Farming flaws: why 2015 was another poor year for EU agriculture
Looking back on agriculture in 2015, there were three threads that ran through the year: implementation, simplification and protests over market turmoil.
This was the first year of implementation of the so-called greening element of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In theory, 30% of income subsidies to farmers now pay for basic commitments to ensure diversity in crops grown, maintain landscape elements and protect grasslands. Sadly for nature, this did not translate into reality.
The CAP is like an onion with many layers – there are the basic rules, which already were far from perfect but still left some room for manoeuvring, then there are guidelines for implementation, which are also not perfect but with enough options that Member States can choose to protect nature. The last layer are the farmers and other stakeholders who must deal with the choices made by their national governments and make their own implementation choices.
Unfortunately (although it was largely expected), Member States in most cases chose the option that gave biodiversity and nature a raw deal. A study by the IEEP, commissioned by the EEB and co-presented with BirdLife in the European parliament in November, shows how Member States have already watered down the first two layers of the ‘onion’ and are continuing to weaken it. It is becoming clear that the promises of the last reform are fizzling into a whiff of green smoke.
The mid-term review of the EU’s biodiversity strategy also shows that agriculture remains one of the main threats to biodiversity and bird species dependent on farmland continue to do worse on average than their counterparts. The Commission remains silent, however, on the link between these facts and the choices Member States make while implementing the CAP.
When it comes to the implementation of rural development, which accounts for 25% of the CAP (most of the rest goes to income subsidies), during 2015 we focused on was making sure that measures were being designed and funded for biodiversity, nature and the environment. In particular, we tried to make sure that all stakeholders got a seat at the table.
Although the real implementation in the field for most Member States will only start next year, it has already become clear that we are not going to see badly-needed effective investments in biodiversity and ecosystems, with many Member States scaling back investment in good environmental measures, prioritising unambitious schemes and funding environmentally harmful intensification of agriculture.
Agriculture & Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan made a big political deal out of simplifying the CAP. Farmers and Member State authorities sent thousands of pages of proposals to the Commission, but NGOs felt largely left out, especially at the national level, where our members seem to have been seen as useful only for justifying the policy but not seen as partners in its implementation.. Not much has happened yet, but the omens are again rather bad.
In the midst of all of this, farmer protests – blockades for holiday goers and street marches in Brussels – had a large impact. 500 million euros of extra support was agreed on for highly unsustainable sectors, such as the intensive pig farming industry. The intensive farming lobby keeps touting increased production and export orientation as the solution for agriculture’s problems, while at the same time bemoaning the low prices caused by precisely that type of development and constantly asking for more taxpayers’ money.
In conclusion, 2015 has done very little to alter this very fundamental conviction of ours: the system is broken, even if no agriculture minister wants to admit it. Yet.