EU commission urged to address 'serious concerns' over common agricultural policy
Bureaucratic complications continue to cause problems for farmers and undermine the effectiveness of the CAP, writes Ian Duncan.
Back when my grandfather farmed soft fruit in Blairgowrie, his big concern was the weather. By the time my father had the farm, his big concern was Brussels. Within a generation, the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) had replaced the weather as the most serious challenge faced by farmers.
The CAP is now 53 years old. It has gone through much change since the heady days of butter mountains and wine lakes. Despite the near continuous reform, the most recent completed only in 2013, the policy remains fiendishly complicated and bureaucratic.
Fill in the wrong form, tick the wrong box, mis-measure or miscalculate and you will face the full force of European bureaucracy. Although the ink is barely dry on the last reform, the commission is having another bash at simplification.
Against this backdrop, I met with EU agriculture and rural development commissioner Phil Hogan to present the serious concerns raised by Scottish farmers. Farmers need the CAP to work.
"As supermarkets, maltings and meat processors continue to squeeze profit margins, it is only the money from Brussels that keep the heads of most farmers above water"
As supermarkets, maltings and meat processors continue to squeeze profit margins, it is only the money from Brussels that keep the heads of most farmers above water. However, trying to manage every farm across a continent has resulted in a complex suite of rules, which most farmers believe have been designed by eurocrats for eurocrats.
Where there is uncertainty about a rule, governments can ask the EU for clarification, but they often choose not to do so, fearful that the answers will be unpopular with farmers. As a result farmers are often accused of wrongdoing and punished, simply because the rules were open to interpretation. The situation is exacerbated all too often with CAP guidance issued by word of mouth.
Farmers are not setting out to offend but rather to make the rules work on the farm. Back in the day, farmers could go into the agricultural offices where staff would check forms and provide help. Sadly those days are long gone. Today, such is farmers' fear of being penalised for genuine mistakes that they regularly overestimate fallow ground and underestimate cropping to avoid penalties.
Currently there are two levels of penalty available to the authorities for breaches of the rules. However, current EU law obliges member states to hand out penalties at the higher end far more often than the lower end. A system is needed that allows farmers to adopt corrective measures to resolve minor breaches without immediate sanction. There is no need to use a combine harvester to trim the grass.
A further problem is the inflexible approach to the CAP's 'greening measures'. Farmers who employ methods which respect the land, whose families have farmed in harmony with the environment for generations, are now being called upon to adopt measures from a commission list that often results in consequences that are anything but environmentally friendly.
Following my meeting with commissioner Hogan, he will convene a meeting with his technical experts to address the issues raised by Scottish farmers. The commissioner's constructive approach is to be welcomed. However, the real test will be if he can deliver real change.
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