The most pressing challenge is ensuring food security and a fair income for farmers, while the sector adapts to climate change and a more conscious use of natural resources, writes Stephen Cadogan.
The EU’s new Common Agriculture Policy will have to have a higher level of environmental ambition, summed up Commissioner Phil Hogan this week.
Kicking off the post-2020 CAP reform, he said the most pressing challenge is ensuring food security and a fair income for farmers, while the sector adapts to climate change and a more conscious use of natural resources.
“The clock is ticking and we need smart solutions now,” warned the Comissioner.
However, conservationists would say most previous attempts to “green” the CAP were dodged, watered down, or “greenwashed”.
Is there a new determination now to bring about the “impeccable environmental credentials” which Mr Hogan called for?
Yes may be the answer, judging by what is happening in the Netherlands.
The crackdown on phosphate pollution in Dutch soils is likely to reduce their cattle numbers by 175,000 head, or 11%.
However, the Commission is likely to face fierce opposition to such moves, for example, from Germany, where intensive farming has left groundwater in many areas far exceeding the EU limits for nitrates.
At least, Irish farmers can rest assured that if a higher level of environmental ambition is applied evenly across the EU, the effect will be less severe on farming in Ireland, given our relatively pristine environmental conditions.
Things will become clearer in the New Year, following EU Commission President Juncker confirming at the Agricultural Outlook Conference that the Commission will move on the “modernisation and simplification of the CAP to maximise its contribution to the Commission’s political priorities and the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The first stage in the process will be a public consultation early in 2017.
So the CAP reform process starts to crank up again, ensuring dislocation and disruption for farmers.
And according to Hogan, the key principles must be greater market resilience, more sustainable agricultural production; and progress on generational renewal.
He says some things won’t change. The CAP will continue to make great demands of farmers in food safety and quality standards. “We have the most stringent requirements of any agri-food system on the planet. And that will not change. If anything, the expectations will only become greater,” said Hogan.
But can he deliver on greater market resilience?
If not, he is determined that basic income support and an effective safety net will continue as an essential element of any new CAP, through direct payments, and pledges to strengthen the position of farmers in the food chain - which may be his toughest challenge.
On more sustainable food production, he wants smart farming that can, for example, make the best use of chemical inputs, contribute to soil and groundwater protection and air quality, while increasing production efficiency.
This is where his emphasis on generational renewal comes in, because he sees the next generation of farmers driving towards precision farming for an improved rural environment.
Recent counts showed only 6% of the EU’s 22m farmers were aged under 35.
Hogan wants a new generation of highly-qualified young farmers, who he describes as “scientists and innovators”.
He wants to properly support and incentivise them, and sees them using new technology to address the EU’s increasing water stress, soil degradation, biodiversity reduction and air pollution.
He pledges to help them by improving access to credit, providing a stable and predictable working environment and reducing bureaucracy and red tape.
Having led the way in recovery in the dairy and pig sectors, and presided over EU agri-food exports reaching a record value of €129.9 billion, the Commissioner is not resting on his laurels, and with every €1bn of exports generating 14,000 EU jobs, he says a smarter, climate-friendly agriculture can deliver even more vital jobs for rural EU communities.
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