A healthy environment is fundamental to achieving vibrant rural areas

The Austrian Presidency which just kicked off in July this year is unsurprisingly using its Informal Agri Council schedule for Monday next week to focus on the CAP. Taking a step back from the more immediate issues raised by the heatwave that affected the whole of Europe and the dramatic consequences it had on harvests and livestock, it considers the role of the CAP in maintaining vibrant rural areas as the setting for competitive and sustainable agricultural and other rural businesses alongside a healthy environment and climate.

In thinking about which policy instruments are essential for achieving this, it is important to recognise that economic, social and environmental needs of rural areas are interdependent. Agricultural and forest systems can, if appropriately managed, deliver many benefits for soil, water, air, biodiversity and climate and the sustainable management of natural resources is critical to the long term viability of agricultural systems. And both agriculture and forest management requires people – not just the farmers and foresters themselves, but those involved in the whole food or timber supply chains.

However, all too often the delivering of environmental and social priorities is thought about as an ancillary, separate activity to food, fibre or timber (Maréchal A. et al. in Eurochoices, 2018). This needs to change.

The findings of a recent H2020 project, PEGASUS, highlighted that current policy mechanisms, including regulation and various agri-environmental schemes, provide an essential foundation for the enhanced provision of public benefits in rural areas. However, treated in isolation, they can be insufficient to support collaborative engagement of key actors and consideration of the economic and social dimensions that is the hallmark of the success and longevity of many initiatives. In addition, they can be too small-scale, too focussed on individual farms rather than larger groups or territories, and too detached from the market dynamics that have a fundamental influence on motives and longer-term decisions.

This study also stressed the importance of collective action for improving engagement with a wider range of key actors in order to spark initiatives with greater scale, longevity and coherence of action across a territory or along a supply chain (Maréchal A. et al, 2018). Alongside collective action it flagged the importance of getting the governance and institutional settings and dynamics right and investing in capacity building (both at institutional level and amongst those managing the land) to deliver outcomes that are truly sustainable (in an economic, social and environmental sense). Building more collaborative ways of working and trust between different actors is fundamental to changing the mind-sets and behaviour of farmers and other land managers as well as those of policy makers to support the actions required to maintain the provision of benefits (ENRD Contact Point, 2018).

The current CAP proposals offer some opportunities in this direction. The increased flexibility provided to Member States to design and enforce measures in a way that suits their needs under the new delivery mechanism allows countries to innovate in a way that allows for a more flexible and joined up use of the policy mix, better adapted to local needs and promoting cooperation and collaboration between different actors. Change is always difficult and the backlash against these proposals suggests that Member States are nervous about embracing this challenge, instead preferring the comfort of the status quo. The problem being that status quo will continue driving us into an unsustainable direction.

If we really are to achieve the change we need in moving towards a more sustainable future for rural areas, one which acknowledges and respects the fundamental role that protecting and enhancing the environment and climate plays in underpinning this, then we think that the following points are critical in relation to the current CAP proposals:

1) Sufficient funding must be made available to rural development interventions and those Pillar 1 measures that can be tailored to support sustainable land management.

Recent budget proposals involve disproportionate cuts in Pillar 2 compared with Pillar 1. To increase the environmental performance of the CAP and help farmers transition to sustainable practices, Member States should be allowed to transfer unlimited amounts from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 (this transferred money should remain 100% EU funded).

2) The range of instruments available within both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 must be used creatively and flexibly and Member States should ensure they interact with each other in a positive and synergistic way to maximise outcomes and avoid conflicts between different elements of the CAP, leading to perverse effects.

From an environmental perspective, they should ensure that the eco-scheme and environmental and climate commitments in Pillar 2 are designed in a complementary way, building on enhanced conditionality, which is essential.

3) There must be no going backwards on environmental achievement.

The non regression clause should therefore be made operational and be better linked with tangible elements such as expenditures or measures themselves instead of being left to the discretion of the Commission.

4) The new delivery mechanism must be made to enable Member States to design their interventions flexibly, but there must be accountability to ensure that the Strategic Plans are fit for purpose, based on a factual needs assessment and that they deliver what they propose.

5) Cooperation between environmental and agriculture authorities should be strengthened at all levels (EU, national, regional).

More effective cooperation between relevant authorities at different levels and across policy areas will be essential to ensure the successful drafting and implementation of the strategic plans. The exchange of knowledge and use of existing tools (e.g environmental planning tools) across the departments could help optimise the environmental integration of the future CAP.

6) Effective engagement of Stakeholders (including environmental NGOs and land managers) and transparency are necessary and at all stages of the process, from the drafting to the monitoring of the plans and at all levels, particularly at national and regional level .

This is vital to enable the sharing of ideas and expertise, and to help bring about a shared commitment to achieving the objectives set.

7) The new development mechanism requires commitment by both the Commission and Member States to an ambitious programme of change which in turn requires investment in capacity building and training, as well as networking and sharing of experiences between Member States and investment in data to allow the monitoring of performance to be meaningful.

If we really are to achieve the change we need in moving towards a more sustainable future for rural areas, one which acknowledges and respects the fundamental role that protecting and enhancing the environment and climate plays in underpinning this, then we think that the following points are critical in relation to the current CAP proposals: The Commission has put forward some bold proposals that have potential - if rightly amended by the co legislators - to achieve a step change in the way that funding is made available to rural areas and rural actors. But for this to work, and to ensure that vibrant rural areas are underpinned by a healthy and well-functioning environment, it requires the commitment and dynamism of all those involved, from EU level to those working on the ground.

The latest heatwave that affected the majority of EU countries and farms should be seen as an alarm bell for real change. Opting for the status quo instead of bringing the necessary improvements to set the future CAP on the path towards sustainability would not only be a missed opportunity but also a political failure at a time of a dire need for change.

Join #Think2030 to discuss this and other key sustainability issues for Europe


20 Sep 2018


Kaley Hart; Faustine Bas-Defossez