This post is by Miles King, senior ecologist at Footprint Ecology, and a regular blogger about nature and the environment.
If there was any doubt before, the local and euro election results have confirmed that the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU now hangs in the balance. Euroscepticism has shown its face.
From its inception, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been central to the EU. Its original purpose was to ensure that the food shortages which haunted post war Europe would never happen again. But, from rational beginnings, a monster was born.
Production subsidies and intervention buying guaranteed high prices and encouraged ever greater overproduction. Milk and wine lakes, butter and cheese mountains grew. In the uplands, headage payments put too many sheep on the hills, grazing them ever barer.
Despite efforts to reverse the effects of such powerful policy drivers, such as Agri-Environment Schemes, the CAP continues to encourage farmers to produce food intensively. In 2003 agricultural payments were ‘de-coupled’ after threats from the World Trade Organisation. But production intensity and farm size has continued to increase, while the farming workforce has dwindled.
The CAP beast has broken free from the constraints of rational decision making and the European Commission’s agriculture department has lost its grasp of the leash.
Some absurdities of CAP policy:
- The 50 trees rule was dreamt up in 2003. The problem? Farmers were claiming CAP payments on land which could be classified as forest. Ancient landscapes such as Scandinavian wooded meadows or Iberican Dehesa could not exist within the CAP. So the 50 Trees rule was born: land with more than 50 trees per hectare is not agricultural land, so could not receive single farm payment. What happened? Farmers chopped the trees down.
- After farm payments were decoupled from production in 2003, farmers could theoretically do nothing and still receive a payment, creating GAEC 12 “encroachment of unwanted vegetation”. Any field where vegetation was seen to be encroaching would be refused farm payments. A CAP inspector found a single stem of wild rose in a Bulgarian meadow and rejected the farmer’s claim for CAP support.
- Concerned that farmers were converting grassland to maize, the Permanent Pasture rule was introduced, requiring each member state to maintain its area of grassland. But the definition included anything from wildlife rich meadows to stubble turnips; and farmers can reseed pastures, as long as they aren’t converted to arable. Suggestions that this rule might be tightened up led to large scale ploughing in 2011-13, including loss of wildlife rich grasslands. This rule is now being challenged.
- Fears of fraud led DG Agriculture to tighten rules on who was eligible for CAP payments. Millions of hectares of low intensity farmland across Europe were excluded from farm payments, while golf courses and airports remained eligible.
- An entire sub-industry developed to define temporary or permanent ineligible features. Hedges were only allowed to be two metres wide and a patch of scrub had to be less than 100 metres square. A mass digital mapping exercise hunted down every aberrant patch of land.
- Desperate to persuade the increasingly sceptical public that the CAP really was delivering public goods, ‘greening’ was created. The idea being that a fair chunk of Single Farm Payment would be paid in return for environmental benefits; retaining wildlife areas or implementing EU directives on nature and water. Industry lobbying watered greening down until the rules reached the absurdity threshold. A recent paper has concluded that greening will achieve nothing for nature and could even be counterproductive.
A welfare payment to the richest
Every CAP cycle creates new absurd rules to replace the old, while most CAP subsidies continue to go to the big farms, supporting intensive farming. Attempts to change the CAP span over 20 years. More was done in 1992 while subsequent efforts to reform it have failed; the intensification lobby is too powerful and the innately pro-CAP eurocrats are cut from the same cloth.
Perhaps it is time to get rid of the CAP itself. It swallows 40 per cent of the euro equivalent to £4 billion a year spent in the UK, money given to farmers with practically no public return. It’s a welfare payment to some of the richest people in the UK.
Opposition to this comes from unlikely sources. Hardline economic liberals object to all forms of public subsidy or support and they have called for the CAP to be abolished and replaced with “transferable biodiversity obligations”. This would focus support onto areas with high biodiversity and could lead to a market in tradeable biodiversity obligations, or biodiversity offsets as they are also known.
An unlikely alliance to oppose CAP
The Greens support CAP reform and support for small farmers and the environment. The mainstream parties continue to talk about CAP reform, joining the ‘public goods for public money’ chorus, but the intensification lobby prevails. The public goods produced from CAP funding are far outweighed by the public ‘bads’ of support for intensive farming and everything that does to the environment and communities.
To slay the CAP beast would require an unlikely alliance of eurosceptics, economic liberals and environmentalists. One approach is for the market to prevail, but this values public goods at zero. What value can the market place on hearing a cuckoo in spring or seeing a hawthorn bush in flower? The alternative to a market-based ‘payment for ecosystem services’ approach, would be public funding for public goods.
Land providing public goods should receive support. Applying the mitigation hierarchy, which currently only applies to planned development, would mean landowners who avoided damage and restored nature would be rewarded. Landowners who farmed unsustainably would pay compensation to mitigate the damage. A robust but fair set of regulations would provide the baseline of environmental protection. Implementation would be needed across Europe, but does it need overarching European legislation? A European framework directive for land use could apply or member states could lead, but the mitigation hierarchy should be central to either approach.
There would have to be a lot of metaphorical nose-holding for the different political tribes to work together on this, but it could be done, and it would show a sceptical public that politicians really are prepared to reform the EU in the public interest.