The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the framework which regulates the production, sale and processing of agricultural products in Europe. For over fifty years the Common Agricultural Policy has dictated what kind of food is produced and consumed in Europe.
As one of the first common policies created in the 1950s it helped the European Union to ensure food for its citizens in the post war-years. For 50 years, the CAP has driven major decisions on the direction of agriculture in Europe and the spending of considerable European public funds – today, it takes up around 40% of the total EU budget. It is reformed every seven years. Responsible for our food, our rural communities, our countryside, our health, our environment and our farmers, the CAP affects everyone.
In this time, it has not gone far enough to support or stimulate sustainable practices, and has led to major problems. It has encouraged a model of agriculture that damages the environment – through contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and water pollution – and promotes factory-style farming at the expense of jobs for farmers and workers in rural areas. Through increased import of cheap raw materials produced in socially and environmentally damaging ways, and cheap exports to the global south, the CAP's impact is felt much further afield than within the EU alone.
This campaign is part of our Food, Agriculture and Biodiversity Programme to halt biodiversity loss and to challenge unsustainable food and farming. We advocate for an ecological and fair agriculture that protects wildlife and natural resources, supports family farms, and reduces our impact on developing countries. We coordinate four campaigns: to protect biodiversity; to make the food system more sustainable; halt the growing of genetically modified crops; and prevent the expansion of agrofuels. As part of our vision, we play an active role in building a movement for food sovereignty.
The reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will come into full force in January 2015. We campaigned for the new CAP to provide for better environmental and social targeting of farm support. This was done with the objective of enhancing the production of European vegetable proteins, reducing dependence on imports, and supporting sustainable small farms instead of big industrial farms.
The Commission's initial plans were a positive step towards sustainability in farming. However, the CAP reform process was mostly business as usual, with little real reform. Greening – the idea that direct payments to farmers would have to include strong elements of environmental protection and sustainable agri- and eco-system services – was weakened.
Despite the lack of any fundamental reform to improve its sustainability, national governments and regions still have considerable power to pick and choose some aspects over others. This can be a positive or a negative. Spending CAP funds well could have positive impacts on agriculture and food policy, making it greener and fairer.
This urgent need to change the way we produce and distribute food means policy makers at all levels must use the funding made available through the new CAP to transform the food chain.
The new CAP can help support a transformation at all levels. The shift towards agro-ecological farming can happen by ensuring farmers implement strict mandatory "greening" measures in order to qualify for direct payments. This means that farmers should as a minimum preserve natural resources, by maintaining existing pasture lands that are rich in biodiversity and good carbon stores, and by diversifying crops. The best way to do this is through crop rotation – especially when leguminous crops are present in the rotation – and by setting aside specific areas for biodiversity.
In order to further preserve biodiversity farmers can apply for measures through the CAP's rural development programmes, in particular those that relate to agri-environment and climate or for agro-forestry. Increasing funding for organic farming at the level of national policy can be also an effective tool to support a transition to a more ecological method of farming.
The framework also offers the opportunity to give additional funding to farmers who link crop and livestock farming via so-called coupled payments, or through measures in the rural development plans.
Payments are also available to support small and medium size sustainable farms, as well as young farmers, who very often need advice and help. Such funds are available and policy makers should give priority to small-scale and young farmers who also take measures to preserve nature on their land.
On its own, sustainable food production and small-scale farmers making an effort to rotate crops and set aside biodiverse pastures will not solve the problems of the industrialised food system. Sustainably-produced food products should be also marketed through alternative short food supply chains that pay a fair income to producers.
The CAP framework, especially the rural development programmes, should dedicate sufficient funding to support emerging community-supported agriculture projects, local markets and farmer co-cooperatives. The LEADER approach, an EU rural development program, should also be prioritised, as it is a bottom up, community-led approach linking local actors to address the needs and opportunities of regions in a sustainable way.
Climate change is a threat that impacts all of us – farmers, consumers, and rural businesses alike. The CAP supplies dedicated funding, mainly through the rural development programmes, to address the problem of high input climate damaging agriculture. To seriously tackle this issue, those funds should instead address the cause, and not the effect. They should support agro-ecological farming and local processing and distribution systems, since they have proven to be climate friendly.