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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Can the CAP bring considerable benefits to our environment?

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

3rd Forum for the Future of Agriculture – The Economics and Politics of Food Security vs. Climate Change

Brussels, 16 March 2010

Some would say that the 'discovery' of agriculture was the first big step forward in the birth of civilization. It is hard to argue with this. What is more empowering than the ability to produce food?

Today things are, as you would expect, a little more complicated. Today agriculture is huge business, it is an activity that has many impacts on our natural resources - it is also of enormous social and cultural importance to us all.

This is as true in Europe as it is in the rest of the world.

So then we might ask just what do we expect from European agriculture?

One thing is certain – we are demanding much more than we used to.

Today we want our agriculture to give us good quality, safe food; we want it to make sure it provides a good income for farmers; we want it to maintain the life of our rural areas…we even want it to preserve our cultural heritage. 

We are asking a lot. From a relatively small number of people.

Consider this - farmers represent only 4.7% of the EU's working population. Yet they manage nearly half of the EU's land area. Farming has a big influence on Europe's landscapes and the quality of its environment. Historically, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy - the CAP - as the main tool to support EU agriculture, has supported the rapid modernisation of farming and intensification of production.

It is also responding to these modern needs and pressures in a variety of ways, by promoting competitiveness in agriculture, ensuring secure food supplies, preserving the environment and the countryside while supporting viable, living rural areas.

But even though all these elements exist in our current agricultural polices – and have to be addressed properly, I want to discuss my area of professional expertise: the impact of agriculture on environment…

…and particularly how a future common agricultural policy might respond even better to today's environmental challenges.

 In Europe today, we can observe both, negative and positive impacts of agriculture on the environment. Intensive agriculture can contaminate water and soil, damage biodiversity, while more traditional or extensive farming systems generally bring benefits to biodiversity, landscape, soil and water. 

In the past, the Common Agricultural Policy has been adapted extensively to reflect our growing awareness of environmental issues, but there is still major room for improvement – particular with regard to the extent in which we can integrate even more environmentalism into it.

This is even more the case if you consider that environmental issues such as water, soil and biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation and adaptation are recognized as key tasks for land use.

The CAP has been significantly modernised over the last 50 years. Since the early 1990s, progressively more environmental integration has taken place, and the worst environmental problems caused by CAP payments have also been removed. The main environmental assets of the CAP are now the environmental funding under Rural Development and the existence of cross-compliance. Cross compliance sounds technical, but in practice it simply means setting out a baseline of environmental rules.

These are all positives, for sure. However, much more environmental integration will be needed if the CAP is to support a broader environmental benefit to society. The European public is increasingly concerned about how we spend the European budget and also about the environment in general; and in particular they also worry about the impact of agriculture on the environment…

Eurobarometer results show that 1 in 3 Europeans think that promoting respect for environment should be one of the priorities of EU agriculture policy.

What does this mean? It means that the CAP needs to be able to provide environmental public goods and services. We need to put forward the proposals to make this happen and let CAP deliver them to the European public. This means digging deep into the substance of the CAP – we need much more than just green window dressing.

But how exactly should we change CAP to realise this?

We know that farmers, especially those working small farms, have been badly hit by the crisis. We have to listen to them and take their concerns seriously into consideration. The way I see it - but this all is still open for discussion - it seems reasonable that the future CAP will continue to support viable farming by some sort of area based payments.

But looking from an environmental point of view, instead of using the historical model of payments, I personally would rather think of flatter area payments, which are genuinely decoupled from production.

Of course, the level of these payments may be different according to region and type of land use and land specificity - for example, a higher payment for farms having a higher proportion of permanent grassland.

I use this example because it is an important one. Permanent grassland is under threat from increasing arable need and also crucial for maintaining biodiversity and in mitigation of the impact of climate change.  For all these environmental reasons, we should maintain these so-called high nature value (HNV) farming, and one of the options – still to be discussed – could be to promote this by using such differentiated payments.

What is so vital from the environmental point of view is that we link cross compliance to all such area-based payments. I know that cross compliance is still a heavy administrative burden despite several attempts to make it simpler. But I'm ready to see, together obviously with my colleague responsible for agriculture policy, Mr Çiolos, how we can make it easier to deliver and implement for farmers. At the same time cross compliance should remain targeted firmly at its environmental objectives. We could, for example, look into how to exchange best practice in implementing it – and teach farmers how to use it and help them change their ways to meet new requirements.

In all this, we should not lose sight of the fact that while we use cross compliance to generate benefits for the environment….things like biodiversity conservation, water and soil quality and pesticide reduction…. we need to continue improving in the future. Cross compliance might include introducing – as mandatory requirements - minimum areas of natural features devoted to biodiversity or crop rotation; it might eventually include respect for other environmental laws (for example under the Water Framework Directive).  

If we look even further at this more targeted approach to environment and climate change in the CAP, we can't ignore Rural Development, currently the 2nd pillar of the CAP. This is without doubt the major funding instrument for environmental integration in rural areas, with about 37 billion Euros going to agri-environmental measures between 2007 and 2013. Under this the CAP pays farmers and forest owners for their environmental services in support of biodiversity, water, soil, landscape and climate change. Many other Rural Development measures also help the environment, like farm investments in new technology that can save energy and limit water consumption.

Despite this, funds for Rural Development represent only a small part of the CAP budget, and with all the environmental and climate challenges ahead of us, to my view, and speaking in the capacity of commissioner responsible for environment, a bigger share of Rural Development will be needed, and within this share, we must allocate more to agri-environmental measures. These measures support farmers who voluntarily engage in environmentally friendly farming practices and who go beyond what cross compliance demands of them.

Current Rural Development is also making sure Natura 2000 sites are financed - these make a crucial contribution to maintaining biodiversity and are under continuous pressure for other land uses. This challenge has not been taken up fully by the Member States and we hope in the future to push for an increase of Rural Development measures, which aim to maintain the good conservation status of Natura 2000 sites.

As I have been saying since my first speech to the European Parliament back in January 2010, the mainstreaming of environmental objectives in other EU policies is one of my major priorities for this mandate.

Natural resources and their relation to the Common Agricultural Policy is an area where this approach seems particularly appropriate, as agriculture needs the best quality soil and water. And we cannot afford to waste water or soil quality because this will have a direct knock-on effect on productivity. We need nothing less than a CAP that respects these resources and promotes the 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.

This is the base for a viable agriculture of the future.

On the other hand, and as I hope I have made clear by now, many of the environmental measures needed to protect biodiversity, soil and water and to achieve climate change adaptation and mitigation need to take place on farms. Supporting environmental integration helps to deal with the challenges we face in our environment as a result of climate change. An environmentally friendly agriculture is a resilient agriculture, it is a resource efficient agriculture that can respond to the challenges of today and can deliver food security and quality, sustainably.

This all points to one thing: farmers, other land-users and environmental defenders have a huge common interest, and it would be wise to work together.

If we can achieve a very significant and profound 'greening' of the CAP – not the greenwash we know will get us nowhere – we can also get the stronger public support we need for continuing the high level of CAP financing. All the signs are that the public expect CAP funding to be delivering real environmental-friendly public goods, and this is a very clear means to meet these expectations. With such reasoning, I can see somewhere in the future an EU policy that would be called something like ''Common Agricultural and Environmental policy''. But this is of course an idea that needs some further thinking and discussion.    

* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I'm a farmer's son. My father is 87 and has this winter done more skiing than I did.

Bill Bryson, the American writer said that there are only three things that can kill a farmer: lightning, rolling over in a tractor, and old age. Let's make sure we help our farmers – and the land they use for us, continue to live long and prosper.

Thank you.

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