Reforming the EU's common agricultural policy in the context of the sustainable development goals

Reforming the EU's common agricultural policy in the context of the sustainable development goals

June 14, 2018

Reforming the EU's common agricultural policy in the context of the sustainable development goals

At the end of November 2017 the European Commission released its proposals for a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In its communication, the Commission emphasised the need for simpler rules and a more flexible approach, while delivering on ambitious global goals concerning the environment, climate change and sustainability. The overall strategy appears appropriate. But do the Commission’s proposals provide an adequate response to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by UN member states in 2015?

The importance of making agricultural systems more sustainable has been highlighted by the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition. The FSI looks across the food system and includes sustainable agriculture among its three key pillars (along with food loss and waste, and nutrition). Italy (1st), France (3rd) and Germany (5th) are in the top five (among 34 countries) in the FSI’s sustainable agriculture category, but the EU and its member states still have a lot of work to do to make Europe’s agricultural system more sustainable, notably through CAP reform. The European Commission’s November 2017 communication sets out a blueprint for the CAP beyond 2020 and follows a consultation period in which it received more than 320,000 replies. According to Phil Hogan, the commissioner for agriculture and rural development, the proposed new policy represents “an evolution rather than a revolution”, given that “the current broad architecture of the CAP works quite well”.

image

The existing two-pillar structure will be retained. Direct payments will continue to be made to farmers (the first pillar), while rural development policy (the second pillar) will focus on knowledge-building, supply-chain organisation, environmental protection and climate action. Under the proposed new version of the CAP, member states will be given greater responsibility to make their own decisions on how and where to invest their funding—albeit within the overall parameters set by the Commission.


Falling short on the SDGs

Unfortunately, a process of evolution rather than revolution may be insufficient to address the current shortcomings of the CAP, particularly as they relate to the SDGs. A recent report by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research highlights some of these weaknesses. For example, the goal of ensuring good health and wellbeing (SDG 3) is clearly of crucial relevance to EU member states, given the increasing incidence of obesity and related health conditions, such as type-2 diabetes. However, as noted by the authors of the report, the CAP has no specific mechanisms for addressing these problems, but arguably makes a bad situation worse by favouring disproportionately high levels of funding and protection for animal products.

In terms of SDG 10 (reducing inequalities) the study finds that the CAP fails to make an adequate contribution, due to a highly unequal distribution of farm payments—resulting in insufficient financial support for smallholders. Climate change measures (SDG 13) are also undermined by the CAP’s failure to address more robustly key sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as livestock production and nitrogen fertiliser usage.


Continuing trade distortions

Admittedly, in the nearly six decades that it has been in existence, the CAP has made a significant contribution towards ensuring the fulfilment of SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 2 (zero hunger)—at least within the EU.

Nonetheless, by subsidising agricultural production in the EU, critics of the CAP argue that it has a damaging effect on farmers in developing economies—in turn, impeding efforts to reduce poverty in those countries. The degree of trade distortion caused by the CAP has declined substantially in recent decades, according to studies. This follows a gradual shift away from market intervention towards measures that directly target farmers and sustainability.

But a number of significant concerns remain. A paper prepared for the European Parliament’s Committee on Development in February 2018 suggests that the widespread use of voluntary coupled support by most member states continues to create significant trade distortions, as do the high levels of EU protection afforded to items such as animal products and sugar. Expanding demand for food, feed and bioenergy in the EU also has potentially harmful implications for third (non-member) countries, “leading to land use changes, biodiversity loss and environmental damage” (and thereby negatively affecting SDG 12, ensuring responsible consumption and production, and SDG 15, protecting land ecosystems).


Implementation problems

The Commission’s blueprint for a post-2020 CAP ticks many of the boxes needed to secure a “greener” future for the EU, as well as greater compliance with the SDGs. Many of the policies listed in the Commission’s November 2017 communication form part of a progressive and forward-looking agenda, including, for example, climate-smart farming, wider nutrient recycling, a reduction of food loss and waste, support for young farmers, vocational training programmes to develop new skills (particularly in the digital sector), new rural value chains such as clean energy, and measures aimed at increasing the availability of healthier foods.


Unfortunately, the EU’s track record is not great when it comes to lofty ideals being translated into concrete action. As pointed out by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and BirdLife International, the reform of the CAP undertaken in 2013 (covering 2014-20) was also intended to make policy greener and ensure that public money was channelled into more sustainable management of natural resources. However, implementation has proved problematic. According to the EEB and BirdLife International, this has resulted in a watered-down CAP that is green on paper, but fails to deliver in reality. There is a danger that the post-2020 CAP could suffer a similar fate—particularly given the increased flexibility that the Commission intends to give to individual member states in elaborating their plans.


The way ahead

In order to reduce this risk, it will therefore be essential that the final version of the new CAP contains specific targets (and sets out the means for achieving them), rather than consisting simply of a vague set of aspirations. For example, it will not be sufficient to call for healthier nutrition. Instead, incentives should be considered that lead to the increased availability and consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.

Similarly, reform of the CAP presents an opportunity to enhance the prevention of food loss and waste. A deadline of March 2019 has already been set for the Commission to adopt a common methodology for quantifying food-waste levels in member states. Targeted measures for reducing food waste will then need to be stepped up—in line with the EU’s commitment to halve per-head food waste by 2030 (SDG 12). Meanwhile, care should be taken to avoid conflicts in policy; the encouragement that the CAP provides for organic farming contributes to green growth (SDG 8, providing decent work and economic growth) but it is made less effective by the support that it simultaneously offers for less sustainable farming systems.

This article was originally published on foodsustainability.eiu.com

Learn more about similar topics:

Find out more about Food and sustainability

This website uses profiling cookies, including third-party ones, to send you advertising and offer you services which reflect the preferences you have shown during browsing. If you continue to browse the website by accessing any area or selecting any element of it (such as an image or a link), you consent to use of cookies.
Click on the following link to view our extended cookie policy, which provides a description of the categories present and the links with the personal data policies of the third-party processors. You can also decide which cookies to authorise or whether to deny consent for all or only certain cookies.   Continues