News3 November 2017Brussels, BelgiumAgriculture and Rural Development
Future of CAP: River deep, mountain high
Take a look at a relief map of Europe, and you’d perhaps be surprised at just how hilly the continent is. Of course, everyone knows the great mountain ranges of the Alps or the Pyrenees, the Appenines in the spine of Italy, the Auvergne in the volcanic heart of France… But even the so-called Low Countries are far from being completely flat, and often places that are relatively level in terms of relief often have other constraints such as water or soil quality that can have an impact on agriculture.
And yet as any hill walker knows, grapevines stretching over slopes or cows grazing on near-vertical fields are as much a part of this landscape as the hills themselves. European farmers have traditionally ploughed their fields or fed their animals across the entire continent, regardless of the physical constraints. The ingenuity and tenacity of European farmers working the land in even the most difficult conditions is also one of the factors that contributes to Europe’s great variety of food traditions and landscapes - from Denmark, which has relatively few difficult areas in terms of farming, to Malta, where farmers across the densely-populated island face a wide range of areas with specific natural constraints.
The EU, through the common agricultural policy (CAP), supports active farmers working in areas facing what it defines as "natural or other specific constraints", effectively compensating farmers for their agricultural production under difficult conditions.
There are three specific types of areas facing natural constraints defined in the CAP rules: mountain areas where land use is difficult due to altitude, climatic conditions, or the geography itself (for example, when the slopes are too steep to use machinery). It also includes areas facing significant natural constraints other than mountains, for example low temperatures, dryness, excess soil moisture, limited soil drainage, unfavourable texture and stoniness, shallow rooting depth, poor chemical properties and slopes. The third type of area concerns those with specific constraints, which represent not more than 10% of the EU's' territory, where land management conserves or improves the environment, maintains the countryside, preserves the tourist potential or protects the coastline, or where a certain combination of the biophysical criteria thresholds are met.
In terms of budget for the period 2014-20, around 17.3% of EU rural development funding (EAFRD) goes to areas facing natural constraints – some €25.6 billion in total public expenditure. Around 28% of this goes to mountain areas, 69% to areas with other significant constraints and just 3% to areas with specific constraints – although these figures are likely to change in the future as a new designation of such areas at national level is currently ongoing. This is likely to see, for example, areas that were previously covered by the rules now excluded following significant investments in the past that have effectively eliminated the constraints and boosted economic activity there.
But it’s important to remember that this is about so much more than just financial assistance to farmers. The aim is also to encourage farmers to continue managing the land in these difficult conditions, and to avoid land being abandoned, keeping the countryside alive. Because farming is not just about food: it is about rural communities and the people who live in them; it is about our countryside and its precious natural resources. Often, those natural resources attract tourists, creating more jobs for people living there, and keeping these natural resources attractive and alive is one of the key roles of today’s farmer.