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The referendum vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU is causing uncertainty in many areas, not least in the future direction of agricultural policy. While the UK will now develop its own food and farming policy, the next CAP reform – to which the UK will not, of course, contribute – will still have a significant impact on UK farmers. In part, that’s because they will continue to be in competition with farmers from the 27 remaining EU countries. Additionally, British farmers who wish to export to the EU will still need to comply with all relevant EU legislation.

Given the paucity of inspired thinking from the British Government about the future direction of UK agriculture, a recent policy paper from Karl Falkenberg, Sustainability Now! A European Vision for Sustainability, is of significant interest, not least to all those who have been working for many years to develop and support more sustainable food and agricultural systems.

Falkenberg – formally Director General of DG ENVI (the European Directorate General for the Environment), was appointed in September 2015 as a Senior Advisor for Sustainable Development to the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. In this role he serves as one of a group of elite advisors, all part of the European Political Strategy Centre.

His discussion of issues relating to agriculture comprises nearly a quarter of the 27 page paper and paints a broad picture predicated on the view that, “In securing 70 years of peace, the European Union offers the basis for sustainable development on this continent.” It sets an ambitious context for the paper, making clear the importance of farming and food production in this venture.

He acknowledges the extent to which EU agriculture has become more productive, bringing food costs down in real terms, so that it now represents just 15% of the average family’s monthly income. But he goes on to argue that, “this achievement has come with a price.” He catalogues a long list of problems, including negative impacts on the environment and the quality of food, the inflationary impact on the price of agricultural land and the extent to which current policies benefit large intensive farms – which just continue to get bigger and which disadvantage smaller farmers, who are being driven out of business in large numbers.

While he sees a role for technologies which reduce the over-use of agrochemicals, Falkenberg primarily argues for agroecological approaches to farming, which he justifiably links to the provision of important ecosystem services in an effective way. He emphasises the need to protect the environment and its landscapes and connects agroecological methods with better human health and improved social outcomes.

His proposal is to create a different basis for the CAP, one that puts “people, environment and profit on an equal footing.” He highlights the French law where “an innovative regulatory framework [moves] towards an integrated use of resources and nature-based solutions, to produce [food] better from an environmental, economic and social point of view.” This approach, he states “is based on agroecology which builds upon the natural synergies between plants, animals, humans and their environment. Agroecology brings back to farming the three dimensions of sustainable development: to sustain agricultural production, preserve healthy environments and support viable food and farming communities.”

Falkenberg highlights the uptake of organic farming as an example of agroecology in practice and notes that the area under organic production grew from 3.1% of EU agricultural land in 2001 to 5.4% in 2011. It needs to be noted, however, that the growth of organic farming in the UK has been significantly slower than in the rest of the EU, and this is because the UK Government has provided a lower level of financial support for organic farming than all other EU countries. In order to ensure this gap does not widen even more, we need ensure that Falkenberg’s vision for the future of agriculture helps to shape the development of UK agricultural policy as well as CAP reform.

The annual cost of the CAP is €50-60 billion (just over €100 per person), not as much as might be assumed, especially when realising how this keeps food prices much lower than they would otherwise be. In EU policy parlance, organic farming, along with other agri-environment schemes, such as Higher Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship, are supported under what is called ‘Pillar 2’ CAP funding. Pillar 2, however, only receives 25% of total CAP funding. In contrast, the acreage payments for all farmland (€171.83 per hectare in 2015) under Pillar 1, soak up 75% of CAP funds. Adding to the disparity, Pillar 1 payments are entirely EU funded, while Pillar 2 payments are only part funded by the EU and have to be co-financed by member state governments. The reason that support levels for organic farming vary between EU countries is because member states are not required to provide the same level of co-financing for these schemes. The total amount of money that Britain devotes to matching the European funds directed to the UK through Pillar 2 amounts to £265 million and Britain benefits from a total of €3 billion from Brussels.

The introduction of Pillar 2 funding, along with some modest greening measures under Pillar 1 introduced in the last round of CAP reform by Commissioner Dacian CioloČ™, were, nevertheless a step in the right direction, but not a sufficiently large one to address the ongoing negative impacts of agricultural intensification in a meaningful way. This is why Karl Falkenberg’s paper is so welcome and so important. His approach will inevitably be opposed by the advocates of unbridled intensification and deregulation, but it is a hugely hopeful indication that policy advisers with the ear of the Commission will now recognise the extent of the problems associated with the predominant approach to food production. And, just as importantly, also recognise the key components in resolving these issues.

The first thing is to set the framework for the a new, enlightened agricultural policy and justify the ‘public goods for public money’ approach which is, thankfully, now emerging as the orthodoxy amongst those that believe a radical rethink – a paradigm shift – is needed. Yet, few critics of the current CAP see the problems and the solutions as clearly as Falkenberg. Whether or not his approach is successful in shaping the next reform of the CAP, let alone in influencing the development of UK policy, will ultimately depend on the extent to which informed consumers and citizens make their views known to the media and to their political representatives.

Photograph: TPCOM