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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Environmental aspects of the future Common Agricultural Policy

Opening statement at the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (European Parliament)

Brussels, 11 April 2011

Dear chairman Mr. De Castro, Dear Jo, members of the Agricultural Committee,

My father was a farmer and an innkeeper. He will be soon 88, and he is still active in cutting the grass, and keeping the countryside around his house well managed. If I have learned anything in my youth it was to respect the beautiful, but hard farmer's life.

It is the fact, that times we are living in are very fragile. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever and the Earth is becoming a kind of a small village. According to the UNDP data in the 20th Century the population has increased 4 times, economic output 40 times, water consumption 9 times, fish catch 35 times, use of fossil fuels 16 times and CO2 emissions 17 times. If we add to that, that our population will according to estimates increase to 9 billion till the mid of the Century and that the number of people in middle class consumption in fast growing economies will increase enormously, than the conclusion is pretty obvious. We can not continue like that any more, we have to change our production and consumption patterns. We need a kind of common sense revolution.

There are three kinds of mankind activity which are most influencing the quality of environment listed in any study you would take: energy production, transport and agriculture. In the recent EEA State of Environment Report land and water management are pointed as two major challenges for the future.

I have three political priorities for my mandate: resource efficiency, biodiversity and better implementation. For resource efficiency it is essential that resources are defined in the broadest sense of the word, including natural resources, water, ecosystems, soil, air etc. This will obviously have consequences also for farming where resources occupy a centrally important position in farmer's day to day lives.

I have spoken many times about the importance of agriculture and forestry for the environment. The reason for this is quite simple: together, farmers and foresters in Europe manage three quarters of our land use. And the way they manage their land is crucial for the health of soils, for protecting water or biodiversity, and for achieving climate change objectives. Farming can benefit our environment enormously … but if things go wrong the potential for causing problems is just as big.

I think we could agree that the direction of successive CAP reforms since the 1990s has been positive for the environment, but I hope that we could also agree that more could and should be done.

Let me share with you where I stand on the future CAP. It will need to respond to expectations on the redistribution of direct payments, on reinforcing agricultural competitiveness and rural development. But it would be also essential that the future CAP also contributes the public goods we need to meet the environmental and climate challenges we face today. These are the concerns which are very high on the agenda of all European citizens. I believe that the amount of public funds spent on agriculture can only be truly justified if future CAP makes a significant contribution to reaching the EU's environmental and climate targets. We must tackle these challenges today to avoid much bigger problems in the future…or to put it another way "prevention is better than cure". So if there is a CAP in the future, I think it must be green. And instead of sanctioning farmers who do not comply with commonly agreed environmental rules, we should rather reward those, who do provide environmental public goods, since the market does not yet reward them.

The essentials of CAP reform from an environmental perspective are clearly indicated in a letter co-signed by Commissioner Ciolos, Hedegaard and myself (I quote):

  • Further greening direct payments by dedicating a share of the payments to a set of environmental actions that farmers would be required to do across the EU territory;

  • Further strengthening rural development with reinforced strategic targeting on the basis of priorities and quantified targets in line with the Europe 2020 strategy, as well as a leaner and more powerful system of indicators to monitor results; and

  • Streamlining, enhancing and simplifying cross compliance, with improvements in the GAEC framework to notably better address climate change as well as ensuring that it covers legislation relevant to farming activities appropriately. (end of quote)

The greening of first pillar payments is particularly important given the broad territorial coverage of the measures. It will set a baseline of minimum requirements for farmers everywhere, with Europe rewarding them for taking identified measures because it matters for us all. A substantive greening of the first pillar will encourage the introduction of more ambitious environmental measures in Rural Development that focus on environmental and climate-related improvements even further beyond what is legally required.

Take the example of biodiversity. Science tells us we could be in the middle of a period of mass extinction triggered by human pressure on species and ecosystems. In March last year, EU heads of state and government took on a commitment to halting biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems in Europe by 2020, and to restore them as far as possible by that date. Achieving these targets will require the full implementation of the EU's Natura 2000 network. It will also need a significant contribution by the major land managers outside protected areas: that means farmers.

If there were time, I could say similar things about the importance of getting farming practices right, and rewarding farmers who are doing it right for water, for soil, and for climate change.

I am currently discussing with my colleague Commissioner Cioloş how certain practices such as maintenance of permanent pasture, land set aside, crop diversification and green cover might be included as greening components of direct payments. Permanent pasture has obvious benefits for biodiversity and for maintaining carbon in soils. Ecological set-aside would clearly benefit biodiversity. However, it should also form the basis of green corridors, which will become enormously important in dealing with the impact of climate change and making our ecosystems resilient.

First pillar payments stimulating maintenance of green cover would help prevent soil erosion and water pollution; whereas crop rotation requirements would help preserve the quality and productivity of soil, increase soil carbon sequestration, and reduce the need for chemical inputs. This would have a positive effect on water and biodiversity as well as climate change mitigation.

These are few examples of how the future CAP should contribute to meeting environmental and climate related targets. I want to add one more thing. It relates to simplification: farmers and Member States alike all want a simpler CAP, in particular for streamlining and simplifying cross compliance rules. I agree with these calls and with the need for finding the right balance between public policy objectives and administrative burden, as long as the objectives I mentioned before are met.

Many of the environmental issues I've spoken about today are also crucial to the long term viability of farming: farmers depend on good quality, fertile soil, on the availability of water, on pollination, and on keeping climate change under control. By greening the CAP today, we also help to underpin the long term sustainability of the farming sector. I believe that we owe that not only to future generations of Europeans, but also to today's farmers and those in the future.

Life is complex and challenges we are facing are demanding from us integrated and holistic answers – policies which do address this complexity in a systemic and strategic way. If each of us stays in her or his own designed silo of specific interests, we will finally all lose. I want strong, healthy, competitive farming and farmers, whose work is widely recognised as important and useful, and I want well kept and preserved environment for the benefit of all of us. I will do my best in that respect and I would hope for your support.

Thank you for inviting me and listening to me.

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