Reforming the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy: priorities for pastoralists

‘you need a large flock to pay a little salary’ Photo credit: Michele Nori, Farnese 2020

Michele Nori, PASTRES researcher, European University Institute, Florence

Pastoralists in the European Union (EU) are facing a confusing destiny in the face of a contradictory and unfair policy regime. With the reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the table, now is the time to redress these issues, ensuring that European pastoralism can continue to provide livelihoods, as well as addressing major climate and biodiversity challenges.  

There is however a paradox. On the one hand, wider society appreciates the products and services pastoralists provide, including the contribution to landscape conservation, territorial integrity and provision of ecosystems services. In contrast to other parts of the world, EU policy is in principle favourable to extensive livestock breeding, and policies are made accordingly to provide incentives for pastoral practices.

On the other hand, the situation on the ground tells a different, indeed opposite story, and over decades, the number of pastoral farms and herds has declined massively, as the figures below show.

Trends in sheep and goat farms in Greece, Spain and Italy (years 1990-2016)

Map legend: EL = Greece; ES = Spain, IT = Italy – Source: Nori and Farinella, 2020

Can the forthcoming CAP reform enable a solution to this paradox?

The CAP is a main pillar of the EU; in 2018 it still represented about 40% of the overall EU budget, in support of farming and rural development. The CAP’s institutional framework defines the operational space for pastoralists across the EU. However, despite being paved with good intentions, EU policies, often adapted and adopted at local level according to the ‘subsidiarity’ principle, show little empathy to pastoralists.

There are several ways in which existing policies hinder pastoral activities. This blog examines some of the main problems from Italian cases.

CAP support is skewed towards productivity levels and farm/holding size

When using productivity and farm size as reference indicators, smallholders and family farms fare poorly. As they practice extensive livestock breeding that prizes quality over quantity productivity indicators are typically lower, although environmental impacts are limited. Meanwhile, use of common lands that would be otherwise fall abandoned means that holding size is not a relevant indicator. As a result, pastoralists operating in small, autonomous, mobile units are frequently off the CAP radar.

‘Looking for policy support’ Photo Credit: Michele Nori, Farnese 2020

According to the decoupling mechanism, CAP entitlements are associated with land holdings, rather than on effective production, and land titles can be transferred from one place to another, and from one crop to another. In other words, there seems to be more concern for mobile lands than mobile livestock!

As unveiled by a research project from the University of Aquila, The Land of my Dreams, farmers who used to grow maize and tobacco or intensive cattle in the Po valley in Italy can shift their land rights to any other land, including faraway mountainous pasture in another region. By doing so they can use a negligible part of the CAP funding they receive from their inherited land rights to hire grazing lands that would be normally used by local pastoralists to feed their flocks. Such pastoralists in turn receive much less funding, and cannot therefore compete on the local auctions for grazing land rights. Such a setting provides significant incentives to lucrative, rent-seeking behaviour, while landless and informal producers face difficulties in being included.

In order to gain access to CAP funding, the title holders need to ‘use the land’. The experience from the Italian pastures in the Alps (in Piedmont), as well as in the Apennines (in Abruzzo). shows how large, speculative farmers offload sheep or cattle in the mountains. One observer commented, “large companies from northern Italy are leasing large areas of mountains pasturelands with the aim of capitalising their land titles (acquired elsewhere). They do so without guaranteeing effective grazing, often through ghost herds or a few head of animals, in some cases sick, often left unattended. These are fake herds that only serve to legitimise the obtaining of European funds”. These ‘fake herds’ eventually end up abandoned, weakened and often predated on by local carnivores.

Environmentalists’ concerns translate into trouble for the ‘guardians of nature’.

The EU shows a great concern for nature protection, biodiversity conservation and landscape maintenance through its Nature 2000 programme, High Nature Value directives and agro-environmental measures. In theory, such concern should eventually support pastoral systems, as suppliers of public goods and socio-ecosystem services.

Potential contributions of pastoralism include maintaining alive and productive inner territories that suffer longstanding abandonment; producing healthy and nutritious animal protein in mostly organic ways and accounting for animal welfare; maintaining and enhancing landscapes and biodiversity; reducing hydro-geological and fire hazards; enhancing adaptive capacities to climate change dynamics, including carbon sequestration in pastures.

However, largely urban-based environmentalists’ concerns show more empathy for carnivore predators as part of biodiversity enhancement, without reflecting on the wider socio-ecological implications. The growing and uncontrolled presence of wolves and bears, lynx and even wild dogs represents an increasing threat to pastoral flocks and herds throughout Europe. Pastoralists are forced to abandon certain territories with the risk of overgrazing others. Some resort to keeping animals inside barns to avoid predator attack, while others have many guard dogs to protect their animals. The consequences are environmental damage due to concentrated grazing, while production costs increase consistently.

‘Protecting flocks from predators’ Photo Credit: Duccio Berzi

Moreover, the policy setting involves a huge and costly bureaucracy. In Abruzzo, a region that hosts one of the oldest and largest national parks in Europe where wolves are traditionally at home, it may take two or more years to receive compensation for animals lost to carnivore predators; and by this time, a farm has already shut down its business. In Sardinia there is much bureaucracy associated with farming, with many sitting in offices providing support across multiple farms. As one pastoralist commented, “You need an office if you want to run a farm”

CAP reform: pastoralists as central to tackling climate change and protecting biodiversity

In 2019, UNESCO decided to nominate transhumance as part of world heritage, while discussions are ongoing at UN level for establishing the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists. Scientific research has long recognised the benefits of f producing animal proteins through extensive systems –  for human, animal and environmental health – so why is the EU lagging behind, despite its concern and commitment for a green and sustainable future?

Overall, the EU policy framework shows significant inconsistencies, providing a poor fit for extensive livestock management. While there is no doubt that CAP support has been essential in maintaining pastoral territories populated and productive, the current policy framework also shrinks pastoralists’ room for manoeuvre, and constrains their capacities to face the widening uncertainties in environmental and market-related domains.

The reform of the CAP provides an important opportunity to provide fairer and more effective support to European pastoralists. As important providers of high quality animal products, contributors to protecting ecosystem services and guardians of living mountain landscapes and agro-biodiversity, pastoralists are central to tackling the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

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