I have not been riveted to my seat by discussions over the future of the CAP post-2020. I simply had no expectations. As to the public consultation, they are a charade to persuade the masses that they are involved in due process. For those at the epi-centre in Brussels, it is a no-win situation; it is a case of which direction loses fewer friends. Even as we see a few more pointers appear, we hear the French Minister of Agriculture stating that there should be absolutely no cuts in direct payments while members of the environmental lobby are spitting fury at likely Pillar 2 cuts. With Brexit, a total budget cut was likely, it was just a case of where those cuts fell.
Radical Reform Required
I have also been more engaged with where UK farming and food policy goes. It is a smaller forum but also one where the public is closer to hand. If there is going to be an innovative change in farming/food/rural/green policy, it is more likely to happen in the UK. For many reasons, I believe that radical reform is needed, but even for the UK, I do not hold out high hopes as there are too many vested interests wanting to maintain the status quo. At present, the taxpayer often pays a significant proportion of total farm incomes, thus allowing others in the food supply chains to use their disproportionate trading power to keep their purchasing prices low, or so it seems. Some farmer-representatives also appear to have little idea how to begin to change the situation, so focusing upon maintaining direct payments is the easier option. It is the route of least resistance.
I have also many years in one of the ‘new’ eastern EU states and I am aware of how closely politics at all levels can be tied to the large-inward monetary flow that CAP payments are. I recently viewed data for Romania in 2015 where the highest single payment to an agricultural entity was more than €15 million. Quite a number were over one million. In the past, I have walked some of the lands in question and I followed their privatisation through long-term leasing. The bottom line was that obtaining control was about knowing who’s who. The reward was eventual access to CAP payments. It will now be interesting to see who votes for capping CAP payments. Or maybe the choice will be devolved. If it is, we can kiss goodbye to the ‘C’ in CAP, it will be relevant no more.
Stepping back, I would say that major reform is difficult when we do not yet seem to fully understand the need to change. Thus, it was never going to happen for 2020. There is a long list of issues that need solutions; improving the food-health conundrum; reducing GHG emissions, nitrates; improving water quality; enhancing animal welfare [further], reversing the decline in farmland flora and fauna and restoring soil carbon and organic matters and, thus, soil fertility. And that is before we even work out how to recreate the links between farmer and consumer to a point where farmers are rewarded by the market and not reliant on direct support payments.
It is a prodigious problem list and it will not be addressed until we focus on identifying encompassing solutions for rather complex problems. To-date too many have focused on single issues. And to do so frequently leads to unforeseen, often detrimental, consequence. Many people are already airing their disgust at potential cuts to the Pillar 2 budget, but I do wonder whether their influence has been diluted by focusing upon less than the full picture. They also need to fully appreciate that environmental schemes are not always seen as offering supplementary income streams to participants, they are taking from the income support pot. It is either or, not both.
Farming VS Environment conflict
The farming versus environmental conflict will continue for as long as we do not start with farm incomes. I would also argue that, outside of especially important cases, it is time to stop thinking in terms of ‘schemes’. The idea is dated, and such are unlikely to be rolled out on a grand scale within the CAP, now or within the foreseeable future. There are also regions within the EU where high-nature land is still so extensive that schemes will never provide blanket coverage and loss will be inevitable. Short-term we must work with what we have but, long-term, it is time for a rethink.
Focus on Farming Systems
A fresh approach would be to focus upon farming systems themselves [and food supply chains] and to identify innovative [or retro-innovative] systems that can deliver upon an array of objectives. We must stop thinking of tinkering around the edges and go for a mainstream change. It is more than about playing with field margins. And it must be done in such a way that implemented change will deliver for farmers, for rural area and for the environment. And we must demand that changes occur in such a way that the market can support them. It is ambitious but nothing else is sustainable.
A changed-down-the-line CAP
A changed-down-the-line CAP must then be about payments to support the transition. It must be about grant-aiding change and not underpinning a new set of farming and food systems with direct payments. There will undoubtedly be ‘public goods’ argument for paying farmers for specific activities [for example, providing land access or landscape preservation] but it will be a failure in by, say 2030, we are still seeing an environmentalist-farmer conflict still driven by a failure to engage because the former consider that the latter is a major threat to their livelihoods.
An idealistic vision is to see change being driven by farmers with both farmers and the green lobby working together in concert. It must happen, eventually. I do, nevertheless, think that the CAP forum is not the place to start forging suck links; it needs to be a ‘quiet’ grass-roots driven reform.