EU plans Cap reforms with major implications for Irish farming

Farmers could face ‘significant drop in income’ due to environmentally-driven changes

The EU is trying to align farming with its green deal and curb spending on agricultural subsidies. File photograph: David Sleator

The EU is trying to align farming with its green deal and curb spending on agricultural subsidies. File photograph: David Sleator

 

An attempt will be made in Brussels this week to nail down radical reforms to the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) that have been years in making.

Already, it is clear the changes will lead to a shift towards more environmentally-friendly farming and redirection of Irish agriculture for decades to come.

The “jumbo trilogue” negotiations between the European Council, European Parliament and European Commission follow intensive efforts to shape a deal in the final weeks of Portugal’s EU presidency. The EU is trying to align farming with its green deal and curb spending on agricultural subsidies.

Irish Farmers Association (IFA) European director Liam MacHale said most Irish attention will focus on eco-schemes and on “internal convergence” – a process to redistribute and flatten the value of CAP payments for farmers with entitlement values above the national average to farmers below the national average.

The schemes will see between 20 and 30 per cent of CAP “Pillar 1” funding ring-fenced for environmental measures. The agreed figure, in effect, reduces basic payments to farmers by an equivalent amount.

This is in a scenario where direct payments make up 100 per cent of income in some sectors, Mr MacHale said, adding that there will be an obligation to carry out environmental measures, potentially at an additional cost, but “no guarantee you will get your money back”.

Member states support the application of a 75 per cent figure, whereas the European Parliament is demanding 100 per cent, known as “full flattening”. Again this will have major implications for direct farm payments; notably to farmers with above average incomes who make up the backbone of Irish agriculture.

It means Irish farmers could be facing “a quite significant drop in income”, Mr MacHale said. “It’s very difficult to fill that gap because it’s so significant.”

The Government, however, can ease pain by increasing “Pillar 2” payments, which support rural development. These are co-financed with the EU – the IFA is seeking an increased contribution from 46 to 57 per cent here.

On carbon, Mr MacHale believes “it is an opportunity for farmers to deliver” and a positive story as the sector – particularly Irish farming – can sequester carbon, through capturing it in soil, forestry and hedgerows. A mechanism, however, is needed to measure and verify this.

A robust market where carbon credits can be traded backed by the ability to offset emissions is also required, he said. Ireland already has the highest level of organic carbon in its soils; the challenge is to ensure that continues to be case, with full recognition of farmers’ role in sequestration.

Environment campaigners believe the reforms support a largely business-as-usual approach.

“It promotes an intensive and industrial model of agriculture over more diverse and sustainable systems such as agro-ecological or organic farming,” according to the European Climate Foundation (ECF).

The CAP negotiations thus far show lobbying by vested interests has weakened urgently-needed environmental ambition to address biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and poor water quality, said Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland.

From 1999 to last year there was a doubling of farmland birds onto the red list of Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland – 16 such species are red listed currently.

“Recently widespread and common species such as the kestrel and snipe are now of highest conservation concern which is a deeply troubling development,” she said. “Agriculture policy including the CAP is driving significant changes to farmland habitats.

“We need generous budgets in agri-environment schemes to support farmers to reverse farmland bird declines. There’s a huge appetite among farmers to do so.”

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