In my view, one of the most enduring benefits of EU membership has been the almost constant intellectual pressure to reform our economic and social legislation.

Resistance to change within Ireland was overcome in many instances by the powerful external lever exercised by Brussels. I have often wondered how much beneficial social legislation would we have voluntarily introduced ourselves.

Progress would almost certainly have been much slower. I think you can ask the same question about agricultural policy.

Future influences

It’s a tall order to predict the direction of the CAP over the next several decades. The CAP has and will continue to be influenced by a multiplicity of drivers.

In looking to the future, there is a real risk that our expectations will be overly influenced by recent events.

In considering the distant future, it is necessary to explore what’s possible rather than what’s probable.

When we joined the EEC the terms sustainability, biodiversity and organic farming were unheard of. It is fair to say that anyone raising these issues would have been subject to ridicule and certainly seen as marginal to any mainstream policy discussions.

A betting person would say, however, that some factors that we consider as unimportant today are likely to assume great importance in the future. Indeed, factors that can’t even be visualised today could come to dominate policy into the future.

For instance, we are not inclined to take too seriously concerns about dietary changes that are emerging in some countries and, in particular, demographics.

Consumer concerns over the ethics of food production and processing may be viewed as marginal today but these could come to be hugely important in the future.

We take for granted that consumers in our hugely important developing country export markets will continue to purchase infant formula without any qualms.

We’re sceptical that scientific developments in synthetic meats could undermine traditional livestock production.

At least we have some portent of structural changes such as these, even if we don’t take them too seriously. But the “unknown unknowns” also can have enduring effects on policy.

Events like COVID-19, and especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could not have been anticipated but will undoubtedly lead to important policy responses.

Based on our experience of only the last three months alone, we can no longer be satisfied that unencumbered international trade in energy and fertilisers will deliver optimal economic benefits. And that is just one instance of recent experience.

Food and environment trade-off

Where does that leave the nature and scope of agricultural policy and the CAP, in particular? There is no doubt that policymakers have shown their ability to make major reforms to the CAP from the introduction of the milk quota in 1984, to the MacSharry reforms of the early nineties right through to the Greening measures of recent times in response to internal and external drivers.

An ability to respond is important, but responses can be unbalanced. In the response to some drivers, policy may lean too far in one direction at the expense of ignoring or giving insufficient emphasis to other important policy objectives.

There is clearly a trade-off being made between environmental and food security policy objectives that many would feel is unacceptable.

Global population and income growth will be the key drivers of policy into the future.

Agriculture food systems will need to produce sufficient food for a global population of possibly 10bn by 2050. But it will have to do so sustainably.

It is not just a challenge to produce more with less.

The real challenge be will be to reduce food waste along the value chain and to produce products with higher unit values in terms of nutrition and human health.

Of course, farmers will have to be supported appropriately to manage this transition.

Balancing policy objectives

Getting the policy balance right is tremendously difficult. The short-term future, let alone the medium- to long-term future, cannot be predicted with any accuracy.

If policy is merely reactive to emerging events it can be unbalanced and ultimately damaging.

It seems to me that what will enable policy to navigate the uncertainty regarding the myriad of drivers in a balanced manner into the future is that the policy objectives should be sufficiently robust to at least meet the likely pressures that can be envisaged for the foreseeable future, say the next 20 years.

Undoubtedly, the CAP, through supporting improvements in productivity and commodity prices, transformed the ability of Europe to provide food for its own population in a relatively short period of time

Another important dimension of balance is the need to ensure that changes demanded of European producers are matched by the supports offered to them and in the protections provided, through trade for instance.

The original CAP objectives

As I look towards the next 60 years of CAP, it is worth considering how robust the original objectives of the CAP are.

These include increasing agricultural productivity; ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers; guaranteeing the availability of supplies; stabilising markets; harmonising competition rules while securing the food supply chain with reasonable prices.

Some of these objectives can be considered to have been successfully achieved while others are still outstanding.

Undoubtedly, the CAP, through supporting improvements in productivity and commodity prices, transformed the ability of Europe to provide food for its own population in a relatively short period of time and to become a net exporter.

Food security

It was essential that just 17 years after the end of World War II, when food security in Europe was not at all guaranteed, that the objective to increase the availability of food supplies would be achieved.

For the future, this objective continues to be of central importance but its scope has significantly changed.

Food-exporting countries contribute to achieving food security in the importing countries. These countries, by importing from those that can produce food relatively efficiently, such as Ireland, thereby contribute to achieving their own food security objectives.

The interpretation of food security and the challenges to its achievement will undoubtedly evolve over time and be reflected in policy.

Globally, we are experiencing the twin scourges of malnutrition and obesity. The solution of malnutrition requires access to sufficient high-quality nutritionally dense foods. Increasingly, agricultural productivity will be measured in terms of sustainable nutritional output per unit of input.

Farmers in Europe could be supported to produce such foods. This policy could also be justified on environmental grounds as human-edible leguminous plants and clovers, for instance, would permit a much less intensive use of chemical nitrogen. They would also reduce Europe’s dependency on imported proteins for animal feed.

Protection of the environment

Environmental challenges on the scale we are now experiencing concerning climate change, biodiversity and water are likely to dominate the agricultural policy agenda for several years to come.

The CAP has adapted to the environmental challenges through various mechanisms, most notably the Greening measures in Pillar I and the agri-environmental measures in Pillar II.

However, last year’s report from the European Court of Auditors was quite emphatic in its conclusion that the €100bn spent on climate change measures over the period 2014-2020 had little impact on emissions, which the report noted have remained largely unchanged since 2010.

The report is quite pointed in noting that the various environmental schemes did not provide the right incentives for climate change mitigation and that the much trumpeted Greening measures had only a marginal impact on climate change.

If European agriculture cannot get to grips with climate-damaging farming it is inevitable that we will see radical measures being imposed over the next 10 to 20 years.

It is anyone’s guess as to what form these might take but top of the agenda are likely to be measures that will price in the negative externalities associated with agricultural production.

In other words, a tax on agricultural emissions.

With restricted budgets and increased concerns about equity in the distribution of CAP resources, it is likely that Pillar II measures will also increase in relative importance.

We can therefore expect a determined effort to link expenditures to outcomes.

Hopefully there will be a much greater appreciation that the transition to a less-emissions-intensive agricultural food system will give rise to substantial costs for farmers and society. These costs will require public support.

If less land and other resources are required to produce food into the future, the CAP will also need to address mainstream opportunities for alternative land uses.

Market stabilisation has largely failed with the possible exception of milk quotas.

One can envisage farmers producing and being paid for the supply of the so-called eco-system services, other than food and animal feed. It is possible to envision more farmers being incentivised, for instance, to convert pastures into energy in the form of electricity or biomethane. This is already happening but with insufficient public support.

Standard of living

Another hugely important objective of the CAP is to ensure a fair standard of living for farmers. It is very difficult to assess what has been achieved in terms of this objective as it is open to considerable interpretation.

In the initial years of the CAP, this objective was concerned with achieving convergence between farmer and non-farmer incomes. Increasingly, and certainty since the MacSharry Reforms, the focus has shifted to the equity of the distribution of incomes within agriculture as a consequence of the CAP.

One can certainly envisage that this emphasis will be even more important into the future. As a consequence, is it likely that we will see much greater targeting of CAP supports to recipients.

Stabilisation of markets

Little progress has been achieved in the stabilisation of agricultural markets.

If European farmers are going to be burdened with adopting a more sustainable system of production, and potentially other constraints as outlined earlier, an important quid pro quo might be the support of stabilisation tools under Pillar I.

Market stabilisation has largely failed with the possible exception of milk quotas. But EU policy needs to be more creative. There is scope for the design of income stabilisation tools.

These could emerge as essential if the worst predictions of global warming are realised.

The CAP is no longer sufficient to address all of the complex challenges facing agriculture.

The support required from research and innovation measures will become of greater importance and the need to tailor such policies for the specific needs of the food system will be critical.

Naturally, I’m a champion of the role of research and innovation. But for how long more can European agriculture maintain its competitiveness and, at the same time, deal satisfactorily with an ever increasing burden of complex demands while turning its back on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A greater balance will also be required in respect of trade policy. The more European farmers are required to adopt sustainable production systems, the more problematic freer access for the Mercosur countries becomes.

Reshaping future CAPs

In conclusion, I think it’s worth reframing the CAP objectives to enable them to confront the challenges of at least the next few decades. Three policy pillars are required to ensure a balanced set of policies:

  • Improved farm livelihoods.
  • Improved farming resilience.
  • Improved sustainability.
  • These pillars must complement each other and be coherent.

    Farmers need significant support from the budget to achieve sustainability.

    Trade policy must follow the logic of pursuing sustainability within Europe in dealing with imports.

    Farmers also need to be supported in adapting to climate change. Income supports for the most vulnerable farm households are a key resilience tool but they need to be supplemented by innovative income stabilisation measures. And policy has to get to grips with the weak power that farmers exercise in the value chain.

    Improved livelihoods will continue to be a key plank of the CAP. Support to drive productivity within the constraint of sustainability will be essential.

    The sector’s capacity to support growth, job creation and exports also needs to be at the forefront of policy design.

    The CAP has to encourage our best young people to earn their livelihoods from farming.

    Increased demands are going to be placed on Europe’s farmers in the decades ahead. But these demands need to be balanced by compensating supports.

    CAP objectives

    In 1962, the CAP was introduced with the following aims:

  • Increasing agricultural productivity.
  • Ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers.
  • Guaranteeing the availability of supplies.
  • Stabilising the markets.
  • Establishing a secure supply chain with reasonable prices.
  • Harmonising competition rules across all countries.