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Will the post-2020 CAP be a missed opportunity?

MEPs need to overhaul the European Commission’s plans to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, to attract young farmers, give farmers a fair wage, and protect the environment, argues  Luke Flanagan.

Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is an independent Irish MEP, and a member of the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament.

There’s a fierce battle raging in the corridors of Brussels on the future shape of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The current policy expires at the end of next year and much is at stake.

In the 80s the CAP represented over two-thirds of the total EU budget but that proportion has continued to shrink year after year. The proposal on the table from Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan, cuts a further €20 billion in funds for farmers, to just under one third of the total EU budget. The European Court of Auditors slammed Hogan’s proposal, saying that its long-term vision is “not apparent” and its actions for the climate are “unrealistic”. Only the corporate lobbies are satisfied.

While supports for farmers decrease, funding for arms companies are spiralling under the so-called European Defence Fund and PESCO. French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel now want to form an EU army.

A left and progressive 2021-2027 CAP must put an emphasis on small and medium-sized farms, enable young farmers, build a strong rural economy and promote ecological agricultural practices to meet ambitious climate change targets.

Unfair redistribution

Small and medium-sized farms make up two thirds of the total in the EU but their numbers have dwindled by a quarter in the last decade. That’s equivalent to one farm closure every three minutes.

The Commission has responded to this problem by proposing a “more balanced distribution of payments” to farmers by instituting compulsory capping at the farm level or gradual reduction of payments based on farm size. This, the Commission argues, will allow money to be redistributed to support small and medium-sized farms.

While laudable in its intention, the devil is in the detail. The capping in the Commission’s proposal is at €60,000. This headline statement is disingenuous and misleading and will not achieve its stated objectives.

The Commission proposal allows member states to deduct the value of salaries paid from direct payments before the cap is applied.  Indeed, in its original proposal, now amended, the Commission extended this loophole to include the value of family labour engaged on the farm.  The effect of these loopholes, agricultural economists agree, will make the capping meaningless.

Also meaningless is the Commission claim that direct payments in the future will be concentrated on small and medium sized farms. Fairness and supporting small and family farms means at a minimum a convergence of payments per hectare, with the current system promoting wide disparities among farmers in the same country and between countries based on a system now two decades old.

Currently, 80% of the all CAP subsidies go to 20% of the recipients. The Commission’s proposal does not seek to shift this imbalance of power but to perpetuate it. The big winners, if the measure is not defeated, will continue to be the agribusinesses and their industrial models of production.

Young farmers left alone

Between 2007 and 2020, €9.6 billion will be spent on programmes for young farmers, and another €8.7 billion by member states. Yet the share of farmers under 44-years-old has continued to decline from 22.7% in 2005 to 21.4% in 2013. The EU had 14.5 million farmers in 2005, but only 10.7 million as of 2013.

A damning 2017 European Court of Auditors (ECA) report found “little evidence about the outcome of these measures and whether they actually help young farmers.” The underlying logic of the Commission’s plan is that access to land and finance is the main reason for the lack of young farmers. But the real reason for this decline is the lack of profitability. Why would a young person become a farmer if the profession will leave them broke?

The CAP continues to rely heavily on free market logic when agriculture, the food that we eat, should be classed as a public good. The CAP therefore should pay farmers a decent wage for their produce, rather than allowing large supermarket chains to bring prices down to below cost. The image of farmers throwing away their produce because it is worth nothing in the “market” is all too common in the EU, and it must end.

Paradox of rural ‘development’ with cuts

The bulk of the CAP cuts will hit rural development. These cuts are contrary to the EU’s claim that it wants to support communities and young farmers. Indeed, the European Council of Young Farmers said that “the announced cuts to the CAP budget and thus to the rural development budget do not only send out a negative signal, but also threaten the existence of rural areas as viable and attractive places for European citizens.”

On the one hand, the Commission pledges to support young farmers and small farms, but on the other it cuts development funds that are meant to make deprived rural regions more attractive for young farmers.

A climate change-proof CAP

Finally, the urgency of climate change raises the stakes of the debate for the upcoming CAP. The latest IPCC special report calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Opportunities exist for climate mitigation in agriculture because many agricultural practices which are beneficial for mitigation also have a positive contribution in water, soil and biodiversity protection.  The CAP can do better in shifting farming practices to meet these objectives.  Adaptive solutions may include choosing crops and varieties better adapted to the growing season and water availability, improving the effectiveness of pest control by diversified crop rotation, and the use of Integrated Pest Management techniques and improving soil management to conserve soil moisture.

It is also important to recognise that farmers do not only produce food. Carbon sequestration, biodiversity and clean water are public goods, which are not remunerated in the market but which farmers provide, benefits society as a whole.

The current battle in the European Parliament and eventually with the Council on the post-2020 CAP will determine whether the EU will make good on the opportunity at hand. We stand for a different direction for the CAP. A truly progressive and sustainable policy that empowers farmers and EU citizens, rather than corporate lobbies and agribusinesses.

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