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Is it time to withdraw the Common Agricultural Policy? | Opinion

A disappointing vote for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) took away the hope we had for significant sustainable changes in European agriculture, so what can we do next?

At the end of October, my social media was flooded with the hashtag #VoteThisCAPDown. The hashtag was popularized by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, and quickly evolved into a (digital) movement calling attention to the upcoming CAP reform vote taking place in the European Parliament.1 Every seven years the CAP faces a new reform, and this proposed reform was met with outrage - as many felt that the policy was unambitious in its environmental targets and overall sustainability and equitability efforts.2

Currently, agriculture occupies around 40% of all European land, and is responsible for at least 12% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Intensification of agriculture and an excessive amount of synthetic inputs is contributing to the continuous steep decline in biodiversity in Europe.3,4,5 

In December 2019, the Commission even announced the European Green Deal, which amongst others, included the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies - both setting out ambitious targets for EU nature agriculture. They strive, among others, for a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides and antibiotics and a conversion of 25% of EU farmland into organic food production by 2035. Aside from restoring ecosystems and radically reducing the impact farming has on its environment, these strategies aim for a transition that supports farmers’ incomes along the way.6 

Unfortunately, these targets were not reflected in the final proposal of the CAP reform brought forward by EU Parliament in October.7 

What’s the issue with the reformed CAP?

At first glance, this new CAP reform appears to have a big focus on sustainability, with three new objectives relating to the environment, namely: “climate change action”, “environmental care” and “preserve landscapes and biodiversity”.8 However, the new implementation methods and the major ‘environmental’ amendments have been criticized by experts for not only failing to improve but actually reducing the sustainability of the CAP.2,6,9 Here are 4 critical issues with the reformed CAP.

1. The problem with eco-schemes

Under the new CAP policy, one of the “sustainable” changes is eco-schemes. Under this payment scheme, 20% of the CAP’s budget is set aside for farmers who voluntarily implement practices that protect the environment and climate. Such practices can be anything from increasing animal welfare to planting flower strips for insects.2,10 

While this sounds helpful on the surface, the eco-schemes have been criticised as the definition of what qualifies as an ‘eco-scheme’ is very broad, so loopholes around them are easy and likely to be found. Furthermore, critics believe that the allocated budget for these eco-schemes is still too small to make a sustainable difference.2,9,10

2. Lack of EU-level cohesion 

Another major change to the CAP is how new measures will be implemented: individual EU countries will be granted a lot more freedom to develop and execute their own national CAP strategic plans. While this might sound rather positive at first glance, past events have shown that without initial EU-level targets, a lack of overarching regulations can turn into a ‘race to the bottom’, where member states leave environmental regulations to the side to gain a competitive economic advantage.9,11

3. Unequal distribution of agricultural subsidies

The reform has also failed to address the unequal distribution of direct payments to farmers. Direct payments consist of more than half of the CAP’s budget and are mostly allocated on a per-hectare basis, a system that favours larger farms. With disparities in land ownership across the European continent, a small handful (1.8%) of landowners are receiving a colossal 30% of the CAP’s budget.9,12

Read more about the issues around large farms and unequal subsidy distribution.

4. Issues defining sustainable agricultural practices 

Farmers are only granted direct payments if they comply with the minimum set of social and environmental requirements. The reformed CAP has now increased the number of environmentally-friendly practices that farmers need to adopt to receive subsidies.  

However, the ‘environmental-friendly’ practices are not well-defined, and they do not align with practices shown to be most effective at improving biodiversity and mitigating climate change in farming. Furthermore, there is a weak monitoring system to ensure that farmers are consistently implementing sustainable practices and a lack of sanctions for those who falsely claim that they are complying.11

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you

It is difficult to make a significant change without causing turbulence - which, in the current unpredictable state of the world, is the last thing the EU wants. 

Last year in 2019, levels of nitrogen deposition in The Netherlands, originating mainly from the livestock and the construction industry, surpassed the safe limits in “Natura 2000 areas”, which are regions that are required to be protected under the Habitats and Birds Directives (the EU legislation that protects biodiversity).13 This led politicians in The Netherlands to suggest a policy that would halve the number of livestock on Dutch farms, given that they were responsible for 46% of nitrogen deposition.14 This led to disruptive civil disobedience from farmers and farmer's unions around the country, resulting in this and other suggested policies taking a step back.15 

It has proved risky for governments to bite the hand that feeds them, and in this case, expanding the environmental sustainability goals of the CAP would mean threatening the short-term competitiveness of the EU’s food system, and upsetting the profits of big landowners and the agrochemical lobby - both of which have allegedly played a role in toning down the environmental ambitions of this reform.6


Instead of significant reform, the members of the European Parliament decided to keep the CAP fairly unchanged. Shortly after the reform got voted upon and passed,  #VoteThisCAPDown turned into a new hashtag and movement: #WithdrawTheCAP. 

A large number of NGOs ranging from WWF to the European Public Health Alliance and more than 60,000 citizens have demanded a withdrawal from this CAP in an open letter and online petition, respectively.16 A withdrawal from the CAP would mean essentially rejecting the reform proposals and starting a new agricultural reform from a blank slate. 

What can still be changed 

The reform still has a chance for real change. The Commission is the only EU body that is allowed to propose the text and still amend it as part of the usual legislative procedure. This can only happen after the Parliament and Council make their own amendments on details and wording. The law (or reform) then goes back to the Commission. In theory, the Commission is still in the position to suggest different wording and legislation for a CAP that aligns better with the European Green Deal. 

Frans Timmermans, the Vice President of the Commission stated that the reform is still in need of “improvements to uphold [the] commitment for climate action”.18 Additionally, this week the Commission published a report outlining how the reformed CAP can be adapted to fit into the European Green Deal.19 That being said, at least at this stage, while there is a strong intention to alter the CAP, there is no aspiration from the Commission to “withdraw” the CAP.20 

What we can do

Despite this reform being referred to as “post-2020”, it wouldn’t be until 2023 that we see changes enforced - some policies only becoming truly binding much later.2,21 Official negotiations for the accepted reform have begun on the 10th of November and have a deadline set in March, so there is potentially still some time for us citizens, scientists and NGOs to nudge decision-making at a national level and an EU level.7 It is worth noting, however, that industrial farming and corporate lobbies may also exert pressure on the Parliament and Commission during their amendment process, which could also influence the CAP’s final outcomes.6 

It has become increasingly clear that international climate and social treaties like The Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals cannot be met without transforming our agricultural practices and policies.22 In the words of the President of the Commission herself; “Climate change and biodiversity loss are happening before our eyes (...) the need to act has never been clearer”.23  

While calling for a complete withdrawal from the CAP is unrealistic and would leave most EU farmers bankrupt, recognizing its numerous flaws and believing that it is possible and imperative to make big changes is needed to move forward.6 Agriculture, and therefore the CAP, should be part of any conversation about sustainability and the future. This reform has just gotten started, so hopefully, we can utilize the outrage over its first public emergence to push for a real and common shift in agricultural policies for all the years to come. 

If you would like to take action, a few things you can do are: to write to your country’s Members of Parliament, to sign petitions, and to keep informing yourself further on the impact of policies and the origins of the food you buy.

Have more ideas on small steps to change the food system? Let us know! 

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  1. European Commission (2018). “CAP specific objectives explained”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  2. European Court of Auditors (2019). “Biodiversity in farming”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  3. European Environment Agency (2020). “State of Nature in the EU”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  4. Corporate Europe Observatory (2020). “CAP vs Farm to Fork”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  5. EU Observer (2020). 'Timmermans 'disappointed' with ongoing CAP reform.' Accessed 20 November 2020.
  6. European Commission. “Future of the common agricultural policy”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  7. People and Nature (2020). “Action needed for the EU Common Agricultural Policy to address sustainability challenges”. Accessed 15 November 2020.
  8. Politico (2020). “5 key elements of the emerging CAP deal”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  9. Science (2019). “A greener path for the EU Common Agricultural Policy”. Accessed 15 November 2020.
  10. Heinemann (2018). “The EU Budget and Common Agricultural Policy Beyond 2020: Seven More Years of Money for Nothing?”. Accessed 15 November 2020.
  11. National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (2020). 'Nitrogen'. Accessed 20 November 2020.
  12. Compendium voor de Leefomgeving (2019). “Nitrogen deposition, 1990-2018”. Accessed 11 December 2020.
  13. Science (2019). “Nitrogen crisis from jam-packed livestock operations has ‘paralyzed’ Dutch economy”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  14. Arc2020 (2020). “Withdraw the CAP to Safeguard European Green Deal – 27 Organisations”. Accessed 15 November 2020.
  15. Ecosia (2020). 'Can We Withdraw the CAP? How the EU works.'. Accessed 19 November 2020.
  16. Twitter (2020). Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU). Accessed 19 November 2020.
  17. European Commission (2020). 'Working with Parliament and Council to make the CAP reform fit for the European Green Deal'. Accessed 19 November 2020.
  18. Euractiv (2020). “Final CAP deal can still be fit for purpose, von der Leyen replies to Greens”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  19. EU Observer (2020). “EU farming deal attacked by Green groups”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  20. Div (2019). “EU agriculture not viable for the future”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  21. European Commission (2020). “Speech by President von der Leyen at the closing session of the EU Green Week 2020”. Accessed 10 November 2020.
  22. European Union. “Institutions and Bodies”. Retrieved 20 November 2020.
  23. European Commission. “What the European Commission does in law”. Retrieved 19 November 2020.
  24. United Nations. “The 17 Goals”. Retrieved 19 November 2020.
  25. UNFCCC. “The Paris Agreement”. Retrieved 19 November 2020.
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