The future of food and farming?

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This month marks one year to go until the European Parliamentary elections and the end of this current term. Instead of winding down, this is the time when everything in Brussels picks up – unlike British MEPs, their European colleagues will be seeking re-election. For European farmers, the future of the CAP post-2020 is dominating the headlines. In June, we can expect to see the European Commission’s legislative proposals on the table with the intention MEPs will sign off the legislation before they go home to campaign.

However, before the Commission publishes the details, the European Parliament will put forward its suggestions for the direction of the future CAP. This week, MEPs from the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee voted on the “future of food and farming” report drafted by Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann (EU centre-right party) which will be voted upon by the full Parliament soon. Mr Dorfmann believes that the “new post-2020 CAP must guarantee that European food production is sufficient and safe, that it protects European farmers’ competitiveness on international markets and also safeguards against market fluctuations such as price volatility and other unpredictable market crises.” The flagship principle of the new reform, according to early drafts of the Commission’s proposal, is a “new delivery model” so that national and regional governments have more power over the direction of agriculture policy. It has been met with a mixed reaction; some in Brussels have welcomed the increased flexibility in CAP policymaking, whilst others have been concerned that it will distort the Single Market.

Most importantly, MEPs have been arguing for a well-funded CAP to ensure that EU agriculture is economically sustainable and farmers’ incomes are protected from market volatility. This is important as the European Commission has already proposed a 5% cut to CAP spending in the period 2021-2027 and up to a 4% cut to direct payments. A compulsory cap to direct payments at €60,000 per farmer or degressive payments has also been proposed to ensure support is redistributed towards the small and medium sized farmer. The European farmers’ organisation, Copa, has said it “cannot accept any cuts in the budget for agricultural expenditure. In particular, we call for the maintenance and stabilisation of the CAP budget in real terms.”

As there is much uncertainty around a UK framework for agriculture post-Brexit, it is vital that the UK farming unions follow discussions closely in Brussels. After all, if European farmers face budget cuts, it’s unlikely that UK farmers will see increases in spending. Moreover, we will still be trading with our European neighbours after Brexit and understanding their business environment is crucial. UK farmers must be able to operate on a level playing field with their European counterparts – so if, as the European Commission has proposed, €10billion is given for EU research and development in the areas of food, agriculture, and the bio-economy, the UK government should offer similar funding streams to help UK farmers harness technological changes to improve the industry’s resilience in the future.

Just like UK agriculture, European farming is at a cross roads. The combination of many pressures, including Brexit, market volatility, generational renewal, environmental and climatic challenges – means that farm policy in the EU and the UK has to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of the sector. UFU will be monitoring developments on the future CAP closely in Brussels and how it informs the debate on the future of food and farming in the UK.