Greening the Common Agricultural Policy: MEPs vote on environmental measures

As part of the wider EU budget review for the period 2014-2020, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been under scrutiny over the past two years. In its current state, the CAP accounts for 40% of the EU budget, and provides funding through two routes – Pillar One and Pillar Two. Reform of the CAP has been proposed for a number of years, with a view to moving away from its origins as a subsidy to a source of funding that is able to support sustainable farmland management. These changes have been developing for a long time, and proposals for the next period of CAP after 2013 were drawn up by the European Commission in October 2011. There have been a plethora of discussions and amendments across committees since, and final proposals were put before the full European Parliament for further debate and vote last Wednesday.

The debate and votes on the reforms encompassed all areas of the policy, from the allocation of payments to strengthening the bargaining position of farmers. The introduction of systems to ensure greater environmental protection and management, known as greening measures, were a key part of this. Currently, it is mainly Pillar Two that provides funding for environmental protection, but original proposals from the European Commission outlined the strengthening of Pillar One by introducing new green measures that farmers and land managers must meet.

The European Commission proposed in 2011 that 30% of direct payments could be dependent on farmers meeting criteria around crop diversity, grassland retention and ecological management. Original guidelines state that:

1) Cultivation on land over 3 hectares must be comprised of at least three different crops, with all covering 5-70%;
2) Permanent grassland or pasture should be maintained;
3) At least 7% of land must be managed as ‘Ecological Focus Areas’ (EFAs)

During the negotiations and debate, however, the specifics behind the message of greening the CAP were altered. To receive green funding, farmers still have to meet the three main criteria of crop diversity, maintenance of grassland, and management of land as EFAs, but the environmental guidelines have changed:

Crop diversity: Arable land of 10-30 hectares must be planted with at least two different crops covering 20-80% of the land. Land more than 30 hectares must be comprised of at least three crops covering 5-75% of land;
EFAs: During 2015, at least 3% of land over 10 hectares must be reserved for EFAs. From 2016, this will be expanded to 5%.

Although these are small changes on paper, these alterations have the potential to give considerably different outcomes to the original guidelines. The area of land dedicated to EFAs has been more than halved, a move which will have implications for the EU’s farmland wildlife. Farmland biodiversity has already seen declines over many years. As outlined in a previous blog, one group that has suffered as part of this are farmland birds. EFAs comprise areas such as hedgerows, ditches, ponds, or land left fallow. These can provide benefits to the greater ecological environment, especially in relation to environmental change. As recommended in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper, for enhanced resilience and coherence of the country’s ecological network, sites need to be ‘more, bigger, better and joined’.

Although greening of the CAP does not look likely to be as ecologically rigorous as initially hoped, the creation of mandatory measures in Pillar One is still a step in the right direction. The area of EFAs remains open to review after 2016, and there will still be additional funding available through Pillar Two to farmers or land owners who want to further increase their sustainable management practices.

The debate and votes last week in the European Parliament were the first stage for the final negotiations for the CAP. European Council discussions are currently underway, and all three European bodies are due to come together to decide a final position on 11 April.