Plans to streamline Europe’s agriculture policy and encourage “greener” farming were criticised today for not going far enough to protect the environment.
New proposals for the controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are aimed at freeing up farmers to respond to rising world food prices and further remove the link between subsidies and production.
The plans, which need approval from EU agriculture ministers, are part of a CAP reform programme launched five years ago.
The idea of the so-called Health Check is to assess whether the reforms have been successful and to make the policy more effective, simple and flexible.
Among the measures outlined today by the European Commission is the abolition of the compulsory set-aside scheme under which farmers were paid to leave a percentage of land uncultivated.
The commission also proposes channelling more money to rural development by cutting payments to farmers – with larger farms contributing a bigger share.
The idea is that the funding would be used to tackle environmental issues including climate change, biodiversity loss, water management and renewable energy.
But conservationists say the new environmental measures will not replace the benefits for wildlife lost if set-aside is permanently scrapped.
While it was introduced to stem over-production, the requirement to leave land fallow had the unintended effect of boosting wildlife in agricultural areas – a “lifeline” which the RSPB claims is being severed.
The conservation charity said the new reforms could further threaten the survival of birds such as skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets and other species whose numbers have plummeted in recent years.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) also warned that the CAP health check did not do enough for the environment.
The CPRE’s Ian Woodhurst said: “Over the years the public has paid a lot of money to farmers to leave land fallow, which it is now widely recognised has unintentionally benefited wildlife and added to the diversity of some landscapes.
“We are disappointed that the proposals from the commission to retain these benefits are lacking in vision.”
The proposals also include phasing out current milk quotas by 2015, and a range of other measures designed to wean the sector off the levels of support which have been the hallmark of the CAP since it was introduced in 1962 to govern the production, trade and processing of agricultural goods.
At the time the priority was to guarantee food supply by propping up the farming industry as much as possible, but now measures to control the market are being reduced.
Cash handouts to farmers regardless of production have already been banished, virtually eradicating the legendary milk and wine lakes and butter and beef mountains.
And the CAP’s share of the entire €94bn-a-year EU budget has dropped from more than 70% to about 43%.
Today’s proposals will be hammered out between EU agriculture ministers in the next few months – with battle raging between countries which want to unshackle farmers as much as possible and others which warn they want to keep protectionist policies in place to defend its vital farming sector.