Why out-of-the-spotlight Council discussions on the CAP don’t serve the environment, climate or farmers

Efforts to improve the state of the environment and to fight climate change have so far clearly not been enough. Evidence abounds about the scale of biodiversity collapse and the chances we have to achieve climate targets are slim. This has triggered a wake of citizens’ movements across the globe and led to strong results for green parties at the 2019 European elections. It is also highly relevant to the farming sector, whose businesses rely on ecological processes and are affected by climate change. In response, the Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen proposes a new European Green Deal as one of the core topics to be tackled by her incoming Commission and wants this to become Europe's hallmark. In different sectors, including the agricultural sector, there is a growing consensus that a significant step up in efforts is now needed if we are to address environmental and climate challenges we're facing today.

Agriculture Ministers at the EU Council are both proclaiming the importance of a stronger environmental and climate ambition and mostly campaigning against cuts in the CAP budget. However, behind the public statements, the detail of the proceedings in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council show that this increased ambition seriously risks not making its way through policy.

Negotiations about the Common Agricultural Policy after 2020 started in June last year (2018) with the publication of EC proposals – the green elements of which IEEP has analysed in detail in different reports (e.g. here and here). One important change being proposed is to replace the current greening payment with a combination of more ambitious ‘conditionality’ requirements and a flexible ‘eco-scheme’, to be tailored as Member States see fit. Conditionality is a set of requirements attached to the granting of the CAP direct payments to farmers and is therefore what defines the environmental baseline of the whole policy across the EU. Weakening its ambition is a big deal.

The draft positions that emerged progressively from the Agriculture and Fisheries Council discussions over the past months, and the most recent leak from early September 2019, show us what changes are being made to the Commission’s proposed conditionality requirements. Here’s an analysis of their repercussions:

  • One conditionality requirement is asking farmers to monitor and better manage the nutrients going onto their fields. However, there is a majority in Council to remove it altogether (deletion of GAEC 5*). Emissions arising from the application of nitrogen fertilisers are responsible for 37% of agricultural emissions and there are at the moment no basic instrument in the CAP to tackle them. Hence, nutrient monitoring is a good first step towards climate action in arable farming.
  • Two changes are being made to the requirement to maintain non-productive features on farms (which is one aspect of a wider set of obligations under GAEC 9). The Council wants to allow the growing of catch crops and nitrogen fixing crops as an alternative to non-productive features as well as restricting its scope only to “areas that are most appropriate” – leaving a door open to exemptions. Catch crops and nitrogen fixing crops (even when grown without pesticides, as is being proposed) are not as beneficial to biodiversity as non-productive features such as fallow land or field margins.
  • Similarly, the Council wants to reduce the scope of the ban on ploughing (or converting) all permanent grassland located in Natura 2000 areas (GAEC 10) and make it applicable only to a subset of that grassland (grassland designated as environmentally sensitive in Natura 2000 areas). However, ploughing permanent grassland depletes carbon stocks in soil and causes great CO2 emissions, so the less wide-ranging a ban on ploughing, the less benefits it would deliver for climate. Ploughing also severely disturbs soil biodiversity.

Some of these requirements are new compared to the current CAP regime (e.g. the Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients (GAEC 5)) but others are merely to replace the current greening requirements that are disappearing. They have been proposed by the Commission as a rather incremental and certainly not radical response to the growing climate and environmental agenda. Weakening this proposed baseline does not make sense, either from an environmental, or an economic viewpoint.

Farming businesses directly rely on functioning ecosystems and they are affected by climate change. The long term future of the agriculture sector is dependent on a more sustainable management of natural resources but it is difficult for individual farms, who need to respond to shorter term market signals, to achieve this on their own. Policy measures such as conditionality in the CAP are precisely the right place to help the farming sector achieve this, at a sufficiently large scale and in a fair way across the EU.

Agriculture Ministers at the Council however seem to be mainly preoccupied with “find[ing] a balance between accommodating the specificities in the Member States with regard to the enhanced conditionality proposed by the Commission and the preservation of the broadly accepted higher environmental ambition”, in the words of the Romanian Presidency at the end of its term (June 2019). Individual “specificities in the Member States” must be acknowledged, but accommodating them should not result in lowering the environmental ambition of conditionality.

The Council’s preference for watering down conditions attached to direct payments has not inhibited 17 Member States from demanding the CAP budget to be maintained. They have not appreciated the importance of real environmental ambition in gaining public support for the CAP budget, which is far from secure. Sticking to this perverse course will do no favour either to farmers or the environment.

*GAEC stands for Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions. The addition of an equivalent point under the FAS does not make it an obligation.

[8]: link https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-10008-2019-INIT/en/pdf

1 comment posted

  • Gerry Lawson EURAF July 27th, 2020

    This is a great article, and the Agricultural Ministers continue to propose reductions in monitoring, no ringfenced budget for Ecoschemes, and a dilution of the GEC 9 rules by including nitrogen fixing crops and catch crops. Have a look at the broadcast from the 20/7 meeting and check what your agricultural minister said! https://video.consilium.europa.eu/en/webcast/cb906c74-a8b3-466a-9f7c-42588800a722

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17 Oct 2019


Anne Maréchal