We are what we eat: Common Agricultural Policy Reform

Food embodies several critical concepts: scarcity, sustainability, trade, technology – the list goes on. Humans can’t live without food. Yet, in many instances the message around food is paradoxical: we produce too much food, but some people don’t get the necessary amount they need to survive. International trade policy, biosecurity, hygiene and sanitary standards are all elements of the softer, often forgotten, arm of foreign policy. Furthermore, agri-food trade has consistently been at the centre of Brexit negotiations.[1] Numerous headlines have featured the tensions caused by fish quotas as well as chilled meat and shellfish restrictions. Whilst the implementation of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol merit a discussion of their own, what will the impact of policy divergence be?

In this three-part blog series, I’ll explore and compare the UK and the EU’s plans for this policy area and consider the impacts on UK-EU relations, the environment and food security.

EU Flag in a Field
Image: EU Reporter

The Common Agricultural Policy

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was introduced in the 1960s and currently accounts for approximately 30% of the EU’s total expenditure.[2] Divided into two pillars, the programme’s main aims are to support the income of farmers, improve competitiveness and productivity in the sector, and maintain a thriving rural economy whilst protecting the EU’s landscapes.[3]

When the United Kingdom joined the European Community in 1973, the CAP accounted for around 90% of the EC’s budget. It presented several disadvantages to the UK. For instance, it undermined the Commonwealth preferential trading system that was in place and resulted in higher food prices for consumers.[4] The design of the policy also meant that Britain was the largest net contributor despite having a relatively low GDP per capita when compared with other member states.[5]

In addition to the domestic negative assessment in the UK, the CAP has since its inception been criticised due to the contradictory nature of its objectives. Whilst the programme protects farmers by introducing tariffs to food imported from non-EU countries, this increases the prices consumers pay. Although these are being phased out, export subsidies have contributed to the dumping of European meat and dairy in developing countries, further undermining their development. With agriculture being one of the key drivers of climate change, environmental concerns are also worth highlighting. For instance, several scientists have pointed to the CAP’s contribution to the decline in biodiversity, increase in greenhouse gas emissions, soil and water degradation.[6]

Although the CAP plays a significant role in helping smaller farmers’ incomes, the CAP has been deemed too expensive, counter-productive, and a source of significant tension between member states. In terms of welfare, the CAP currently fails to address its distributional objectives with 80% of payments going to less than 20% of farmers.[7]

CAP Reform

In 2021, an agreement was reached to reform the CAP for the period covering 2023-27. According to the EU Commission, this reform will provide a fairer, greener and more flexible CAP.[8] This reform is also aimed to be integrated with the European Green Deal – the EU’s flagship climate change plan.[9]

Some of the key provisions in the reform include:[10]

  • Increasing the conditionality of payments by requiring farmers to increase their contribution to biodiversity protection and soil-health enhancement.
  • Increasing eco-schemes, providing an incentive for greener farming e.g. organic farming and animal welfare improvements
  • A new financial reserve to cope with future crises (such as droughts and private storage aid schemes)
  • Fairer distribution of income support by imposing a mandatory redistribution.

The greater emphasis on agri-environmental support was celebrated amongst EU institutions but received significant backlash from NGOs.[11] Environmental organisations argue that the reform does not address the intensification of agriculture, fails to include legal-binding and measurable environmental targets and continues to subsidise harmful monocultures.[12] The European Court of Auditor’s assessment of past CAP reforms is also unfavourable.[13] It argues that at a cost of over €100 billion, climate change targeted funds have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced in the agricultural sector.

CAP Reform Protests
Image: Greenpeace

Furthermore, the Common Agricultural Policy has benefited from a special status making it exempt from the rules and scrutiny observed by all other aspects of European legislation.[14] These reforms have also failed to address the lack of transparency. Whilst the CAP is fundamentally a European programme, there is significant flexibility for member states to decide how to spend their budgets which is often unscrutinised.[15]

It’s clear that the CAP will continue to be a source of disagreement for both EU member states and non-state actors. With climate change concerns taking a leading role in all aspects of EU negotiations and at a time of great uncertainty for food prices due to inflationary pressures, the implementation of the reformed CAP will be closely watched by many. In the next blog post, I’ll be exploring what the British government’s post-Brexit agriculture policy will look like and how this contrasts with European reforms.

[1] Agri-food includes agriculture, horticulture, and food and drink processing technologies | Agrifoods – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[2] Common Agricultural Policy: Key graphs & figures | European Commission (europa.eu)  

[3] The Common Agricultural Policy at a glance | European Commission (europa.eu)

[4] Seidel (2020): Britain, the common agricultural policy and the challenges of membership in the European Community: a political balancing act (tandfonline.com)

[5] The EC Crisis over the Budget and the Agricultural Policy: Britain and its Partners in the Late 1970s and Early 1980s * | Government and Opposition | Cambridge Core

[6] Peer_et_al. (2020): Scientists Statement on the CAP and the Trilogue.pdf (agrarmonitoring-monvia.de)

[7] FACTSHEET_GreenDeal_CAP02.indd (europa.eu)

[8] Political agreement on new Common Agricultural Policy (europa.eu)

[9] A European Green Deal | European Commission (europa.eu)

[10] Key reforms in the new CAP | European Commission (europa.eu)

[11] New EU farm policy will worsen environmental crises for years (eeb.org)

[12] Does the new CAP measure up? NGOS assessment against 10 tests for a Green Deal-compatible EU Farming Policy. (greenpeace.org)

[13] Special Report 16/2021: Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and climate (europa.eu)

[14] The Special Status of Agriculture (clientearth.org)

[15] Billions in Misspent EU Agricultural Subsidies Could Support the Sustainable Development Goals – ScienceDirect