The Great Set Aside Swindle
Set aside will be abolished as part of the CAP Health Check in late 2008 but was effectively lost more than a year ago when the Council of Ministers approved the rate at 0%. Critics of the scheme argued that retaining a production control measure in a post decoupled word was an absurdity, especially when global cereal stocks were hitting an all time low. Was this really only a few months ago?
However, this assessment was decidedly one sided and framed very much within the context of a supposed food crisis. Despite the fact that the world was, and is not, running out of food, the argument was made that Europe had a duty to help feed everyone. Despite the flaws in this argument (the food crisis, if it can be thus termed, concerns the affordability and distribution of food rather then its global availability - and what about all that wheat destined to become biofuel? ), politicians and farming organisations alike reacted with zeal and called for land artificially taken out of production to be cultivated forthwith. Soaring prices for cereals also inevitably encouraged many farmers to plough up set aside for wheat in 2007-08. Sky high profits and saving the world – who could blame the arable farmers for responding?
Sky high profits and saving the world – who could blame the arable farmers for responding?
Unfortunately, the debate ignored the other side of the story, that concerning the role set aside played in the lives of many threatened farmland bird species. Set aside provided vital nesting and feeding opportunities that are often missing in the wider, intensively farmed, countryside. Removing this safety net, without even assessing its likely impacts, will almost certainly lead to additional pressures on already threatened species.
An effective mitigation measure is urgently required but conspicuously absent from the Health Check proposals. A fluctuating cereals market means farmers will find it increasingly difficult to plan their harvests and as we seem to enter an era of boom or bust farming the urgency of a measure to protect the environment becomes ever more apparent. Although food production is the core component of agriculture, it is not all it must produce. Public goods like water resource protection and the promotion of biodiversity are also vitally important for a thriving and sustainable farming sector.
Although food production is the core component of agriculture, it is not all it must produce.
High cereal prices and misleading claims about world food supplies allowed set aside to be swept away with no thought given to the impact this would have on the environment. Perhaps now that the dollar signs have faded for wheat prices the European Union will remember its commitments to biodiversity.
05 Nov 2008
Jenna Hegarty is an Agriculture Policy Officer for the RSPB.