No more blank cheques for agriculture!

Article in jointly written by ARC2020, BirdLife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau, Friends of the Earth Europe, IFOAM EU Group and WWF.

The next phase of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) looks likely to be the continuation of the blank cheques of long-standing agriculture subsidies, an outcome that will be completely incomprehensible to the public, argue six European conservation groups.

From the start, negotiations on the future of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) were supposed to be about delivering more for Europe’s environment, rural communities and long-term food security.

Despite this welcome and ambitious intent, it now appears that the current destructive business-as-usual agenda will persist. In the hothouse of negotiations, the original drive for reform is being dangerously weakened. On present course, the result looks likely to be the continuation of the blank cheques of long-standing agriculture subsidies, an outcome that will be completely incomprehensible to the public.

Close to 40% of the total EU Budget (2007-2013) subsidises farming, a hefty sum that supports a largely industrialised agriculture and is unfairly distributed. The original reform objective was to use the money more wisely to ensure Europe’s farmers are supported when preserving and restoring the environment, and guaranteeing prosperity for hard-pressed rural communities. But this hope is fading.

Heads of state will meet in Brussels on 22-23 November to agree on the EU budget for the 2014-2020 period and to decide how much of taxpayers’ money will fund agriculture. The commitment will be made without even knowing how “green and fair” their agriculture ministers and the European Parliament will make the future CAP.

At this stage there is a serious threat that once the financial commitment is made, any meaningful and progressive environmental measures will be stripped away, due to limited resources. Some MEPs and agriculture ministers have even gone as far as to say that there will be no greening if the CAP budget is reduced.

CAP has long been the most controversial part of the EU budget. The future of European agriculture is today in the hands of a small group of MEPs and ministers, who are being cajoled by the agro-industry lobby to fork out the bulk of future payments to intensive farmers with little environmental and long-term socio-economic return.

Creating a situation where this policy does not have to commit to delivering tangible benefits before taxpayers’ money is allocated only reinforces this negative perception. While the days of milk lakes and butter mountains are over, this way of doing business does little for the credibility of Europe. Wider accountability to the EU electorate and to the ultimate common good, our shared environment, must be re-introduced.

The situation can still be salvaged. A clear political lead could refocus the CAP reform on financial responsibility and on outcomes that benefit Europe’s citizens as a whole. There should be no more blank cheques. Our political leaders need to insist that payments as a minimum require farmers to apply effective measures that protect the environment and take agriculture into the 21st century, thus ensuring our long term food security through sound management of our natural resources.

The links between farming dependent on agro-chemicals, climate change, the pollution of water, soil degradation and the destruction of animal and plant diversity are well established. The vested interests that continue to demand payments from the EU, while failing to address these issues, have to be challenged. There are plenty of agricultural practices which are in tune with and respect ecological processes, instead of destroying them; we just need the political will to mainstream them.

We must ensure the long-term viability of EU agriculture by making the entire CAP greener and fairer for all farmers. The Rural Development Fund can be used to support rural economies and further increase the environmental delivery in our rural areas. Any attempts by some MEPs and member states to siphon off money from it have to be prevented. Our political leaders need to ensure that sufficient financial support exists for this fund to maintain viable rural communities and a guaranteed environmental return.

When heads of state sit down later this month, they should look at what is in their citizens’ interests, which is an environment that can support sustainable farming in the long term. Our politicians should use the CAP to support farmers who want to make a real difference for future generations, rather than print blank cheques for those who do not.