In its current form, the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the preeminent instrument to support agriculture on the European continent, is defeating its own aims of sustainability and food security. In order to both meet sustainability goals and ensure the future food supply, the structure of the CAP needs to be reformed.
The CAP and its evolution
The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was initiated in 1962, when the European Union was still the European Economic Community (EEC) and consisted of six countries instead of the current twenty-seven. Given the size of this expansion, the evolution of the CAP into the world’s biggest agricultural policy and subsidy tool is unsurprising. As the longest-serving common EU policy, it has continuously adapted to the necessities of member-states and their farmers; focusing on food security, before expanding its range to prioritize high-quality produce and guarantee the protection of European farmers. The policy rests on two pillars: the first pillar consists of seven forms of direct payments to farmers, which - among other factors - are tied to the size of a farm in hectares and, to a lesser extent, involve ‘greening’ payments under which farmers have to meet sustainability criteria. Within this framework, member states enjoy significant discretion over the allocation of payments. Moreover, the second pillar makes provisions for rural development policy, which include the protection and enhancement of ecosystems, climate-resilience, and regional economic development.
More recently, the climate crisis has started to change the paradigm of farming within the EU to include sustainability as a key objective of the policy. The last CAP agreements (which are agreed for cycles of 4 years) have upped their requirements for varied environmental measures. Furthemore, new headline EU projects like the Farm to Fork strategy and the EU Green Deal lay out plans for tangible and positive action on sustainability that are linked to CAP processes. These measures are ambitious in their scope and set out many important policy priorities, making the constraints to truly sustainable agriculture that are currently embedded in the structure of the CAP all the more anachronistic.
Farm size and the coming crisis
The major flaw in the design of the CAP is its insistence that bigger is better. Spurred by the commendable objective of food security, the agreement has historically embraced agricultural economies of scale by tying subsidies to hectares, meaning that the biggest farms are guaranteed the highest EU-supported income from their national governments. Proponents of this arrangement within the member states and EU institutions argue that this is the only way to guarantee food security and remain independent of food imports. Despite this, it is undeniable that the incentives created by such a system are problematic in impactful and important ways.
The massive farms and monocultures that become viable, even desirable under this system, indeed guarantee food security in the short-term. But conceptualizing food-security in this manner inadvertently risks its long-term viability. It has been proven that massive, intensely-farmed monocultures are contributing to the rapid degradation of soils, and while the focus on these concerns within EU politics is often placed on external countries’ practices, such as prospective free trade agreement partners, this same process is taking place within the bloc and actively incentivized by the CAP. A recent study, which used 2010 as a reference period, estimated that about 12 million hectares of EU agricultural land were being severely eroded each year, amounting to 7.2% of the total agricultural land stock. In the same study, the annual economic cost of erosion was estimated at €1.25 billion. If policies are not amended, the EU is heading for a fertile-land crisis, ultimately undermining food security in the longer term.
It has become undeniable that the climate crisis is already having intense effects on food supply. Extreme and unusual weather patterns have increased volatility for many key commodities, with frosts, floods, droughts, and fires adversely affecting the yields of staple foods, from corn to wheat in the past years. Adding the effect of unchecked soil degradation from unsustainable monoculture farming to this would critically endanger the food supply in Europe, where the overall supply of suitable farming lands has already substantially decreased during the past century.
Sustainability and food security - a false choice
How can this be avoided? The next CAP needs to find a better balance between short- and long-term food security. Without question, both are vital to the functioning of any society and should, therefore, be reflected in our agricultural policy commitments - but the current balance is off. By removing the hectare criterion for basic income support and substantially expanding the scope and function of ‘greening’ payments, many of the harmful incentives for overfarming would be eliminated. Criteria for funding should thus be amended, with a base threshold of funding for all farmers and an additional funding emphasis on the sustainable practices used on farms. The latter, for instance, would build on existing ‘greening’ payments by tying subsidization to farms’ engagement in regenerative agriculture and rotating crop cycles that are in tune with local ecosystems’ demands.
Such an approach would yield many benefits - most important of which are the maintenance of biodiversity and soil fertility - and, consequently, guarantee the reliability of the future European food supply. A pivot to regenerative food systems that put less pressure on the soil would also allow for reduced use of fertilisers and pesticides, which are heavily used in Europe to offset small and medium productivity losses caused by soil erosion. Second-order effects would provide further benefits on a local level, with geographically smaller member states being able to draw more resources from the CAP than their geographical limits currently allow. As degradation is more prevalent in southern member states, the prevention of land loss would further serve to prevent economic hardship and job losses in these countries, which otherwise may have grave implications for intra-EU equity and cohesion.
In order to be feasible, such a shift has to be calculated and gradually implemented, as resistance from parts of the farming lobby, especially in countries like France and Germany that currently benefit the most from subsidies, is to be expected. Moreover, national politicians are unlikely to want to preside over sharp increases in food, further highlighting the need for a balanced and gradual approach. To avoid price increases and sharp adaptations, decisions that allow for a longer adjustment period that still makes sense within the bloc’s climate commitments and long-term food security objectives will have to be taken urgently. At its core, this readjustment is unavoidable. Now, EU policy-makers have to decide on what terms it will happen and how well the member states will be prepared for the changing realities of food security.
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Frederick Thelen is a Master of Public Administration student at the London School of Economics and Political Science(LSE), and holds a first-class degree in International Relations from SOAS University of London. He worked on reforming the EU Common Agricultural Policy as part of the European Student Assembly in 2022.