The European Parliament will vote through key amendments on the CAP reform proposals during its plenary in Strasbourg (11th to 14th March).

EurActiv reports that conservationists angered by efforts to “gut” Europe’s future farm policy are banking on the full European Parliament to protect the environmental standards proposed by the European Commission.

With the full Parliament due to vote on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the night of 12 March, environmental campaigners hope for a change of course after the Parliament’s agriculture committee and the European Council (summit) both backed changes to weaken some of the Commission’s ‘greening’ proposals.

Sébastien Godinot, of WWF, said the agriculture committee’s CAP amendments replace mandates with optional measures and exemptions that would undermine environmental laws. Speaking at a Brussels conference on the CAP held by WWF and the European Policy Centre, he said “they used the excuse of simplification to gut cross-compliance, replacing the Commission’s simple measures with options that undermine environmental protection.”

Dermot Ryan, speaking for the Irish presidency of the EU Council, told the Forum that, following the vote by the agriculture committee and last week’s budget deal, “the Irish presidency’s immediate priority is to conclude a Council negotiating position by the end of March, with a view to reaching an inter-institutional political agreement by the end of the Irish presidency.”

COPA and its member organisations had lobbied against reductions in CAP spending for 2014-2020, but these were agreed by EU leaders on 8th February (see EU Budget section). they agreed to an austerity budget that will cut overall agriculture and natural resources budget by 11.3%, from €420 billion for 2007-13 to €373 billion for the next seven years. Farm support payments would fall from €337 billion to €278 billion, down17.5%.

Even with the cuts, the CAP will remain the EU’s largest single programme. Leaders also proposed to allow member states to shift money from CAP’s fund for rural development to the much larger direct payments budget to give further assistance to farmers – what Eurinco labelled ‘reverse modulation’ when it was first provided for in 2003. Environmentalists fear this will take funding away from the CAP’s Pillar 2 that provides financing for rural development and conservation programmes.

“If the European Parliament really wants a more modern EU budget, it should seek to protect and increase rural development spending through a corresponding reduction in direct payments in the forthcoming negotiations with the Council,” Alan Matthews, emeritus professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, told the Brussels conference.

The Commission proposals included a provision to link 30% of direct payments to compliance with ‘greening’ measures, and to preserve at least 7% of their land for ‘ecological focus areas’.

Environmental groups who initially attacked the proposals as too timid now prefer the Commission’s draft to that which emerged from a marathon agriculture committee session in January.

In a commentary published by EurActiv on Wednesday (13 February), Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş called the greening measures “of key importance to keeping a good balance within agricultural ecosystems. They play an important role for the good management of water, fertilizers and pesticides, for fighting erosion and biodiversity loss, and for preserving natural landscapes. The CAP must take them into account and help protect them.”

Farming groups, however, had urged MEPs to make the proposal more flexible, for example by replacing mandatory greening measures with options, allowing farmers to opt out entirely and reducing the amount of land reserved for buffers. They argued that high food prices and concern about future food insecurity was not the time for policies that could remove land from production or discourage farmers from expansion.

Shelby Matthews, chief policy advisor for the farmers’ organisations Copa-Cogeca, told the European Policy Centre/WWF forum:

“The CAP after 2013 must ensure that farmers can continue to provide food security and stability in the face of the new challenges ahead, particularly from climate change and increased volatility,” she said.

“Greening, supplemented by measures to promote green growth under Pillar 2, should therefore be geared to enabling farmers to maintain their production capacity and improve their efficiency in an environmentally sustainable way and in a way which helps combat climate change.”

Direct payments to farmers, or Pillar 1 of the CAP, account for more than 70% of the farm budget.

The European Parliament committee voted to exempt small farms from the so-called greening rules, as well as growers who meet individual member states’ environmental certification programmes.

Farmers with less than 10 hectares of cultivatable land will be exempt and those with 10 to 30 hectares (over 80% of EU farmers) can apply for exemptions. The Commission had recommended that only organic farmers should be exempt from greening schemes.