Farmers could be allowed to keep their best land for food production and “buy in” less productive land to fulfil CAP reform proposals, under radical plans being discussed by EU policy makers.
The forthcoming changes to the Common Agricultural Policy will require farmers to set aside at least 7% of their eligible farmland as fallow, excluding permanent grassland, under so-called ecological focus areas (EFAs).
European farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos has insisted that the EFAs must be in place at farm level from 2014, under “mandatory greening” measures. The aim of the EU Commission is to make farmers across Europe do more for the environment.
Critics fear that introducing EFAs on a farm level – rather than a regional or national basis – would mean the arbitrary creation of protected zones, which may not be good for wildlife. DEFRA has already called for a “more flexible approach”.
Farmers in the UK and other member states are concerned that the greening obligation will take large areas of arable land out of food production.
But Farmers Weekly understands that talks are under way between EU policy advisors to discuss the option of “trading” land to meet targets for EFAs.
“Fortunately, it is often the case that land which is less well suited to production is often capable of producing greater environmental benefits,” said a source involved in the discussions.
“Land which is not great for growing crops may nevertheless be very good at providing habitats for biodiversity.
“Therefore, it may make more sense for those farmers in highly productive areas to provide their EFAs, not for their own land, but by renting or purchasing their EFA land from farmers in less productive areas.”
The idea could see farmers paying farmers or landowners in their regions to take land out of production, equivalent to 7% of their own.
Farmers or landowners may be able to enter into similar arrangements with a number of farmers, who could take large areas of land out of production to meet their individual demands.
“It may be that the EFA provider does not even have to be a farmer at all,” said the source.
“For example, groups of farmers may club together to pay a wildlife trust to purchase land to use as an EFA.
If a trading system were permitted at EU level, it would need to be set up at national level by individual member states.
In the UK, the greatest interest in buying land would likely come from the east of the country where land is most productive, and the most interest in selling will come from the least productive areas.
“There is a lot to be sorted out and a number of separate points would need to be decided,” said the source.
“At what level should the trading be allowed? Would it be acceptable to have no EFAs, say, in the east of England, and significant amounts of EFA land in Cumbria?
“Should farmers be allowed to purchase all of their EFA or should they be required to provide a certain percentage on their own farm – even if they purchase the bulk of it from elsewhere? Would it be acceptable to purchase EFA land outside your member state?”
The biggest consideration of such a trading system would be price, the source added.
“How much would buyers be willing to pay to keep their land out of production and how much will sellers require to take their land out of it?”