EU plans CAP reforms for 'greener' farm subsidies

A farmer harvests grapes in Italy Many farmers rely on the subsidies to stay in business

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The European Union has announced plans to reform its Common Agricultural Policy - its most expensive scheme, and one of the most controversial.

The CAP cost 58bn euros (£51bn; $80bn) last year - 47% of the whole EU budget.

The European Commission does not want to cut the budget, but change its priorities - including linking direct payments to environmental measures.

But farming, environmental and taxpayer groups all have their own concerns about the plans.

The proposals include:

  • keeping EU farm spending level until 2020, though it may be reduced by inflation
  • capping the total subsidy a large farm can receive at 300,000 euros
  • levelling imbalances in payments: to subsidise acreage farmed rather than production totals; and bring payments in the eastern EU up to levels in the west
  • ending sugar production quotas
  • making 30% of the "direct payment" income support payments received by farmers dependent on environmental criteria.

Those environmental criteria include:

  • arable farmers growing at least three different crops, with none exceeding 70% of the total farm area
  • farmers leaving 7% of their land fallow
  • ensuring permanent pasture is maintained

The Commission said the aim of the reforms was to "strengthen the competitiveness, sustainability and permanence of agriculture throughout the EU in order to secure for European citizens a healthy and high-quality source of food, preserve the environment and develop rural areas".

It said the changes would gradually move rewards away from intensive farming to more sustainable practices.

Presenting the reforms, EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos said: "Europe needs its farmers. Farmers need Europe's support. The Common Agricultural Policy is what feeds us, it's the future of more than half of our territory."

'Sofa farmers'

Farming unions fear farmers will face even more bureaucracy in order to qualify for the payments on which they rely to continue in business.

Gail Soutar of Britain's National Farmers Union also said it was important to direct support to "active farmers... who are producing a crop or a litre of milk, we don't want support to go to people who are no longer producing... sofa farmers".

Lobby group Friends of the Earth said the proposals would continue subsidising factory farming, and not do enough to change farming practices.

A spokesman said the changes would have "devastating consequences for rainforests, the climate and some of the world's poorest people".

The British government, which has called for a reduction in the overall size of the CAP, said the reforms should have focused more closely on food security and biodiversity.

But British Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said she was worried that the Commission's proposals "will be far too backward-looking and this precious opportunity will be lost".

The Commission's plans will be subject to debate and revision, before they are agreed by EU governments and the European Parliament.

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