The revelation by the EU of what it expects to see in the Irish national plan for delivering the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support confirms that food production will be secondary to the management of the rural environment.
The linking of payments in Pillar I in addition to Pillar II rural support schemes means that a large chunk of direct income support will be dependent on farmers applying for and delivering eco schemes. Failure to do so will mean part of the direct payment that would have been received automatically in the current CAP, will be lost.
The ambition in the guidelines for a “move towards more sustainable farming practices” involves reducing the use of fertiliser by up to 20%, pesticides and antibiotics by up to 50%. In addition, there is a focus on maintaining peatlands and encouraging extensive grazing of grasslands, tree planting and increasing organic farming. Attention to productivity in agriculture is limited to the use of innovative technologies but looking at the EU outlook for the next 10 years, production is expected to be constrained for the remainder of this decade. EU agriculture will function under the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, which is how agriculture is expected to contribute to making Europe a carbon-neutral continent by 2050.
All of this means that effectively agriculture in the EU will move from focusing on production to maintenance of the rural environment. With incentives through CAP directed in this way, it will likely succeed as farmers will do whatever it takes to secure the income. However, with food production a secondary priority, it is clear that the EU will be less food-secure as a result.
The glaring omission in the F2F strategy is the absence of an impact assessment study by the EU, though one has been carried out by the USDA. It makes the plausible suggestion that production constraints on EU farmers would hit farm incomes by 16%, as in normal times, lost production could be sourced from outside the EU. The USDA also considered what would happen if F2F became the standard for countries exporting to the EU and a third option as to what the consequences would be if it became the global standard.
If it became the standard for countries that traded with the EU, food insecurity would increase for an additional 103m people and the risk would increase for an extra 185m if F2F became the global standard for agricultural production. This would be because of an increase in the cost of food, which would deliver an increase in farm incomes.
An economic impact assessment should be carried out by the EU. Then it needs to be done at national level as called for by the IFA.
Farmers have to embrace ever-increasing animal welfare standards and nobody will disagree that the sector needs to attract young farmers. Lack of land availability is a barrier and imagination is needed to match new entrants to farming with an exit strategy for older farmers. There is a challenging debate to take place here, but it needs to happen.
Irish farmers through their representatives must work to find a model that maximises the income from EU support payments in the way that has least impact on farm businesses. It seems incredible that the EU can import 100,000t of beef from a country that will clear over 11,000ha of forest while at the same time insisting on EU farmers planting more trees. This is a major policy issue for government to challenge the EU on, as is the ambition of an organic farming target of 25%.