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CAP – Farmers and the Environment

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been the mainstay of European agricultural policy for more than fifty years and has ensured that food insecurity and price volatility, that were characteristics of 20th century Europe, have not been repeated. Though the policy has the admirable task of ensuring European food self-sufficiency, food traceability and safety, the general consensus is that the policy requires radical reform. The CAP plays an important role in ensuring economic stability, protecting the incomes of farmers, controlling inflation and mitigating impacts of outside pressures. The historical role that CAP played in the earliest days of the European project made it a precious symbol of European solidarity, however the institutional and political power that’s been wielded by the proponents of the Common Agricultural Policy over several decades has put a stop to any semblance of radical reform.

The Common Agricultural Policy has been criticised since its formation, constantly under pressure due to its scope and cost. Recent CAP reform efforts have not only focused on the traditional goals of CAP, but also issues of lowering food prices, environmental protection, animal welfare and finding other sources of income for farmers. However, the rules that have been put in place to protect the environment often lack rigor and oversight. One must consider whether these efforts are realistic given CAP commits a large proportion of its resources to supporting large scale industrial farming that disproportionately benefits large farmers and land owners. This kind of farming is at odds with the aforementioned goals and contributes to the devastation of the environment and biodiversity.

Europe has come through the worst of the 2008 economic crisis, and one has to ask whether it is financially prudent to spend 58 billion Euros, or 39% of the EU budget, providing subsidies to farmers.  Consider that agriculture generates just 1.6% of EU GDP and employs only 5% of EU citizens, yet does not proportionally benefit that 5%. Large agri-businesses and landowners constitute approximately one quarter of EU farmers, yet receive an estimated 80% of farm aid. Controversially, these land owners often include aristocratic families with large land holdings.

CAP subsidies have also been blamed for perpetuating inequalities in global food distribution. Combined with import tariffs on food from outside the EU, the subsidies make it harder for developing countries to compete. CAP undoubtedly leads to higher food prices and wasteful wealth transfers, yet it is really up to the individual how much they value the comparatively high standards of food safety and animal welfare that CAP provides. Food security has become a pressing issue in recent years, with significant price volatility for certain goods. This is only likely to become an issue of greater concern in the coming decades as global warming, overpopulation and increasing political and economic uncertainty bring pressures on food security in many regions. The Common Agricultural Policy is imperfect, yet its value to us all is subjective. With a scientific consensus on climate change, it is fair to say that most people can describe themselves as some form of environmentalist. Many recycle and purchase organic, but arguably, the true custodians of our environment are the many millions of farmers who maintain the countryside and landscapes that we value so greatly. While it is abundantly clear that the CAP is wasteful and often ineffective, these things come at a price. One thing is for certain, while there is a vocal minority proposing to completely dispose of the Common Agricultural Policy, to do so would take the ability to affect change out of our hands once and for all. Agriculture is highly exposed to the affects of climate change and is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The CAP may become an increasingly important policy in contributing to climate change mitigation through encouraging more sustainable farming, emissions and carbon sequestering in years to come. Perhaps the focus should be trying to deriving more value and refocusing the priorities of the CAP, then trying to simply reduce its cost burden.