Owen Paterson’s recent announcements regarding new ‘greening’ elements of the Common Agricultural Policy represented a mixed blessing to farmers, with many within the industry still unsure of the exact implications that proposed reforms will have.
Under the most recent round of reform to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), member states were compelled to include environmental, or ‘greening’, components as compulsory criteria for any farmers wishing to receive direct financial subsidies in 2015 and beyond.
How these greening policies would be implemented within England had not been confirmed , but in recent announcements from Owen Paterson and Defra there is now greater understanding of just what farmers will be expected to do in order to meet new environmental requirements.
On the one hand, farmers breathed a collective sigh of relief when the criteria for greening were released as it does seem that, in England at least, reforms have been designed to limit the amount of farm land that will have to be taken out of production in order to meet environmental new rules.
It has long been understood that under CAP reform proposals any land holder with more than 15 hectares of arable land wishing to claim farming subsidies through the new Basic Payment Scheme (replacing the Single Payment System, or SPS) will be liable to designate 5% of their arable holding as an Environmental Focus Area (EFA); with 30% of their subsidy payment dependent on meeting EFA and other greening criteria.
For farmers, wishing to maximise the productivity of every available inch of land, such proposal caused understandable anger; with those who feared the worst envisaging 30% of their land going to ‘waste’ as EFA’s and not actually producing any food.
Farmers were therefore pleased to hear that they will be able to allocate land lying fallow, buffer strips, catch and cover crops, nitrogen-fixing crops and hedges towards their total acreage of designated EFA. As such, many (in theory) will not have to sacrifice too much valuable arable land to meet EFA requirements and therefore secure much needed funds through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
Apprehension does however still surround another element of greening policy; that of crop diversification.
Crop diversification policies will be another compulsory element of EU greening legislation and any famer with between 10 – 30 hectares of arable land will have to grow at least two different types of crop, with no single crop making up more than 75% of their total arable holding. Those farmers with in excess of 30 hectares of arable land will have to grow three types of crop, with the same 75% limitation.
This has serious implications for farmers who specialise in growing single varieties of produce; a decision more often influenced by market trends and geographic growing conditions (over which growers have limited influence) rather than ‘choice’.
To be forced to grow crops with a lesser financial value than others, or crops that won’t grow as well, just to meet diversification criteria is a particularly galling prospect.
There are also very real concerns about the Rural Payment Agency’s (RPA) ability to successfully carry out the transition from SPS to the BPS, with all the greening criteria that will need to be included.
These doubts are well founded when one looks back on the disastrous consequences that came about due to the last round of CAP reform, when the Defra coordinated change to the Single Payment System in 2005 led to governmental costs of £600 million, a bureaucratic nightmare for applicants and thousands of farmers experiencing delayed subsidy payments.
This transition didn’t even include complicated data issues that will be caused by greening.
All claims for BPS subsidies in 2015 will have to be made online through the RPA and it will be up to the agency to confirm environmental compliance, process greening data and then store it on their central computer system.
There have already been hints that the mapping of hedges (likely to be popular component contributor towards many farms EFA’s) will cause the agency exceptional difficulties and could easily lead to significant delays in farmers receiving much needed subsidy payments.
(To read more on this topic, please read my latest contribution to TheJournal newspaper on 30th June: Farmers fear cash delay due to CAP changes)
So, whilst the announcements on greening were welcomed by some, there is still concern that the new CAP reforms could be incredibly costly in terms of lost productivity of farmland and wasted time due to bureaucratic procedures or delayed BPS payments.
With more detailed information about the BPS application process set to be released later in the year, along with further clarification over elements of certain greening regulations, it waits to be seen just how big an impact new regulations will have on our nation’s farmers.