There has been a lot of interest in the new CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) for a whole year now. The discussion involves politicians and academics, and also activists of the #WithdrawTheCAP movement. These activists have raised more than 71.000 signatures with a petition addressed to the European Parliament to withdraw and revise the new CAP. In general, mainstream farmers prioritise production over sustainability. In our opinion, it is also important to consider the point of view of small and dedicated farmers’ on CAP to understand how it will change the future of farming.

As a panellist to this year’s “PEAT-FEST“, I had the opportunity to interview five farmers from the west coast of Ireland. I wanted to understand their opinion on the new CAP and how it will affect them. These farmers all are owners of their farms, plus some commonage land. This article summarises the answers I received while interviewing the following farmers:

NameType of farmingType of land
FERGALRegenerative farmerWild coast
BRIDGETAgro-ecological, but…Mountain, grassland, boggy land
THOMASOrganic farmerWoodlands, hills
GERRYHigh nature value farmerMarginal land, mountains
TOMMYCarbon farmerPeatland

1. The biggest issue

The CAP is too flexible. This means that each country in Europe can decide how to apply it in different situations. For instance, paludiculture (an alternative way of farming peatlands) is mentioned in the new CAP. It will be Ireland’s choice whether to fund farmers who want to put this practice in place. The same pattern affects farmers on other issues, especially when we will talk about money and industries later on.

One of the farmers I was talking to was distressed about the situation. Bridget can’t farm in the way she would like to, because she has to follow the rules of the CAP if she is to be supported. She explained that she can’t withdraw from it because she would be penalised. “How bad can it be if someone wants to withdraw?” she asks me. Fergal raised the same issue: “My way of farming (regenerative, ed.) doesn’t fit into the CAP, so I’m not eligible for subsidies. I want to farm as I am doing now, without any impediment”. 

2. Money-centred system

Can the CAP give a livelihood to a small farm? Single farmers in Ireland receive low payments because most of it goes to the dairy and meat industries. It is an industry-led system, focused on the massive production of goods. What is needed is a fairer distribution of money especially in small rural communities. Farmers should be compensated based on how they manage the land for it to thrive and be healthy.

3. Goliath… 

As I was saying, the dairy and meat industries are favoured. Ireland focuses on exporting most of these goods to other countries. It is also importing other products, even those that can be produced locally. This system is forcing small farms to close and sell their land to major companies. On top of that, it also forces the agricultural sector to emit the most greenhouse gases compared to the others. One of Ireland’s goals is to reach net-zero by 2050. At the same time, farming industries and bureaucracy must not lose the money they are currently “entitled” to have. This is a contradiction.

We can see the strength of industries all around Europe as well. These have lobbied unceasingly for the CAP to favour them. In fact, the new CAP includes only 10% of the sustainable solutions we could have had before the lobbying of big agriculture.

4. …and David

Ireland should prioritise local food production and distribution to ensure healthy ecosystems and communities. In this way, it can also achieve a healthy economy. The need for these changes highlights how much the CAP is distant from the everyday life of a single farmer. It is not integrated into the community: the CAP looks like someone who wants to build a skyscraper, forgetting that they should start from the foundations. In this case, the foundations are the small farmers.

The most difficult point is that farmers are not a homogeneous group. Involving farmers in policy-making processes means assuring that every category is well-represented. And leaving space to women among these categories, as well.

5. Combatting the climate crisis

The CAP is not doing enough and we need an absolute transformation. For instance, ecoschemes look great on paper, but they don’t work. In a smaller picture, Ireland is behind when it comes to the net-zero goal race because of how the CAP is delivered.

“When it comes to lowering our emissions, peat MUST be taken into consideration”, says farmer Gerry. Thanks to peatlands, the West could become a great carbon sink, but farmers are not compensated for rewetting them. Tommy adds: “Why can’t we be involved in the carbon market? Why doesn’t Ireland allow me to sell carbon credits to other countries?”. This could be a new strategy for Ireland to improve its ecosystems. The CAP, after all, is protecting wetlands (could be more, but still…), so Ireland has to get its act together.

6. In conclusion

While looking for small farmers to interview, I was asked why I should voice their concerns and opinions. Why aren’t small farmers allowed to speak for themselves? I understand the issue and I agree that this is a problem. I value this experience because it has made me open my eyes to these issues, but at the same time, I can’t be an advocate, since I’m not a farmer myself. So I have put myself in the shoes of a journalist rather than an advocate. Still, I can’t stop asking myself why more discussions aren’t being held, even though it looks like all these issues are well known by many farmers in Ireland.