AFTER months of speculation, leaks and lobbying, the European Commission has finally published details of how it proposes to reform the Common Agricultural Policy from 2014.
For the NFU’s 6,000 members in this region, it was an announcement awaited with some trepidation, as the CAP still has a huge impact on the fortunes of farming. But why should anyone other than farmers be interested in this? And at a time of austerity and public spending cuts, it’s not surprising if people wonder why we still need a CAP at all.
The CAP, and the single farm payments it provides, serves two vitally important purposes.
First, the payments help cushion farmers against climatic and market shocks, so sustaining European food production and providing European consumers with a secure, affordable food supply through good times and bad.
With the world facing the “perfect storm” of population growth, dietary change, resource depletion and climate change set out by Professor John Beddington of Imperial College London, food security – which the CAP helps provide – can no longer be taken for granted.
Then there is the environment. European farmers are told, quite rightly, that they have to compete in the market place. But they will be competing with one hand tied behind their backs, for as long as they are expected to meet standards of care for the environment which simply do not apply to their competitors elsewhere in the world. The CAP’s single payments help to compensate for that. They protect our environment as well as our food supplies.
Having said all that, the direction of travel for European food policy has to be away from support payments and towards the market. Right from the start of these negotiations, the NFU has been saying that we need a CAP which is simpler, more common – in the sense of allowing fewer discrepancies between the various EU member states – and, above all, more strongly geared to our number one priority, which is food production.
Measured against those criteria, the proposals announced by the Commission can only be described as deeply disappointing.
Far from strengthening the focus on productive farming, these proposals would seriously weaken it, by requiring farmers to take seven per cent of their land out of production and operate under completely artificial constraints on crop rotations in order to qualify for single payments.
And instead of completing the de-coupling of support from production, the Commission plan would embed it more deeply, by allowing countries like France to continue with coupled payments for at least a further five years.
Farmers in England have been used by their Government as guinea pigs in CAP reform, going further, faster (and, thanks to the RPA, more chaotically) down the road of change than farmers anywhere else in Europe. This reform was the chance to bring the rest of Europe into line with where we are; to eliminate some of the unfairness; to make the playing field more level, if you like. Judging by these proposals, that chance has been missed.
This is not the end of the story. The NFU and the Country Land & Business Association are by no means the only European farming organisations to have condemned the plans as backward-looking, over complex and, above all, out of tune with the developing priorities for European farming.
With the European Parliament – whose views on farm policy now have to be taken seriously by the Commission – also unhappy, there is a real prospect of worthwhile change. The future for farming – in Europe, in Britain and in the North-East of England – lies in delivering the things that our consumers want and need. In a nutshell, that requires us farmers to produce more, while impacting less.
It is a challenge to which the farming community is ready and willing to rise, but we need a policy framework which helps us to do that and not one which, as I am afraid would unquestionably be the case with these proposals, would put major obstacles in our way.