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SUSTAINABILITY - 30 March 2015

Coping with environmental and economic imperatives

by Farm Europe

This policy briefing considers the EU’s policies and approaches to sustainable agriculture, outlining the motivations, guidelines, development and challenges of these. It also identifies numerous surrounding key questions and discussion points.

Consideration for the environment has been a constant in each of the agricultural reforms undertaken by the European Union (EU) over the last 10 years.

Introduced by the 2003 reform, the cross-compliance of direct payments was designed to ensure the proper observance, in the Member States (MS), of pre-existing non-agricultural statutory regulations, such as animal welfare or tackling nitrate pollution. In light of the difficulty experienced in some MS of implementing these rules and of determining penalties in case of non-respect, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) took the decision to link their implementation with the payment of European agricultural direct payments.

A decade after its inception, and setting aside the question of its impact, all the evidence indicates that the cross-compliance rule has been misunderstood by farmers and by the general public alike. The most recent CAP reform sought to increase the clarity of the cross-compliance requirements imposed on farmers, by trying to prioritise the content of the principle community directives in order to clarify farmers’ actual responsibilities.

Civil society has sent the agricultural world a clear message: while expecting farmers to meet our food needs, it also sees them as the custodians of our rural areas, as being responsible for the quality of our water and soil and more generally as stewards of our countryside – with a duty to preserve all of these for present and future generations.

While trusting farmers to play this key stewardship role, the impact of agriculture on natural resources continues to be singled out for criticism, despite the efforts engaged.

The 2013 CAP reform sought to establish a policy for rural areas that would bring not only economic benefits but also address the environmental question. In this regard, a new measure, greening, was introduced with the goal of combining agronomic practices with the sustainable management of the environment. Greening involves three basic requirements: (1) the responsible management of ecologically fragile permanent pastures – in their role as essential carbon sinks- ; (2) crop diversification in order to improve the agronomic quality of soils; and (3) preventing erosion, preserving water quality and biodiversity through ecological focus areas on and around the edges of arable land.

2015 will be the first year in which these new measures will be implemented. Yet even before the latest reforms have had a chance to be implemented in the field there is already an outcry from, on the one hand, those who consider that the new regulations don’t go far enough and, on the other, those who think that they are disconnected from the economic reality that farms must contend with.

Transcending such differences is a matter of urgency. To do so will require working with all relevant stakeholders to monitor and undertake in-depth impact assessment of the measures adopted by the EU.

Written by Farm Europe