since it will only give flexibility within the existing area.

Furthermore, we must quit conventional thinking regarding the voluntary nature of subsidy schemes.

The Common Agricultural Policy is based on compulsory basic conditionality rules and voluntary schemes that farmers can decide to apply for or not.

This approach makes sense when requirements affect all farmers in the same way.

But new requirements will often affect farmers differently due to objective reasons beyond their control such as local soil characteristics. To reach our green ambitions, the most cost-effective solutions will be to target our payments to those that have to do the most.

Therefore, it should be possible to compensate for example farmers with more carbon-rich soils that need to do more than those colleagues with less carbon-rich soils.

The idea of compensated requirements is not a radical suggestion. This option is a part of the rural development programme (known as pillar 2).

In pillar 2, compensation is possible when the national implementation of the Natura 2000 and Water Framework directives affect some farmers more than others.

Unfortunately, the commission's proposal does not pave the way for a more ambitious approach. We consider it imperative to move beyond the status quo and extend the existing possibilities to the new eco-schemes in pillar 1.

Moreover, we should build on the current rules and allow for similar compensated requirements to reduce climate emissions or protect drinking water.

These are the challenges that the future Common Agricultural Policy should be able to address.

Finally, money also matters. We need to get the instruments right, but we also need to ensure that a larger share of the Common Agricultural Policy is spent on environment, climate change and biodiversity.

Therefore, we propose that all member states should be obliged to earmark a significant share of their total agricultural budget for green purposes.

This is key to ensure that all member states contribute to achieve the green ambitions of the EU.

All over Europe, people want and deserve a greener future.

We believe that the new Common Agricultural Policy should reflect this.

Author bio

Lea Wermelin is the Danish minister for the environment, Mogens Jensen is Danish minister for food, fisheries and equal opportunities.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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