EU’s Common Agricultural Policy: Key Things You Should Know

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is one of the oldest EU’s policies. After more than a decade of post-World War II food shortages and hunger, it was introduced in 1962 to increase agricultural production, ensure food security, protect farmers’ quality of life and stabilize markets while maintaining reasonable prices for consumers. Today, the CAP amounts to almost 40 percent of the entire EU budget. Every seven years, the CAP is renewed. The new CAP has to be introduced in 2021, and it faces new challenges to stand in line with sustainability goals, protect biodiversity and the environment. 

The CAP plays an essential role in Europe’s food and farming systems, and we want to explain the key things every European citizen needs to know. 

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  • Why does Europe need a Common Agricultural Policy, and how does it affect national policies?

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was formed in 1962 to ensure that people could have food at affordable prices and that farmers would earn a fair living for their work. After the Second World War, the newly formed the European Coal and Steel Community (now the European Union) had a goal to unite a fragmented continent. Lack of food was one of the earliest challenges; action at the European level was necessary to make Europe self-sufficient in food and secure adequate food supply and the free flow of food and agricultural products within Europe. 

Currently, with 27 member states, the European Union plays an important role in safeguarding the EU’s agricultural sector and regulating and ensuring income stability, market, and rural development measures. The policy helped to reduce Europe’s reliance on imports and increased the role of the EU on international markets by an export-led approach, but on the other hand, it led to over-production, and surplus food and drink.

Today the CAP accounts for about 40% of the EU’s budget. It remains the EU’s most integrated policy, i.e., the one with the most decisions made at the EU level. 

Every Member State has to make sure that the CAP is implemented on a national level. This implies creating the structures and the tools to regulate the access to resources for farmers as well as to make sure recipients comply with the common rules. The next reform of the CAP is going to be more important than ever for the Member States. While the Commission has set the baseline goals and targets, every country will have more freedom to adapt the policy to the national context by writing National Strategic Plans. However, it will be the Commission’s responsibility to make sure those Plans are ambitious enough to reach the overall EU targets.

  • How has the CAP changed throughout the years?

During almost 50 years, the CAP has been reformed several times and has evolved and changed significantly. Since the 1990’s the CAP reforms have gradually moved from being solely focused on Agricultural Production (post World War II) to be more holistic in their views of pushing for increased competitiveness, with a stronger focus on rural development and sustainability.

Over the years, the CAP financing structure has changed considerably. Export subsidies and market support measures have gradually decreased. Coupled direct payments (payments linked to production) have almost been phased out and replaced by decoupled direct payments (payments linked to hectares owned) or been linked to stricter conditions to receive the funds. That was needed as increased productivity was not enough: the EU needed to also preserve the environment and improve sustainable farming practices. In 2013, the CAP started to support sustainable development and organic farming more consistently. Issues such as animal welfare, sustainability, rural development, organic agriculture, nature, and biodiversity preservation acquired more relevance, as the negative consequences of industrial farming led by the productivist approach were becoming more evident. However, a lot still needs to be done in this regard. 

  • Does the CAP support sustainable farming? 

According to the European Commission, which is responsible for the development of the CAP, the CAP combines “social, economic, and environmental approaches on the path towards achieving a sustainable system of agriculture in the EU.” There are several measures set to encourage green farming:

  • Cross-compliance – a mechanism that links financial support to EU rules on the environment, human, plant and animal health;
  • Green direct payments – supports farmers who adopt or maintain farming practices that help meet environmental and climate goals;
  • Rural development measures support investments and farming activities that contribute to climate action and the sustainable management of natural resources.

Meanwhile, the European Court of Auditors, one of the seven EU’s institutions, which looks after the interests of EU taxpayers, published a report this June, stating that CAP funds to halt the decline of biodiversity on farmland have not helped; rather, have contributed in several ways to accelerate the decline of biodiversity on farmland. Furthermore, in 2017 the Court reported that the green direct payments “have been environmentally ineffective.” According to the report, due to the many exemptions in the policy, two-thirds of farmers qualify for green payments “without being subject to greening obligations.” 

The current CAP is failing in many of its objectives, especially concerning its environmental and sustainability goals. Overall the CAP is not a champion in supporting sustainable farming, as its structure is still too rooted into an old system that rewards the farmer on a base of how many hectares are cultivated rather than supporting a full transition to ecological practices and granting economic support on the base of strong environmental conditionalities.

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  • Who benefits the most from the CAP?

Nationally, France is the country that benefits the most from the CAP funding, followed by Germany and Spain. Overall, farmers in the 15 older EU member states benefit much more from the CAP than the newer members, as their farmers get larger payments per hectare. 

When it comes to agribusiness, industrial farms and big landowners are the main beneficiaries. It is estimated that about 80% of farm aid goes to about a quarter of EU farmers – those with the largest holdings, creating serious imbalances, and favoring an industrialized and large scale type of agriculture. Only 2% of the total budget goes to young farmers, and this does not adequately support their needs such as education in ecological farming methods, support in setting up enterprises, or getting access to land. 

  • Currently, a new CAP reform is ongoing. How will the CAP be improved? What are the main critical points?

A new CAP reform although promising to take further steps to “towards achieving a green and sustainable system of agriculture in the EU” has been heavily criticized by non-governmental organizations and other EU institutions.

The European Court of Auditors in its report said that the Commission “falls short of the EU’s ambitions for a greener and more robust performance-based approach”, saying that a new reform lacks clearly defined quantified climate and environmental targets. 

Meanwhile, European scientists in their recent letter to the European Commission urged the Commission to drastically improve in order not to further damage the environment. Scientists claim that it is precisely the new CAP, which should start looking for solutions to the environmental crisis. The ecological transition of agriculture should be carried out by the CAP that immediately ends subsidies based on the quantity of production and direct payments based solely on land ownership.

Civil society organizations agree that the current CAP reform is set to continue supporting intensive farming, a major driver of biodiversity loss, and climate change. One-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial agricultural production; while, a recently released United Nations report revealed alarming results of the “unprecedented and accelerating” decline in global biodiversity.

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  • In Slow Food’s position, how can the CAP be improved?

Slow Food, along with other civil society organizations, has been a vocal critic of the new CAP reform. It has been active in the Good Food Good Farming campaign, which asks EU decision-makers to make sure that a new CAP answers the ecological, social, and economic challenges we face.

In an open letter, Slow Food and other European organizations stated that a new CAP must:

  1. end the loss of small-scale community-based farming and deliver decent working conditions for farmers and farmworkers;
  2. stop blind per-hectare farm payments;
  3. tackle the climate crisis, restore soil-fertility and biodiversity, protect water, reduce energy- and chemical dependencies, and promote animal welfare;
  4. prioritize seasonal, local, and fair production.

Meanwhile, specifically Slow Food for the next CAP reform asks:  

  • Alignment and integration of the Farm to Fork and the Biodiversity Strategy targets within the CAP
  • To counter the loss of small-scale community-based farming and deliver decent working conditions for farmers and farmworkers 
  • To end to blind per-hectare farm payments and replace them by targeted funding and support that promotes the transition to agroecology
  • To tackle the climate crisis, restore soil-fertility and biodiversity, protect water, reduce energy- and chemical dependencies, and promote animal welfare through targeted funding
  • To prioritize seasonal, local, and fair production of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat, ensuring access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable diets for all. 

Slow Food’s review of a new CAP Proposal and specific demands can be found here

  • What kind of role do the Farm to Fork Strategy and the European Green Deal play in the CAP?

With a recent introduction of the Commission’s new flagship policy, the European Green Deal, and its topic-specific sub-policies, the Farm to Fork and the Biodiversity Strategy, Slow Food believes it is more important than ever to align the CAP with the new environmental ambition. It is vital to integrate the new objectives and targets set in both strategies with the ongoing CAP reform, which will pave the way for the future of agriculture in Europe for the next seven years, and beyond.

The targets and objectives in the strategies that Slow Food finds particularly important to be integrated to the CAP are: 

  • halving the use of pesticides; 
  • reducing chemical fertilizers, 
  • ensuring ¼ of agriculture to be organic; 
  • improving animal welfare standards, 
  • increasing biodiversity protection, 
  • ensuring better information to consumers; 
  • providing access to healthy food for all. 

Thus, it is fundamental that the new CAP provides tools and support so that those targets become a reality. 

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  • Slow Food calls for a Common Food Policy: if it was introduced, what kind of role the CAP would be playing then?

The current food system is not sustainable and is failing to meet the needs of citizens and the environment. Slow Food believes that a Common Food Policy can spark a transition to sustainability in a way that agricultural policies alone cannot. The EU needs policies that not only look at agriculture but consider the food system as a whole: all policies affecting food systems, and all actors along the food chain, need to work together to transition to sustainability. In Slow Food’s point of view, this means aligning policies on agriculture, rural development, environment, trade, health, food safety, and development.

The recently launched Farm to Fork strategy is the first attempt to create a comprehensive policy around food. Slow Food believes that the Farm to Fork Strategy represents the opportunity to set in motion the transformative change we need to build sustainable food systems and protect our environment, farmers, and health. 

However, Slow Food continues advocating for a Common Food Policy, as it would like to see a real integration of policies. At the moment, the Farm to Fork is a political strategy. Everything will be played on the implementation, and it remains to be seen how the different existing policies will, in practice, integrate the Farm to Fork Strategy. For the moment, we still have a Common Agricultural Policy.

More information:

The Good Food Good Farming Demands to change the future of CAP for: nature and biodiversity, resilient food systems and agroecology, climate and environment, animal welfare and human health, sustainable small-scale farming and new entrants.

Slow Food’s evaluation of the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies, here

Everything you need to know about the Biodiversity Strategy, here

Everything you need to know about the Farm to Fork Strategy, here

Slow Food’s review of the new CAP reform, here

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