An open letter to Minister McConologue outlining concerns on next CAP- INHFA

As fears continue to grow over the potential introduction of a regulation that potentially could exclude thousands of farmers from getting their CAP payments in the next CAP , Colm O’Donnell president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) has penned an open letter to Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue.

Dear Minister McConalogue,
As President of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), I am writing to you on behalf of farmers that operate on carbon-rich soils i.e. our farmed wetlands and peatlands.
Under proposals in the new CAP Programme, farmers operating on these lands will be required to comply with a new Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition Standard 2 (GAEC 2) that threatens the agricultural status of their lands.

What are our concerns with GAEC 2
GAEC 2 identifies peatlands and wetlands as important environmental assets that must be protected. While the three main parties in the CAP process (EU Commission, Parliament and the Council of Ministers) have specified their individual wordings, it is clear that farmers will be expected to undertake measures to protect these lands and their carbon asset.

Unfortunately, these measures have not yet been specified or even agreed. However, proposals by the Council of Ministers to introduce a derogation (or as referred to by yourself and DAFM officials an “amendment”) that allows for farmers to be paid in the event of the GAEC 2 undermining farming activity and the agricultural area status of these lands is a major issue for INHFA.

In our view, it is unacceptable that proposals under Article 4.1. (C)(i)(ii) of the CAP Regulation allows Member States to use GAEC 2 in a manner that can remove these lands from being defined as an “Agricultural Area”. If this happens then future CAP payments on these lands will be jeopardised because the basic entry requirement to access various schemes requires these lands to be defined as an Agricultural Area.
Make no mistake farmers and their farm families have managed those lands for centuries and are crucial to managing these lands from both an agricultural and an environmental perspective and they will deliver positive outcomes, but not if our very ability to exist is being threatened.

Derogation v Amendment and our concerns
As already stated, both yourself and your officials have referred to the Council of Ministers proposals as “amendments” while we see this as a “derogation” that the Member State can apply. Our interpretation of this is also shared by the EU Commission who have referred to it as a “derogation to the eligible hectare standard rules”. In recognising this, it would be reckless for us to ignore the obvious dangers associated with a derogation which is often time-specific.
It also for the first time creates an unnecessary risk for farmers who deliver for the environment. In addition, it will have the effect of you as Minister continuing to seek such a derogation to ensure payments going forward. The EU Commission have advised in their negotiations that if Member States would impose on farmers GAEC 2 requirements forcing them to abandon agricultural activity it would not approve Member States CAP Strategic Plans, since it is not in line with the objective of the GAEC.

Programme for Government Commitments
In the Programme for Government (PFG) you committed to ensuring fairness with regard to eligibility conditions under CAP – “Advocate for a fair system of eligibility conditionality, under the reform of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition rules, recognising that farmers should not be unfairly penalised for maintaining land that contributes to biodiversity principles”
Currently, the ongoing CAP negotiations threaten future CAP payments for farmers on these land types and goes against the principles outlined in the PFG. As we approach the centenary celebrations of one hundred years as an Independent State, we are asking for a commitment that you as our Minister for Agriculture and the Government will not allow or provide for any potential separation of our lands to be facilitated in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations.

INHFA Solution
The INHFA have a solution and are proposing that the following wording is added to the main body of GAEC 2 in Annex 111 of the CAP Strategic Plan Regulation to read as follows: ……………. “which shall ensure that these lands maintain their Agricultural Area Status”.

Farmers have always extended their goodwill in dealing with the public on their lands but this cannot be taken for granted in particular if the Agricultural Area Status of their farm is being threatened. Therefore, we ask you Minister to accept this wording and have it put forward in your crucial role on the EU Council of Ministers next engagement.