May 6, 2010
Once upon a time farm lobbies argued for a common agricultural policy as a guarantee of food security; now it is justified on the grounds of environmental projection. In neither case can a policy based on massive subvention from the taxpayer be justified. Europe’s food supply was never seriously threatened by lack of support for farmers. Similarly, the conservation of wildlife habitats and the maintenance of an uncontaminated rural environment does not depend on handing out €50+ billions a year in production and income subsidies to farmers.
In its latest campaign to preserve the CAP against the budget pruners the EU farm unions federation COPA/COGECA argues that the environment will not be protected without a continuation of the CAP, largely in its present form. “These huge public benefits [ environmental purity and landscape conservation] are not remunerated by the market. They are assured by the CAP,” says COPA President Paidrag Walshe. Quite right, but not the CAP as we know it today.
What COPA wants and the European Commission appears to be going along with is a policy essentially based on farm income subsidisation with environmental safeguards bolted on more or less as an afterthought.
There is however a growing body of expert opinion that believes that this is a largely ineffectual approach, both from an environmental and economic point of view. It would be farm more efficient to pay subsidies to farmers to achieve specific environmental objectives. This is a major conclusion to be drawn from a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development on ‘Policy Measures Addressing Agri-environmental Issues’. The clear implication from this report is that globally, measures targeted at solving specific environmental problems are far more efficacious than those which are mere add-ons to what are essentially production policies.
Of nothing is this more true than the EU’s so-called ‘cross-compliance’ policies. The principle here is that if farmers do not comply with environmental conditions they do not get their income handout. As the Court of Auditors has revealed, this policy is largely ineffectual because member governments seldom enforce the environmental conditions. This conclusion has subsequently been reinforced by reports from various environmental bodies. They take the view that specific regulations rather than production policy side dishes would better protect the environment.; It would also save a substantial amount of public money. Targeting environmental objectives and abolishing now largely unnecessary farm income subsidies would cost the Brussels budget about a quarter of current total CAP expenditure.
The Commission should now be taking its cue from Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik on this issue, rather than from DG Agri. The Commissioner told the recent Brussels Agricultural Forum: “We need nothing less than a CAP that respects [soil and water] and promotes practices that use them in a sustainable and resource-efficient way. We also need a CAP that can invest in protecting and restoring them when they have been degraded, contaminated or polluted.”