With the Cork 2.0 European Conference on Rural Development due to take place in Cork on Monday and Tuesday next, there is hope it will put down as important a marker as its predecessor did 20 years ago.
Back then, the resultant Cork Declaration announced a 10-point Rural Development Programme for the European Union, which became the cornerstone of the second pillar of CAP reform, helping to shape and define rural policy in Europe over the last two decades.
But is there something, if not rotten, then slightly suspect at the heart of European agri-policy?
Even though there is much to be positive about, EU agricultural policy-making is under the spotlight, with accusations that powerful interest groups have too much say in its final analysis.
One of those accusing voices is that of Faustine Defossez, senior policy officer for agriculture and bioenergy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). The EEB is the largest federation of environmental citizens’ organizations in Europe.
According to Ms Defossez, the basic narrative of “feeding the world” is a flawed one — at odds with much of agreed European agricultural principles (such as farmers as “guardians of the environment”) and which plays into the hands of a situation where powerful private interests can have a disproportionate influence on policy tinkering.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into the reform of the CAP post-2013, which was the so-called greening process,” says Ms Defossez.
“We’re working towards a more sustainable future for Europe where farming is supposed to work in harmony with nature.
“We thought that the latest reform was an opportunity to get towards sustainable farming, but we very quickly got disappointed with the direction in which policy was going.”
The CAP represents almost 40% of the total EU budget (or about €53bn), and is therefore a large part of where the EU is headed generally when it comes to environmental thinking in Europe.
“At the same time, we’re facing major challenges when it comes to natural resources. We’re facing a decline in biodiversity… with pollinators, but also with soil and water quality. All of that is then being exacerbated by climate change, and it’s a real threat to our long-term security.
"One would think, therefore, that the €53bn being spent on agriculture should help to have farming systems that are somehow protecting the natural resources that we rely upon.
“The problem is that while the last reform was exactly about that [about ensuring sustainable management of natural resources], the whole idea of the initial ideology has been completely dismantled because of specific interests pushing for stronger intensification.
“Now, what we’re left with is a policy which continues to represent a large share of the EU budget, but which is not at all helping the sustainable management of natural resources.
"Even though there is a green label, if you actually look at what it means in reality, it doesn’t mean any change. Basically, 70% of the budget goes to roughly around 30% of the farmers, mostly to the big cereal farmers that are not necessarily farming in the most sustainable manner.
"They claim it’s green, but green payments are going, for example, to maize monoculture holdings.”
Precisely how such a set of circumstances can come about is the interesting part.
How can all-powerful EU law that seems so unwavering in the face of national concerns or protest in Ireland be subject to change from private enterprise or other states, as Ms Defossez claims?
“One of the problems that we face [in terms of threats to the sustainability of natural resources] is monoculture. Monoculture is bad for soil, for biodiversity and so on.
"The commission proposed to ensure that farmers implement diversification in their crops, so that they’re not allowed to have only one crop on their farm anymore. They need to have two or three crops on their land.”
In her native France, she says, the government managed to persuade Brussels to rubber-stamp maize monoculture as complying with the new diversification rules.
“It’s possible now to run an equivalent scheme, so it’s not necessary to carry out the measure per se, but to have an approved alternative scheme in place instead.
"So you don’t need to implement diversification, but you can do something that is equivalent in terms of benefits to the environment.
“So, the maize monoculture farmers of today have managed to convince the French government, which in turn convinces the commission, that they have a scheme that is as good as the EU measure.
"The French lobby was strong enough, so it’s business as usual, basically… it’s just a case of who speaks the loudest.”
Another area that slips through the net of agricultural biodiversity, Ms Fossez says, is that of leaving zones on farms as ecological focus areas (EFAs), a measure designed to counteract the shortage of bees and other pollinators.
“Initially, farmers were meant to all have 5% of their land given over to biodiversity purposes, for hedges and wild areas. But again, some member states were under pressure from vested interests and lobby groups, and were concerned that this would mean a loss of income.
“We strongly advised against that, but even when we did, we said that those areas should at least be ensured as being completely free of pesticides and fertilisers.
"But now, in all of the member states but one, pesticides will be allowed in the so-called ecological focus areas.
“But they can still receive the ‘greening’ payment from European taxpayers’ money, so they are paid under a so-called ‘green’ policy for using pesticides in EFAs.”
Ms Defossez goes on to say that back in 2011, a lot of pressure was brought to bear on those who were formulating the CAP.
“The budget was put under serious pressure, and many were asking if it was all worth it, if all those billions of euro were being spent wisely. In a modern-day Europe, do we even need any more grants and leg-ups, now that we’re moving towards a more open market?”
The answer was in the so-called greening of the CAP. Making the CAP a very ecologically-conscious body of policy would be a very forward-thinking move, and one that would go a very long way in justifying the enormous budget.
“Of course, we in the EEB and other environment NGOs were very much involved in this debate and process, and we were very excited about helping to construct something that would work for the environment, for farmers, for taxpayers, etc.
“But we can see now that we were fooled, we really can. We’ve been used for our green street credit, and as soon as the budget was all done and dusted, we were left aside.”