Photo by Niall Hurson

CAP is seen by many as the crown jewel of EU membership, with opportunities for producers to access lucrative markets and benevolent funding, writes Noel Bardon.

It is unclear, even at this late stage, which path the UK will follow in their replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) following the looming Brexit deadline of October 31st. One surety is that any deviation from the policy is likely to increase bureaucracy for farmers and administrators. Added complication to the agri-food supply chain has the potential to spell financial ruination for producers on both sides of the Irish Sea. The movement of livestock between the UK and Ireland is likely to be hindered by border controls, and the effects of extended haulage stoppage times at ports could have great implications for perishable farm produce.  

Introduced in 1962 by the founding six states of the European Economic Community (EEC), the Common Agricultural Policy has become one of the dominant driving forces behind farming, rural development, and food production in today’s Europe. Since its inception, CAP has grown, evolved, and in recent years began to shrink after it peaked at 73% of the European Commission’s budget in 1985. Enormous changes to the policy have increased the sustainability of the programme, both economically and environmentally, with most farming enterprises reliant on the European Union’s system of farm payments for the very survival of their holdings. 

In simple terms, CAP is a tandem of regulation and support payments for agricultural producers. Many developed states have similar systems of agricultural subsidies paired with rules and procedures specifying the parameters necessary for the receipt of these monetary aids. Under CAP, farmers are subjected to a plethora of protocol governing the conservation of vulnerable ecosystems, food traceability, and animal welfare. These controls are designed to ensure adequate levels of production for Europe’s affluent and growing population, without negative compromises on environmental standards, the quality of rural life, or consumer wellbeing. 

Most of the financial aid provided to farmers is done so through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). The BPS is intended to allow farmers a degree of autonomy in choosing the way in which they choose to farm their land, keeping the concern of value for taxpayers’ money closely to mind. This is unlike the original system of farm payments provided under CAP, whereby farmers received payments proportional to their farm’s level of output.  

More of the focus on CAP is now with the intangible assets provided by landowners to society. The extent to which farmers supply the wider public with aesthetic beauty, wildlife habitats, as well as clean water and air, gives policymakers confidence in arguing to continue income supports for farm businesses. It is argued these positive externalities of sustainable agriculture will not necessarily be rewarded adequately in the conventional marketplace. From the revenue created by tourism in rural areas, to enhanced mental wellbeing and the resource of clean water, many assert that landowners, in the decoupled era, should continue to be remunerated for the public goods and communal assets which they work to supply.

Future CAP reform will tackle issues such as the distribution of EU funds to large landowners, the increasingly relevant role of farms as agents of sequestration for greenhouse gases and further progress on food traceability for the consumer. The growing average age of Europe’s farming community may also take more of a prominent role in the reform of CAP. Many see youth in the sector serving to catalyse progress in areas of increasing difficulty within agriculture. 

Brexiteers have used the talking point of cheaper food prices for the consumer as a champion call to leaving the European Union, an alarming prospect to both British and Irish producers. The extent to which farm advocacy group lobbying grows in Westminster is likely to play a major role in agricultural policy in a post Brexit Britain. It is yet unclear if the administration in London will favour isolationist trade policies, with heavy tariffs on agricultural imports. 

Agricultural policy in post-Brexit Britain, it can be argued, is unlikely to deviate too far away from the current environmental protections offered under CAP.  The recent Climate Extinction protests in the UK are an example of the action consumers are willing to put behind words, in the name of environmental protection. The alliance of the farming community and Green politicians across Europe uniting against Mercosur is likely to be mirrored in the UK in the event of similar bilateral trade agreements, as both factions are likely to resist the importing of food from nations with poor records in environmental and agricultural sustainability.

The exit of the UK is, in itself, doubtful to cause any wide scale reform in the policy. It may, however, coincide with a period of growing consumer concerns, taxpayer demands and restructuring in the name of ecological necessity.