You are here

The task of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is to provide financial support to farmers as well as to control EU agricultural markets. It currently commands a budget of approximately €53 billion per year, and historically has been responsible for roughly half of the EU budget.

In the late 1950s when the CAP was created, its main goal was to increase yields in order to feed a hungry post-war Europe. This was achieved with great success, even creating huge food surpluses in the process (‘beef mountains’ and ‘milk lakes’), but at great cost to the natural environment. Agricultural habitats are very important to biodiversity, and support around half of all species in Europe. The intensification of farming to increase productivity, notably the use of large amounts of fertiliser and pesticide coupled with the homogenisation of the landscape has had a huge impact on these species. For example, European farmland birds declined by 50 % between 1980 and 2002; grassland butterflies have declined by 60 % since 1990, and there is no sign of levelling off. The realisation that the CAP was harming not only the biodiversity itself, but also the ecosystem services it provides (such as clean water, pest regulation, pollinator services etc.) led to a series of reforms that shifted the focus of the payments from production to good environmental stewardship of the land.

Under the current regulations, UK farmers are entitled to receive Single Farm Payments (‘Pillar I’) and Agri-Environment Scheme payments (‘Pillar II’). In order to qualify for the Single Farm Payments, farmers must adhere to a set of basic Statutory Management Requirements (SMR), and locally determined standards to ensure Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) that prevent damage to the environment from farm operations: this is termed ‘cross-compliance’. The various agri-environment schemes in the UK take this further, where farmers are rewarded for undertaking certain environmentally friendly management options (for links to AES in England, Scotland and Wales see below).

There is currently much discussion within the EU as to the direction the CAP should go in when the current programming period comes to an end in 2013.  The CAP budget is expected to be cut , and further channel its payments into supporting the public goods provided by agriculture rather than blanket support. Moves to further decouple payments from production are, however, meeting resistance, with worries about food security. There is concern that environmental measures such as cross-compliance and agri-environment schemes have not been very effective at conserving biodiversity, and changes need to be made to increase commitment to conservation. In particular, support should be targeted at the most biodiverse, or ‘High Nature Value’ farmland. These areas support high levels of biodiversity, yet are under the greatest threat of intensification or abandonment, as in some cases it is impossible to make a profit in today’s markets.

The European Parliament and EU agriculture ministers both finalised their positions in March 2013. Now these will be negotiated with the European Commission with the aim that the three bodies (Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers) will reach an agreed policy by the end of June.

Read more about 'Greening the CAP' in the Biologist, November 2009 pp. 202-208.

We have made the following responses to consultations on the Common Agricultural Policy:

24 April 2012
Response to an enquiry on CAP reform from the Scottish Government

7 December 2010
A response to the EFRA Committee on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy

10 April 2011
Society of Biology Position Statement on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy

16 November 2011
A response to the EFRA committee on "Greening the Common Agricultural Policy"



European Environment Agency “Distribution and targeting of the CAP budget from a biodiversity perspective”, 2009

CAP 2020 platform for commentary on the future development of the CAP

Defra CAP reform

Response to the RSPB and CLA proposals by the National Farmers Union

Proposal for a new EU Common Agricultural Policy by BirdLife International, European Environmental Bureau, European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements-EU Group, World Wide Fund for Nature, 2009

Discussion paper “After the Common Agricultural Policy: towards an EU policy for Sustainable Food and Rural Environment?”, 2008

Discussion paper by DG Agriculture and Rural Development “Why do we need a Common Agricultural Policy?” December 2009

Defra’s Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy 2005

Agri-Environment Schemes in England

Agri-Environment Schemes in Scotland

Agri-Environment Schemes in Wales