Agricultural reforms offer environmental benefit

Trade pressures, enlargement and food safety scares set scene for agricultural policy reforms

Sweeping changes to EU agricultural policy were proposed by the European Commission today under its Agenda 2000 programme for future EU enlargement and other policies. Prompted by new world trade rules, the prospect of EU enlargement and recent food safety scares, the changes are predicted to deliver environmental benefits.

As well as suggesting five more EU members, Agenda 2000 responds to a call from EU country leaders to modernise its policies and practices. The Commission has grasped the opportunity to "deepen" reforms begun in 1992 of a central EU policy area - agriculture.

The Commission lists a number of factors influencing its decision to extend its reforms of the common agricultural policy (CAP). The World Trade Organisation has clamped down on the EU's subsidised agricultural exports in a bid to level the playing field for other exporters. Without CAP reform, the EU faces a choice of new food mountains or making one-fifth of agricultural land redundant.

EU enlargement to encompass central and eastern European countries is adding further pressure for reform. It will expand the EU's agricultural area by half and add another 100 million food consumers with an average purchasing power only one-third that of the EU's current consumers. The EU simply cannot afford to maintain its current price support policies in this new situation.

A further influence has been the recent furore over BSE-contaminated beef exports within the EU. Announcing the reforms today, the Commission places new stress on protecting "the image of European products". It describes guaranteed food safety as a "fundamental obligation" and a "top priority for the CAP".

Environmental concerns also make it into the Commission's list of influences. It notes an increased awareness in society of the environmental effects of agricultural activity and the possibility of demand for renewable raw materials providing new opportunities for non-food agriculture.

The Commission also predicts several environmental benefits from its reforms. Further cuts in price supports for agricultural products will lead to a deintensification of cereal, beef and dairy farming, an official in the Commission's agriculture directorate told ENDS Daily today. This should reduce use of pesticides and fertilisers and cut nitrogen emissions.

Member states will be given greater freedom to give direct payments to farmers, allowing them to set environmental conditions. The Commission is considering setting specific conditions to curb the environmental impact of livestock farming. Farmers will no longer be able to claim compensation for the growth of silage maize as a cereal crop. This will lessen the incentive to grow this highly fertiliser-dependent crop.

The Commission is also relaxing its policy on rural development areas, giving more freedom to member states to define priority areas and promote environmental programmes.

The Commission has taken the opportunity to stress its political support for the so-called agri-environment measures under CAP, which provide funding specifically for environmentally beneficial activities. These have been widely criticised as "ineffectual" since their implementation in 1992. The Commission plans to address such criticisms and come forward with detailed proposals to improve the measures in a report later this year.

Follow Up:
European Commission: tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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