Europe and Central Asia
6 Sep 2016

Kicking the bucket; Is the CAP still working for our countryside?

(c) Shutterstock
By Thomas Quinn

Now that the 2013 reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are slowly starting to take effect, and national governments iron out the wrinkles of the new IT systems which have delayed subsidy payments to farmers, many were hoping for a period of calm for Europe’s farming sector. Sadly, 2016 has already had its fair share of ‘crises’. With the crash in milk prices, pig meat export bans from Russia, and now a potentially disastrous wheat crop in Western Europe after an unseasonably wet spring, it feels as if our farming sector now is reduced to moving from one crisis to another. 

Considering that over a third of the European budget is poured into supporting this sector, one would expect our farming sector to be in good shape. Sadly, we are far from that being the case. If the CAP was a leaky bucket, we would be quickly running out of fingers to plug all the holes that continually appear. And the crisis that threatens to truly knock the bottom out of the pail – though it doesn’t earn as many column inches- is the ecological crisis that is a consequence of the agricultural intensification that is promoted by the CAP.  Reports conducted by Birdlife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau illustrates that the new ‘greening’ measures within the CAP have completely failed to address this most disconcerting of leaks. The newly introduced measures that are supposed to protect nature are so filled with loopholes, exemptions and contradictions as to render them all but useless for biodiversity. For instance, in some countries, a land manager can spray an area of land that is used for biodiversity with pesticides, and still receive the payment for ‘greening’ that area. This is just one revealing example of a distorted outcome from a policy that is clearly not delivering for people or the planet.  

With issues mounting and concern being raised by farmers, environmentalists and national ministries, it shan’t be long before this CAP is completely discredited.  There must come a point when rather than living with such a leaky vessel, we must ask- isn’t it just time we get a new bucket?

The first CAP was established to ensure that the continent had enough food after WWII. We thankfully and successfully met that objective, but now we face new challenges. The 21st century faces a crisis of major biodiversity loss, climate change, and populations plagued with increasing levels of diet related health issues.  If the next CAP is the same as last one we’ll make a bucket with holes already in it.  Our next food policy can’t just be about ‘quantity’- it is evident from recent crises that it is actually endangering farmers’ livelihoods as well as causing massive biodiversity loss. We need a CAP that focuses on what we grow and how we grow it. Further, if there is to be any support for farmers, it should go for the food that people need that is made in the way that tackles climate change and biodiversity loss.  

Birdlife, alongside other European organizations, has called for a complete rethink of what the policy should do and how it should achieve it. It has called on the European Commission to conduct a ‘Fitness Check’ of the CAP. After the intense and protracted scrutiny of the ‘fitness check’ of the nature directives, the possibility of the same exercise with European agriculture would be a welcome one. This process would inaugurate a new phase for farming in Europe. It would mean that we can begin to talk about not just helping farming, but ensuring that Europeans get the right produce from farming- sustainable food.

It would also be the opportunity to discuss what type of food we should help to grow- should we have food which is more healthy, or climate- friendly, or biodiversity supporting, or all three?  The challenge must be to  make a policy that works for farmers, families, and wildlife.  In an era of constrained budgets, it becomes harder to justify pouring billions of euros into this leaky container. Instead of kicking the bucket further down the road, let’s get a new bucket. 

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.