Future of EU farm scheme hangs in balance as post-Brexit budget looms

The fight over the future of farming in Europe has started in earnest this week as NGOs and political groups outlined their vision for EU food production.

For months now farmers, environmentalists, and a whole host of interest groups affected by how we produce and consume our food in Europe are scrambling to get the ear of Phil Hogan, the Irish Commissioner in charge of drafting plans for the future of EU farming before the end of the year.

Roughly 40% of the EU’s total budget – 58 billion euros a year – is currently spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). But the farm scheme is unlikely to continue to receive such a huge chunk of EU taxpayers’ money under the next budget, given both growing criticism of the policy’s social, economic, and environmental impact on farming in Europe, and the European Commission’s drive for stricter scrutiny over future EU spending.

The United Kingdom’s imminent departure from the EU and the resulting reduction in net budget contributions to any future farm payments scheme (an estimated 4 to 7 billion cut) will also cast a shadow over negotiations on how much money the future policy is allocated. The political uncertainty brought about by Brexit is even being used by a centre right group in the European Parliament to call for delaying CAP reform.

In its official position on the CAP adopted on 4 September, the European People’s Party (EPP) said that CAP reform discussions should not begin before a post-Brexit financial framework is settled. The document also warned against a “hasty” reform and called for farm policy to remain unchanged until after 2024.

But sticking with the CAP status quo is not an option for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). In its new position paper, published on 6 September, the NGO said it was essential to overhaul the policy’s “current dysfunctional two pillar system where harmful payments made from the first ‘pillar’ of the policy often cancel out the limited environmental benefits brought by payments from the second”. The EEB also criticised the “failed attempt” to ‘green’ the policy at the last reform.

The EEB calls for four new strategic farm “instruments”, including one that would help farmers shift to sustainable farming methods. Faustine Bas-Defossez, EEB Policy Manager for Agriculture and Bioenergy, said:

“It’s time to use public money to help farms become resource efficient, low carbon, ecologically sound, sustainable and resilient undertakings that are less dependent on chemical inputs and imported fodder. This is the only way to help farmers deal with risk and an uncertain climate and market.”

In contrast, a group of EU agriculture ministers put forward plans this week for a farm insurance fund  which might encourage farmers to plant crops in areas susceptible to drought by giving them the assurance that they will be paid regardless of whether their crop fails or not. Faustine Bas-Defossez described such an approach to risk management as “politically irresponsible” as it was essentially “using public money to encourage farmers to take risks”.

Honor Eldridge from the Soil Association also said an over-reliance on so-called ‘risk mitigation’ methods would have negative consequences for both farmers and the environment. “As a result of being insured, farmers are less inclined to farm in ways that might better protect them from risk,” she said.

For his part, Commissioner Hogan will be listening carefully to such discussions as he prepares his much-anticipated reform proposal, which is expected to be published on 29 November. For Faustine Bas-Defossez, Europe must be ambitious. “The current CAP has contributed to driving Europe’s food and farming system to the brink. The next reform is a golden opportunity to turn things around and stave off further damage to our precious natural resources which have been damaged by Europe’s industrial farm system. There’s no time to lose. Hogan must seize this chance to secure a truly sustainable future for European farming for the sake of farmers, people, and the environment.”