An Taisce has dedicated significant work to the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP provides support to European agriculture and rural development. The scale of this support is enormous, with the fund comprising roughly one third of the entire EU budget (the 2014-2020 CAP budget is worth about €350bn) compared to just 0.2% for nature conservation. Over the past 15 years there has been a movement away from production-based subsidies (which led to the European "Food Mountains" in the 1990s) towards area-based payment schemes whereby farmers receive payments based on the acreage of land they maintain in conditions that are suitable for agriculture. However, there are huge problems with this policy in terms of how it shapes the relationship between farm practices and the natural environment.
Single Farm Payments
The policy delivers support to farmers and rural communities through two main avenues: Single Farm Payments (SFP) and Rural Development Programmes (RDP). SFPs make up the greater share of the budget (about 80%), and 50 years of this system has created something of a dependence upon such payments. The fact that certain categories of 'unworked' farmland, such as scrub, woods and bare rock are ineligible for payments has led to some farmers converting these areas to farmland so that they may be eligible for subsidies. There is also an ongoing exercise at EU level to 'clawback' payments that were made based on ineligible land - leading to further land conversion. In this sense the SFP is providing a perverse incentive to destroy areas of ecological value.
At the same time, despite €2.18 billion having been paid out to farmers under various agri-environment schemes (part of the RDP) in Ireland between 1994 and 2006 (and more since), these schemes have failed in their objectives. That is, the agri-environment schemes have failed to deliver sufficient protection for Ireland’s biodiversity and have not ensured that ecosystems can support a vibrant agricultural sector in the long term.
An EU-wide assessment in 2009 concluded that “the conservation status of all habitat types associated with agriculture is significantly worse than other types of habitat: only 7% of such assessments are favourable, compared to 21% for ‘non-agricultural’ habitats. This is due to shifts towards more intensive agriculture, abandonment of the land and poor land management.”
Ireland’s farmers are not the root cause of this problem. Financial incentives which favour intensive farming and encourage conversion of land of nature value (e.g. scrub clearance), poorly designed agri-environment schemes, inadequate targeting and baseline setting and little or no monitoring of results are largely to blame.
The most recent CAP reform process, which is currently in its final stages, was supposed to be a genuine attempt to address some of these major environmental problems. However, the supposed 'greening' measures included in the current reform package are extremely weak, will achieve little in a practical sense, and many Irish farmers will be exempted. Past agri-environment schemes in Ireland have tended to favour distributing money to as many farmers as possible in a broad-brush or ‘few strings attached’ manner. An Taisce has advocated targeted, outcome-based agri-environment schemes which are integrated at a regional scale. This approach is strongly supported by research and practice elsewhere in Europe.
This would mean putting more time and resources into the development of plans for each individual farm, giving farmers a more active role in planning and monitoring processes, focusing more on outcomes (as opposed to actions), as well as coordinating plans between farms for maximum regional impact. We have a good precedent in the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme (BurrenLIFE), but this is unfortunately an isolated example. Well-designed, agri-environment schemes can help deliver important public goods in the form of clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration, higher biodiversity, and long-term food security.
Evidence suggests that the maximum of €5,000 per farmer under Ireland's new agri-environment scheme (GLAS) and the additional €2,000 available under GLAS+ will not be sufficient. The fixed caps placed on these payments do not reflect the farm-to-farm variability of critical environmental work. For this reason, An Taisce is advocating better targeting of funding.