MPs criticise 'green' EU farm-subsidy conditions

Combine Harvester MPs backed the aims of the Commission, but argued against its methods

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EU plans for "green" farm-subsidy rules will reduce European food production and are likely to harm the environment, a Commons committee has warned.

Environment, food and rural affairs committee chair Anne McIntosh said the plans would "hurt UK farmers, consumers and our countryside".

The forthcoming changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) must be more flexible, the Conservative MP argued.

The European Commission said MPs were overstating the impact of its plans.

The Commission wants 30% of farm subsidies to be conditional on whether recipient farms have met certain environmental standards, a policy it has branded "greening" the CAP.

Under the proposals, farmers will need to grow at least three different crops, leave 7% of their land fallow and ensure that permanent pasture is maintained on their land.

Grassland removal

The committee supports the Commission's environmental aims, but argues that member states should be allowed to find their own ways of achieving them, tailored to local circumstances.

Ms McIntosh said: "It is a nonsense to think that farmers from Finland to Sicily should be tied to the same narrow prescriptive rules. One-size-fits all regulation cannot work across the range of environments found in Europe."

The proposal to leave 7% of eligible land fallow, in areas to be named "ecological focus areas" (EFAs), had "the greatest potential to deliver significant environmental benefits", the committee's report says.

But it questions how the figure of 7% was reached, and argues that the Commission has provided insufficient detail for MPs to judge whether the benefits would materialise.

If large areas of arable land were to become EFAs, food production in the EU will decline, the report points out, lamenting that the Commission "appears not to have considered food security" as it devised the policy.

Perversely, the new rules could damage the environment by introducing an "incentive to remove environmentally important semi-natural grassland", the report contends.

'No impact'

Ms McIntosh also underlined the successes already being achieved by UK farmers in voluntary environmental schemes under the current regulatory regime.

Commission spokesman for agriculture and rural development Roger Waite accepted that "some farms in the UK are leading the rest of the EU" on such schemes.

"We do not want to penalise the champions," he told the BBC.

The greening policy would not prove to be as rigid as MPs were claiming, he argued, since existing environmental schemes would be taken into account when deciding whether farmers had met the standards.

Further, the EFAs would have "no impact or in some cases a limited impact" on food production, Mr Waite said, because "hedges, ditches, field margins and other landscape features" could go towards the 7% target.

The Commission's aim was to ensure that "all farmers across the whole of the EU do more for the environment - not just some farmers in some parts of the UK", he concluded.

Friends of the Earth said the committee was right to highlight the benefits of crop rotation but said "MPs mustn't use concerns about a one-size-fits-all approach to agricultural reforms as a smokescreen for weakening efforts for a more planet-friendly approach to farming".

"There's no reason why EU farming plans can't contain strong, legally-binding environmental measures that take regional circumstances into account," the campaign group added.

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