Main authors: Catherine Bowyer , Clunie Keenleyside, Silvia Nanni, Anouchka Hoffmann, Nathalie van Haren , Karin van Boxtel, Paul Wolvekamp
iSQAPERiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Bowyer, C. et al. (2018) Initial stocktaking report on existing policy measures. iSQAPER Project Deliverable 8.1, 125 pp


In this section of iSQAPERiS, we provide a brief introduction to the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), focusing on the policy instruments that are most relevant to soil protection. The CAP is now more than 50 years old and its structure, scope, objectives and mechanisms have been ‘reformed’ many times. It exerts an influence on the land management decisions made every day by the millions of EU farmers in a way that no other policy can because the CAP is about money, how it is distributed in rural areas across the EU and the nature of the requirements attached to the payments to individual farms and rural businesses.

Note: This text was edited in order to provide a policy briefing "Joining the dots - soil health, agriculture and climate" submitted to side events at COP 23 of the UNFCCC on LULUCF and agriculture’s role in Greenhouse Gas emission reduction. It was formally launched by the iSQAPER consortium and IEEP alongside blogs and news items regarding on World Soils Day 2017. The Policy Brief is an educational document regarding the role of the different CAP instruments in soil protection, making the link to climate mitigation and adaptation in Europe.

Contents table
1. Diversity of the EU agricultural context
2. Origins of the CAP and its development in the first 50 years
3. The two pillar CAP today
4. Cross-compliance standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition
5. Pillar 1 greening payment requirements
6. Pillar 2 Rural Development Programmes 2014-2020
7. How will the next reform of the CAP support soil management?

1. Diversity of the EU agricultural context

EU farmland is found across four climatic zones, Arctic, Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean and more than 20 major soil types . Farming systems include arable (cereals, oilseeds and fodder crops), horticulture and permanent crops (vines, olives, nuts), intensive livestock production (grass-based meat and milk production and housed pig, poultry and dairy systems) and low intensity grazed livestock for meat and/or milk production, sometimes using common pastures. Extensive traditional agroforestry systems, where livestock graze wood pastures, are important in many areas of Europe. There are around 14 million farmers, half of them with small, semi-subsistence farms often less than 1 ha in size, particularly in southern and south-eastern Europe. Commercial farms vary widely in size; most are family businesses but some managed by very large cooperatives and farming companies can run to several thousand hectares. In terms of primary production 80% of agricultural output is from 20% of the farms.

2. Origins of the CAP and its development in the first 50 years

The CAP came into force in 1962, to address the problem of establishing free trade among the six founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC) when they each had well-established protectionist agricultural policies, which were particularly important to farmers in France.

Article 39 of the Treaty sets out five economic and social objectives for the CAP, which have remained unchanged for the past 55 years:

  • to increase agricultural productivity by promoting technical progress and ensuring the optimum use of the factors of production, in particular labour;
  • to ensure a fair standard of living for farmers;
  • to stabilise markets;
  • to ensure the availability of supplies;
  • to ensure reasonable prices for consumers.

This wording has proved sufficiently flexible to accommodate other Treaty objectives which have been absorbed into the CAP through its many reforms including, for example, promoting employment, environmental protection and sustainable development, consumer protection, animal welfare, public health and economic, social and territorial cohesion.

The three guiding principles for the CAP were Community preference, common pricing and financial solidarity. The CAP began by supporting high prices for agricultural commodities in the EEC, through intervention purchase from farmers (when the price fell below a threshold) plus import levies and export restitutions on trading outside the Community. For the first 30 years this basic model was adjusted, but not substantially changed. By the early 1990s the combined effect of CAP support, rapid technical and structural change in agriculture and enlargement of the Community to 15 Member States had led to the accumulation of commodity surpluses (of meat, dairy products, wine, cereals), dumping on international markets, rapidly rising costs for the EU and concerns about environmental impacts. The 1992 reform of the CAP replaced price protection with income support payments to individual farmers, based on the area of arable land and number of livestock (for meat production). Further reforms in between 1999 and 2009 led to: expansion from EU15 to EU25 and then 27 Member States, closer alignment of EU commodity prices with world prices; farm income support payments largely ‘decoupled’ from production, paid per hectare of farmland and conditional upon compliance with basic environmental protection (Pillar 1); and a new rural development policy which also covers the forest sector and rural businesses and communities (Pillar 2).

Figure 8 illustrates the changing focus and scale of CAP expenditure from 1980 through to planned expenditure in 2020.  

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Figure 8

3. The two pillar CAP today

Despite the growth of the CAP and the enlargement of the EU from ten Member States in 1980 to 28 today, the CAP share of all EU expenditure has decreased very sharply from almost 73% in 1985 to about 38% of the total EU budget today. The annual CAP budget is currently around €59 billion, representing about 1% of all public expenditure in the EU.

The CAP for 2014-2020 has three general objectives of viable food production, sustainable management of natural resources and climate action, and balanced territorial development. Collectively these contribute to the Europe 2020 objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. There are more CAP specific objectives, some specific to Pillar 1 or to Pillar 2 and others common to both Pillars as shown in Figure 9.

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Figure 9

The CAP objective of sustainable management of natural resources and climate action, and more specifically the provision of environmental public goods and the pursuit of climate change mitigation and adaptation, are clearly relevant to soil protection and improvement.  

The CAP two pillar structure consists of:

  • Pillar 1, funded by the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF): provides direct payments to farmers per hectare of land farmed, and also provides for market related expenditure (now a very small proportion of the total;
  • Pillar 2, which is co-financed by both the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and individual Member States’ public funds: this supports seven-year Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) throughout the EU with measures addressing environmental, social, and economic priorities;
  • ‘Horizontal’ elements of the CAP apply to both Pillars and include cross-compliance rules and a requirement to provide a Farm Advisory Service (FAS).
  • some flexibility for Member States to transfer part of their national allocation of EAGF and EAFRD funding between Pillars.

There are three elements of the CAP with potential to influence land use and management in a way that could benefit soil protection, depending on the implementation choices made by Member States and individual farmers. These are cross-compliance standards, requirements attached to Pillar 1 greening direct payments, and a wide range of measures that can be supported by Rural Development Programmes (RDPs). How these fit together is illustrated in Figure 10 and the implementation requirements for Member States are summarised below.

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Figure 10

4. Cross-compliance standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition

Farmers receiving direct payments under Pillar 1 and area-based payments under Pillar 2 must comply with two types of cross-compliance requirements across the whole farm holding, or risk losing part of their CAP payments:

  • Statutory Management Requirements (SMR) which are derived from other EU legislation and apply to farmers whether or not they receive CAP support, (these are not reviewed here, because none of them relate directly to soils); and
  • standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) defined by individual Member States.

Member States must define seven specific GAEC standards within a framework set out in the CAP legislation and taking into account ‘the specific characteristics of the areas concerned’ . Three standards are specifically for soil protection and two others are relevant as shown in bold in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Extract from EU framework on CAP cross-compliance

Main issue  Requirements and standards  
Water GAEC 1   Establishment of buffer strips along water courses (1)  
  GAEC 2  Where use of water for irrigation is subject to authorisation, compliance with authorisation procedures 
  GAEC 3 Protection of ground water against pollution: prohibition of direct discharge into groundwater and measures to prevent indirect pollution of groundwater through discharge on the ground and percolation through the soil of dangerous substances, as listed in the Annex to the Directive 80/68/EEC in its version in force on the last day of its validity, as far as it relates to agricultural activity
Soil and carbon stock GAEC 4 Minimum soil cover
  GAEC 5 Minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions to limit erosion
  GAEC 6 Maintenance of soil organic matter level through appropriate practices including ban on burning arable stubble, except for plant health reasons (2)
Landscape, minimum level of maintenance GAEC 7 Retention of landscape features, including where appropriate, hedges, ponds, ditches, trees in line, in group or isolated, field margins and terraces, and including a ban on cutting hedges and trees during the bird breeding and rearing season and, as an option, measures for avoiding invasive plant species

Notes (1) The Nitrates Directive 91/676/EEC does not include an obligation to establish buffer strips along water courses outside Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (see Art. 4 and Annexes II of the Directive). This was one of the reasons for introducing the GAEC standard 1. (2) The requirement can be limited to a general ban on burning arable stubble, but a Member State may decide to prescribe further requirements.
Source: Compiled using Regulation (EU) No 1306/2013, Annex II.

5. Pillar 1 greening payment requirements

From 2015, Member States must use 30 per cent of their national allocations for direct payments under Pillar 1 for ‘greening payments’, which are aimed at enhancing the environmental performance of the CAP by paying farmers for agricultural practices beneficial for the climate and the environment. The greening payments fall into three groups: crop diversification and Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) which both apply to arable land: and requirements for maintaining existing permanent grassland. There is some flexibility for Member States in defining the detailed requirements for all three elements, particularly EFAs, and choices for the farmers too (but they cannot opt out of the greening payment and requirements that apply to their land, unless they choose not to claim direct payments). However, there are some exemptions - organic farmers benefit from the greening payment ipso facto without having to demonstrate compliance with the requirements; and there is an exemption from greening requirements for all farmers participating in the Small Farmers Scheme.

Crop diversification

This greening requirement affects only farmers that have more than 10 ha of arable land. Farmers with up to 30 ha of arable land have to grow at least two different crops and those with more than 30 hectares of arable land have to grow at least three crops. In both cases the main crop must not cover more than 75% of the arable land. If they already meet these requirements no additional crops will be needed. The definition of ‘crops’ for this purpose includes fallow land and grass or forage crops. The main stated aim of the crop diversification requirement is the improvement of soil quality , but in practice the soil protection benefits will depend on which additional crops a farmer chooses from the list of permitted crops defined for their region, and where they decide to grow them.

Ecological Focus Areas

This greening requirement affects only farmers that have more than 15 ha of arable land, who must ensure that an area equivalent to 5% of their arable land is managed as Ecological Focus Area (EFA), as defined by their Member State. The CAP legislation lists 10 types of EFA from which Member States must select one or more to compile a national list, adding more detailed rules on each type of EFA (for example, on the type of crop or tree species and the use of fertilisers and pesticides) within limits defined in the CAP regulation . Farmers are free to decide how to meet their requirements using any of the EFA types on the national list, and can include eligible features that already exist on the farm if these are in the right place (many EFAs have to be on or adjacent to the arable land, as described in Box 1).

Box 1: Types of Ecological Focus Area (EFA) and weighting factors

The ten types of EFA defined in the CAP legislation are:

  • Land lying fallow;
  • Terraces;
  • Landscape features within or adjacent to the arable land, including hedges or wooded strips, isolated trees and trees in lines or groups, field margins, ponds, ditches and traditional stone walls
  • Buffer strips, including buffer strips covered by permanent grassland provided these are distinct from the adjacent eligible agricultural area;
  • Areas of agroforestry that were established with EAFRD support under the the 2007-13 or 2014-20 RDPs;
  • Strips of eligible hectares along forest edges;
  • Areas with short rotation coppice with no use of mineral fertilizer and/or plant protection products (these do not have to be located on the arable land of the farm);
  • Afforested areas that were established with EAFRD support under the 2000-2006, 2007-13 or 2014-20 RDPs and which are still eligible for direct payments (these do not have to be located on the arable land of the farm);
  • Areas with catch crops, or green cover established by the planting and germination of seeds;
  • Areas with nitrogen fixing crops.

The CAP legislation defines weighting factors for each type of EFA, which may affect the area needed under different practices to meet the 5% EFA requirement. For example, the weighting factor for groups of trees is 1.5, so a group covering 100m2 would count as 150m2 for the farmer’s EFA calculation. Catch crops or green cover are weighted by a factor of 0.3, so 1ha of a catch crop would count as just 0.3 ha of EFA. Member States must apply EFA weighting factors with a value <1, but can choose whether or not to apply the higher factors.

The stated aim of EFAs is to safeguard and improve biodiversity, although some types of EFA could improve soil cover, organic matter content and erosion protection, especially if new areas of EFA are created. In practice the soil benefits will depend on firstly on what Member States’ decide is to be considered as EFA and how it must be managed, and secondly on farmers’ choices of EFA type, location and management.

Maintaining existing permanent grassland

There are two different Pillar 1 greening requirements for the maintenance of existing permanent grassland , aimed particularly at protecting at soil carbon stores and sequestration potential, and also biodiversity benefits. Member States must:

  • ensure that the ratio of the area of permanent grassland to the total utilised agricultural area does not decline by more than 5% compared with a reference year. They can choose to apply this at national, regional or sub-regional level; and
  • designate environmentally sensitive permanent grassland (ESPG) in Natura 2000 areas , including ‘in peat and wetlands that are situated in these areas, and which need strict protection in order to meet the objectives of those Directives’. At farm level, ESPG designation prohibits converting or ploughing the grassland, thus protecting soil carbon stocks.

Member States can choose to designate additional ESPG areas elsewhere, offering them an opportunity to protect significant soil carbon stocks under permanent grassland outside Natura 2000 areas.

6. Pillar 2 Rural Development Programmes 2014-2020

Compared to direct payments under Pillar 1 of the CAP, the Rural Development Programmes under Pillar 2 offer far more flexibility to both Member State (or regional) authorities and land managers in how they design and implement RDP support. The EAFRD regulations provide a high degree of subsidiarity for Member States, who can choose from a list of 64 different sub-measures to design RDP schemes and operations tailored to meet local needs or priorities. Land managers, rural businesses and communities apply voluntarily for individual support schemes on offer through the RDP. The overall aim of CAP rural development policy is to promote sustainable rural development in a way that complements other EU funds and contributes to ‘the development of a more territorially and environmentally balanced, climate-friendly and resilient, competitive and innovative Union agricultural sector [and] also contributes to the development of rural territories’. RDPs cover the entirety of the EU and normally span a seven-year period, but in practice 2014 was a transitional year and most Member States began implementation of the 2014-2020 RDPs in 2015. There are 118 RDPs in total for this period (see Figure 11 ), reflecting Member States decisions on the scale at which they choose to implement Pillar 2.

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Figure 11

Member States and regions are required to base their RDPs on the needs of their territories and in doing so must addressing at least four of the following six common EU priorities:

  1. Fostering knowledge transfer and innovation in agriculture, forestry and rural areas.
  2. Enhancing the viability and competitiveness of all types of agriculture, and promoting innovative farm technologies and sustainable forest management.
  3. Promoting food chain organisation, animal welfare and risk management in agriculture;
  4. Restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems related to agriculture and forestry.
  5. Promoting resource efficiency and supporting the shift toward a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors.
  6. Promoting social inclusion, poverty reduction and economic development in rural areas.

Each of these EU priorities is broken down into several focus areas (18 in total) of which two are specifically relevant to soils:

  • focus area 4C: preventing soil erosion and improving soil management; and
  • focus area 5E: fostering carbon conservation and sequestration in agriculture and forestry.

At least 30 per cent of the EAFRD contribution to each RDP must be reserved for specific RDP measures relevant to the environment and climate action. Measures that can support soil protection and management include, for example: annual payments for environmental land management (both in agriculture and forests); investment support for afforestation and agroforestry on farmland; investment in soil-friendly field equipment; and ’soft’ measures including advice, training, information and innovation. All of these have the potential to address soil issues, but there is no obligation to do so, although during the process of approving an RDP the European Commission is likely to question the absence of soil relevant measures if the Member State has identified soil needs in the preliminary analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The RDP measures most relevant to soil protection are listed in Box 2, but only M10 for agri-environment-climate land management contracts must be used in every RDP, all the other measures are optional for Member States or regions to choose if they wish.

Box 2: RDP measures most relevant to supporting soil protection in agriculture

M1: Knowledge transfer and information actions Optional: can support vocational training, demonstration activities, Information provision, farm and forest management exchanges and visits.

M2: Advisory services, farm management and farm relief services Obligatory: this measure funds part of the cost of the CAP Farm Advisory System (FAS) which Member States must provide, covering the following: cross compliance; Pillar 1 greening requirements; RDP measures to improve economic performance; obligations under the Water Framework Directive; requirements for integrated pest management; farm safety; advice for first-time farmers. Optional: can support additional advisory services helping farmers, forest holders and other land managers to improve the economic and environmental performance as well as climate friendliness and resilience of their holding or enterprise; can also support training of advisors.

M4: Investments in physical assets Optional: can support tangible and intangible investments aimed at improved performance and sustainability of farms, processing and marketing, farm and forest infrastructure, energy and water supply/saving. Sub-measure 4.4 supports environmental investments linked to agri-environment-climate objectives, Natura 2000 protected habitats and species or other high nature value farming systems.

M5: restoring agricultural production potential damaged by natural disasters and introduction of appropriate prevention Optional: can support investments in preventive actions to reduce consequences of probable natural disasters and adverse climatic events as well as investments to restore agricultural land damaged by such disasters and events.

M6: Farm and business and development Optional: investment support and other payments aimed at young farmers, small farms and setting up non-agricultural businesses.

M7: Basic services and village renewal Optional: a wide range of support including investment in small-scale renewable energy, increasing environmental performance and awareness, drawing up protection and management plans for Natura 2000 and other high nature of value areas, and studies/investments associated with upgrading rural landscape.

M8: Investment in the forest area development and improvement of the viability of forests Optional: support for wide range of investments for inter alia: afforestation and creation of woodland; establishing new agroforestry systems; prevention and restoration of damage to forests from fires, natural disasters and climate related threats; and improving the resilience, environmental value and mitigation potential of forest ecosystems.

M10: Agri-environment-climate Compulsory; this is the only measure that must be made available throughout the Member State’s or region's territory, in accordance with national, regional or local specific needs and priorities. It offers farmers and other land managers multi-annual contracts for agricultural practices that make a positive contribution to the environment and climate. The baseline above which payments are calculated includes CAP cross-compliance requirements, and there are strict rules to avoid double funding of actions that are Pillar 1 greening options, such as EFA buffer strips, areas with catch crops or green cover.

M11: Organic Farming Optional: offers annual payments through multi-annual contracts for conversion to and/or maintenance of organic farming practices and methods.

M12: Natura 2000 and Water Framework Directive payments Optional: basic compensatory payments applying to an area where there are restrictions on land management related to farm-level requirements under the Water Framework Directive river basin management plans or under Natura 2000 designations on agricultural and forest areas.

M13: Areas facing Natural Constraints (ANC) payments Optional: basic payments for farmers in mountain areas and in other areas where there are natural constraints on agricultural production.

M15: Forest-environment-climate Optional: similar to M10, offers multi-annual land management contracts to improve environmental and climate management of forests and other wooded land. Only commitments going beyond mandatory requirements established by national law are eligible for support. Moreover, for forest holdings above a certain size (to be defined by the Member State/region), support is conditional upon the presence of a forest management plan or equivalent instrument in line with sustainable forest management as defined by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe of 1993.

M16: Cooperation Optional: support for a wide range of cooperative activities by different actors and sectors, new clusters and networks; supports the establishment of operational groups linked to the work of the European Innovation Partnership for agricultural productivity and sustainability (EIP-Agri).  

In addition, each RDP must identify the indicative target uptake area for environmental land management contracts on agricultural and forest land, which will contribute to the objectives of improving soil management and/or preventing erosion, and contributing to carbon sequestration and conservation. The indicative targets for the whole 2014-20 period, as documented in the 2015 RDPs, are shown in Figure 12 and Figure 13 It should be noted that Figure 12 indicative targets for carbon conservation and sequestration cover both agricultural and forest land, and that (although not shown in the chart) 15% of the programmed total RDP public expenditure on this focus area is for the agri-environment-climate measure which applies only to farmed land, while 72% is allocated to forest investment.

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Figure 12
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Figure 13

The extent to which an individual RDP provides real soil benefits will depend not just on the choice of focus areas, measures and allocation of budgets, but also on the extent to which the chosen measures and sub measures are specifically designed and targeted to address identified threats and priorities, and the degree to which the indicative target uptake is achieved. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the other two instruments considered here – GAEC cross-compliance and greening payments – which provide a more limited level of subsidiarity for Member States.

The way in which Member States and regions have used the available options under both Pillars of the CAP in relation to soil protection is discussed in »Implementing the Common Agricultural Policy.

7. How will the next reform of the CAP support soil management?

Policy makers are already considering what changes may be required to the CAP for the next period 2021-27. This reform will take place in the context of budget constraints, but also the need to address sustainable development goals and the Paris climate accord which are both relevant to soils. It is likely that the overall CAP budget will be reduced for 2017-27, possibly putting further pressure on Pillar 2 funding if Member States choose to use the flexibility to transfer funding between Pillars to maintain direct support payments in agriculture.

Responses to a recent public consultation on the future of the CAP showed environment to be a key issue. Agricultural soils will continue to need protection, both as a resource to support food production as well as a means of sequestering carbon, protecting water resources and providing a range of other ecosystem services. Although there are no specific soil targets in EU legislation, considerable progress is being made in recording and mapping data on EU soils. Member States have varying priorities but also share many challenges, including meeting their obligations under EU climate mitigation, water quality and biodiversity targets, to which sustainable soil management can make an important contribution. The climate dimension of all environmental measures could be strengthened and interactions with soil management objectives may increase in importance.

The greening measures have just been evaluated for the European Commission and also reviewed by the European Court of Auditors . Both reports concluded that greening as currently implemented delivers limited environmental benefits. It is possible that the CAP greening requirements may be amended or “simplified” in CAP legislative proposals expected in 2018.


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see


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