It is not a revolution but an evolution. The future of European food and farming is changing direction, heading towards more sustainability, simplicity and flexibility. The common agricultural policy (CAP), one of the EU's oldest policy, needs to adapt to the global pressures the agri-food sector is facing such as climate change, biodiversity loss or higher risks of price volatility, and making it simpler, less bureaucratic and more focused on results is the best way to do just that.
The proposed new direction for the CAP was unveiled by Commissioner Phil Hogan on 29 November 2017 through the Communication on the Future of Food and Farming. The Communication draws on the experiences of running the CAP for 55 years, as well on extensive input from stakeholders and the wider European public in a consultation that ran from February to April 2017. In line with the findings outlined in the consultation, the Communication focuses on how best to ensure continued support for European farmers at the same time as ensuring that EU agriculture plays its important part in tackling climate change, preserving the environment and defending biodiversity.
A new delivery model
One thing that is very clear from all the feedback is that a one-size-fits-all approach to the CAP simply does not work in an EU where farms and farming are so diverse. What might have worked well in the past, when the CAP was focused on production and products (which are all essentially the same wherever they are grown) is not so useful when the focus is shifted, as it has in recent years, onto farms and farmers. A Spanish farmer faces a completely different set of challenges and opportunities than a Finnish farmer, for instance. Coupled to this, the old-fashioned centralised control method is excessively bureaucratic and burdensome, detracting unnecessarily from the actual work of supporting farmers.
This is why a new way of working has been proposed, with a much more flexible role for each EU member state. The overall goals for the CAP, and how they can be achieved, will still be set at the European level – there is not question of the CAP somehow losing its ‘C’ and forgetting the need for a common approach to common problems. But what is new is the ability for each country to choose which particular mix of measures works best for them, to ensure that they meet the stringent targets set at the EU level. They will set out how they intend to achieve their goals in CAP strategic plans,approved by the European Commission, and will also be much more accountable for performance monitoring and reporting.
The aim is that by delegating more at member state level, this will allow the objectives and requirements to be adapted to the local conditions and needs but also reduce the EU-related administrative burden for farmers and other beneficiaries. Often criticised rules on the number of trees allowed in a field, or what crops to grow when, that were previously set at the European level for clear policy reasons but which failed to match the reality on the ground will soon be a thing of the past.
Smarter farming for all
While giving national authorities the freedom to choose from a range of EU measures to meet their specific needs is one way to make the CAP more effective and less bureaucratic, the Communication highlights the rapid advances in research and innovation as another. Just a few years ago, checking that crops are properly rotated to preserve soil health was an onerous task, requiring regular on-farm visits. Now, thanks to the network of European satellites already circling the Earth, any farmer, inspector or policy maker can see immediately what’s being grown where, free of charge, through a simple smartphone app.
Technology is also increasingly widely used in the field as well, but there is still much more that can be done to foster innovative new products, and access to them for everyone. The future CAP will be much more focused on encouraging innovation (for example through identifying where there is a common need that technology might be able to meet) and on helping especially small and medium-sized farms to join the digital farming revolution.
A fairer deal
The future CAP will also be a fairer CAP. Direct payments already help ensure an income safety net for farmers – vitally important when the average farmer’s' income still lags behind average salaries in the economy as a whole. However, the current system, based on the size of farmers’ holdings, meand that 20% of farmers receive 80% of direct payments, and a more balanced distribution of support for farmers is needed. A number of different options are still on the table, from capping of payments to a sliding-scale of support for farms of different sizes, as well as the possibility to limit payments to farmers who make their living exclusively from agriculture (as opposed to those who own farm land but do not live off it).
Anyone who farms for a living also knows the risks – one bad harvest is enough to devastate an entire sector. Climate change has simply increased the level of risks that farmers have to face, and the CAP will do more in the future to help farmers cope more effectively. In fact, the CAP already provides a set of instruments that can help farmers to prevent and manage risks. However they are not being fully exploited due to a lack of awareness and knowledge – which is why a permanent EU-level platform on risk management will be set up to enable an exchange of experiences and best practices from the different interested parties such as farmers, public authorities and stakeholders. The main goal would be to improve implementation of current tools and inform on future policy developments.
Environmental care and climate action
Farming is a resource-intensive activity, and relies on natural resources such as water and soil on a daily basis. At the same time it is also highly affected by the consequences of climate change such as an increase in adverse climatic conditions or changes in seasonality. Weather in 2017 had deep impacts on agricultural productions, where production of wine is expected to reach historical lows or extreme weather conditions have put farmers in financial difficulties.
Therefore the future of the CAP will also focus on pushing towards more sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming, replacing the current instruments – cross-compliance, green direct payments and voluntary agri-environmental and climate measures – with a more targeted, more ambitious yet flexible approach. This will be easier with the new delivery model, as member states will design a mixture of mandatory and voluntary measures to meet environmental and climate objectives defined at EU level.
Strengthening socio-economic fabric of rural areas
The CAP and in particular rural development policy has an important role to play to promote rural jobs and growth as well as to preserve the environmental quality of rural areas. EU and national investment in infrastructure, natural and human capital development is vital if we want better access to public services, health care, vocational training, quality education and connectivity in rural areas.
The emerging bio-economy, the circular economy and ecotourism are areas that have great potential for rural areas; by-products from agri-food and forestry can find new value in the production of bio-energy and bio-based industries, contributing to the energy transition and reducing waste. These areas should become a priority for the CAP strategic plans in the future, as will so-called smart villages, which aim to help local communities address issues of inadequate broadband connectivity, employment opportunities and service provision in a clear and comprehensive manner.
Nonetheless, the agricultural sector can only evolve and develop if a new generation of farmers is ready to step up to the plate. Today the agricultural community is ageing, with the over-55s representing 55% of European farmers. Additionally young farmers or new entrants face many obstacles, from lack of access to land to costly investments. The future CAP will do more to encourage young farmers to take up the mantle from the older generation, for example by encouraging member states to use the full range of options available to them with regard to land management, taxation, etc.
The Communication has set out the broad guidelines for the future CAP, but putting the flesh on the bones is still to come. Impact assessments of a wide range of possible policy options are already underway, but talks on the other main issue for the future CAP – the EU budget and how much of it will be available for farmers – have not yet begun. Until the next seven-year EU budget is agreed, most likely in May 2018, it’s not possible to put any numbers to the ambition outlined in the Communication. But with legislative proposals expected to quickly follow any budget agreement, the hope is that the future of food and farming can be secured – in principle at least – before the European elections in May 2019.
MEMO: The future of food and farming
1 December 2017