farmer taking care of his land - context of the CAP reform

6th Sense Staff Writer Niklas Illenseer grew up in rural Germany, surrounded by fields and farms. Such fields and farms across Europe were at the top of the EU’s policymaking agenda in the past week. For E&M, Niklas had a look at the long-awaited reform of the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) and outlines what it means for European farmers and the environment. His impression? Policymakers favoured big agricultural businesses and short term gains over sustainable practices. 

Last Friday, the European parliament and member states agreed on a reform of the EU’s common agricultural policy, the CAP. The compromise had been years in the making, and it comes with a hefty price tag. Until 2027, the CAP will cost almost 400 billion Euro and stand at the top of the EU budget as its single most expensive item. Already, the fact that taxpayer-funded agricultural subsidies account for about a third of all EU spending should make us look twice.

The CAP goes back to the very origin of the EU itself. Established in 1962, it had one overarching goal: subsidize farmers to guarantee sustained production and ensure a decent standard of living as the continent recovered from the war. In short: no more hunger. Many decades and frequent reforms later, we are left with a much doctored policy. It has undergone so many changes that many deem designing an entirely new framework more fruitful than continuously amending the current one. But instead of rethinking the core policy field of agriculture, this latest reform just provides marginal instruments to an already crooked regulation.

Now, agricultural policy might not seem like the most thrilling political endeavour, but its consequences are far more wide-reaching than many might think. The negotiations took two and a half years for a reason. The CAP lies at the very boundaries of agricultural, climate, environmental, economic, and social policy. Striving for a compromise quickly becomes a delicate task with need for political leadership; a need, it seems, quite unmet by the EU.

Size matters

At the heart of the CAP and its recent reform sit direct subsidies to farmers. How do they work? Payments are calculated and distributed on the basis of agricultural land size with no maximum cap of benefits per beneficiary – the reform did not change this. Using land size as the proxy for payments disproportionately benefits large-scale industrial agriculture, fuelling factory farming and increasingly intensive land use. Rewarding and incentivizing large-scale farming amplifies environmental harm whilst effectively penalizing farmers who already engage in sustainable practices. Climate goals, who is she?

Unconditional payments neither secure the environment nor do they secure income for the vast majority of farmers. About 80 percent of the farmers eligible for subsidies in form of direct support payments receive only as much as 20 percent of all money allocated, meaning that circa “one percent of EU farms received one-third of all CAP payments”. With such subsidies in place, money is being squandered on yesterday’s agriculture instead of truly rethinking how a socially equitable and sustainable framework could look like.

Sustainability optional?

Reforming the CAP is easily one of the EU’s most consequential climate decisions. Not only is the agricultural sector a significantly large and increasing emitter of greenhouse gases, it is also tied to biodiversity issues. This is at the heart of how ill-fitted this reform appears in 2021: environmental protection is treated as ‘nice to have’, an add-on to the business as usual politics. It is diametrically opposed to how actual environmental stances should be conceived and makes this reform worse than a standstill. It is a great step back, likely the biggest foregone opportunity to take the EU’s very own climate goals seriously. 

The Green Deal does not contribute an ounce towards solving the climate crisis if flagship policies like the CAP are not aligned with it. After all, the CAP is not only a large block of EU funding, it was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Green Deal, yet not much climate sensibility is in sight. To call this new reform a “system change” is cynicism at its best. Although eco schemes are mentioned, Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout fittingly described them as “paper realities”, empty slogans that do not hold any value. However much money the new reform claims to put into environmental measures, most of it is likely an accounting trick. Lowering requirements here, turning a regulation screw there, and voilà, funding that would have anyway flown can now be called ‘green’. What will be presented as flickers of environmental grandeurs are quickly neutralized by the underlying foul economic short-sightedness. It would be pathetic to not see an eco scheme in marriage with harmful subsidies as anything but malicious greenwashing. Where are the concrete measures towards the climate goals? Where is the policy vision? However hard you look, you won’t find either in this policy reform.

What’s the beef with meat?

Moreover, the CAP reform did not include any provisions to reduce livestock. As contentious as it is, livestock accounts for almost half of agricultural carbon emissions and is a primary hotspot of impact for biodiversity loss. The reality is: we need to reduce the consumption of livestock products, and we need to do it rapidly. Reducing livestock is not just an urban fantasy, not a vegan millennial’s green wet dream. The farmers I know and talked to would rather take better care of fewer animals if the meat was sold at fair prices. But any such provisions are entirely missing from the reform. It should be the role of politics to take farmers by their hands, fund and disburden those willing to or already investing in future-proof practices. What is needed are effective income instruments not conditional on the area and direct payments. After all, no farmer will be happy once harvests fail to materialize because of perpetual droughts and heat waves. 

Opportunities to set much needed incentives for ecologically sound and economically sustainable land use were once again wasted. Agricultural reform is a difficult undertaking but the fact that alternative models exist makes this decision even more frustrating. Subsidies must be targeted and bound to the employment of sustainable practices or return of certain goods. The NABU, one of the largest environment associations in Germany, commissioned their own research resulting in a proposal that rewards sustainable farming practices and biodiversity measures and restricts the public money available to those who do not meet basic requirements. 

Overall, the hard-won CAP reform compromise is not only a policy middle finger in the direction of all attempts at actual environmental policy but also towards European farmers. The CAP reform falls short on all fronts of social and environmental objectives, and cements economic short-term profits as its guiding force. We need an agricultural reform that is not only compatible with the EU’s environmental goals but also thoroughly fair towards farmers and taxpayers.

Cover photo: no one cares (Unsplash), Unsplash licence

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    Niklas Illenseer

    6th Sense Staff Writer

    Equipped with a background in Economics, Niklas currently studies Environmental Policy at Sciences Po Paris and Political Science at FU Berlin. Socio-ecological politics, political economy, and intersectional feminism ring his bell as much as queer pop culture references, nutritional yeast, and good food.

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