The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) represents one of the largest and most tangible EU programs. Making up a massive 37.7% of the multiannual budget, it is only matched in monetary importance by the Structural Cohesion Fund, which is designed to boost entire economies and integrate member states into the block. CAP was designed to increase food security in Europe by giving framers grants to modernise, to produce and generally letting them get by without being undercut non-EU produce.
In recent years there have been calls from farmers associations, other industries and public representatives from non-agricultural areas to reform or scale back CAP. Farmers complain that too much of the money goes to the biggest landowners, who they argue don’t need the same supports. Other industries dislike the favourable treatment agriculture gets, and public representatives would like the money to be directed to investment where their voters are.
As part of UCD’s first ever ‘Green Week’, UCDSU hosted a panel talk titled ‘Who is failing the environment and how do we fix it?’ While much of the talk was based around multinationals, one audience member asked at the end what any of the panellists proposed to do about agriculture? In Ireland between 33%, and 40% of emissions are a result of agriculture, the single biggest source. Yet the Deptmemnet of Agriculture is seeking to increase the national herd size, increasing emissions. This would also result in an increase of CAP payments to Irish farmers. There exists no real plan beyond a statement of intent to reduce emissions in the agricultural sector.
In the USA, the ‘Green Deal’ being proposed by Democrats has a handful of lines dedicated to tackling emissions in agriculture, but no concrete plans. Agriculture has somehow remained insulated from the environmental movement because it is vital to everyone, and because communities are based around it. Fewer people may be employed in agriculture today than 50 years ago, but politicians protect the sector more than ever.
CAP has some environmental considerations built into it, broadly in an effort to discourage environmentally harmful practices within farming, and to incentives best practice. However, this is all based around the idea of voluntary buy-in on the part of farmers. In effect, it is a subsidy to encourage the market of farmers to move in the way the EU wants them too.
Unfortunately, it seems that the environmental considerations are not having enough of an effect. Unlike transport and energy production, agriculture has not had its awakening. The market has yet to provide a solution for farmers. Many renewable energy technologies, as a result of subsidies and small environmental taxes, are now cheaper per gigawatt than fossil fuels. This is because the market has been pushed in the right direction. Electric cars are currently in the mists of their own boom, with nearly all leading manufacturers expanding their fleet of electric cars.
CAP is going up for review as a part of the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework (the full name for the EU budget). There is little doubt that CAP will be cut as a result of Brexit. The UK was a net contributor to the EU budget, and as a result of its departure, there will be less money available for programs like CAP. With this on the horizon, there is a potential for more radical changes to CAP.
In 2017, the national cow herd in Ireland was an estimate of 1.4 million cows, a growth of 300,000 in the previous four years. The Government is aiming to increase the herd by another 22% by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency here in Ireland has said if this was the aim, achieving carbon neutrality was nearly impossible barring new technology.
The easiest solution, and perhaps the only one that can deliver the required change is to reduce the number of cows in the national herd. This will obviously impact the livelihood of those farmers in a catastrophic way, especially given the scale of the cull required. This is where we come back to CAP. If CAP was to be repurposed, to put climate action at the core of its purpose, and ensure as fair a transition as possible for farmers across the EU, then perhaps one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gasses could finally have an answer.
The approach could be two-pronged. Prong one is to tax greenhouse gas emissions properly. This means we need to price carbon appropriately, ensuring that when we buy products that are carbon intensive, that we as consumers are paying for that. This will reduce the demand for carbon-intensive products, and in turn, mean that the current size of the national herd is no longer economical.
The second prong is to use the money earned via the carbon tax to pay farmers to commit to foresty, or creating other natural carbon sinks. Currently, we have no more effective means of capturing carbon than planting forests, and maintaining them is also a viable industry for many. By directly redistributing the money earned from a carbon tax back into an industry that can reduce carbon emissions we can efficiently tackle the carbon output of agriculture.
The role of CAP in this process is to support the transition while the market adjusts to the new equilibrium established by the taxes and subsidies. It should also support those that wish to retrain and switch to less carbon-intensive forms of agriculture. The aim is not to dictate to farmers and the industry what should happen, but to push the market so far that it is the only outcome.
Climate change may not have an overarching solution, but solutions do exist on a sector by sector basis. It is imperative that we use all the resources at our disposal to push these sectors to rapidly address climate change. The market may provide, but odds are, it won’t provide fast enough to save us without a push.


By Aaron Bowman – CoEditor