‘Reference years must be changed to reflect current production levels’ – Doyle

Modernising the Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP’s) reference year payment model will be a “key priority” for Fine Gael MEP candidate, Andrew Doyle, if he’s successful in his bid for Brussels.

The current Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture – who is running in the Ireland-South constituency – says “there is no doubt” that current reference years “need to be moved on”.

As it stands, direct payments are distributed per farm according to its so-called  “historic production levels” in the reference years of 2000, 2001 and 2002.

If elected, this will be a red-line issue for the Wicklow native under CAP reform post-2020.

Speaking to AgriLand, the minister said: “We need to look at reference years that are much more in line with current outputs.

“If you look at the old system and the existing system, we had people that had highly productive sheep and heifer production systems who didn’t draw down the same as somebody who is doing steers and slaughtering.

“Or we also had farmers doing arable who may be every bit as productive and efficient, but they aren’t being rewarded in terms of the payment.

We need to make sure that everyone is treated as an equal from the reference years that we start from – and then we can work from there.

“The reference years need to be moved completely forward to represent current production systems,” he said.

Convergence conundrum

Last month, the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee approved a batch of CAP reform proposals which gave the green light to a number of recommendations – including internal convergence aiming for 75% by 2024 and 100% by 2027.

Internal convergence is the level of the re-balancing of the direct payment to farmers within member states.

The European Commission has stated that the convergence of direct payments is key to ensuring “fairer and better targeted” direct payments among farmers.

While Doyle appears unopposed to greater convergence, he says “rewarding productivity” should form the basis of the EU farm subsidies.

“We should only support productivity; that’s important. Whether it’s a young farmer that is trying to enter, that person should be given the opportunity to avail of the supports under the CAP.

“It needs to be very targeted so that people that don’t use it, lose it. Then it should go back into a reserve in order to support ongoing new entrants of young, trained, qualified farmers that have a business acumen.

The notion of moving towards convergence is fine, that’s to create equality, but you have to have equality of output.

“That’s not to couple payments – I think coupling is probably risky because it leads to just growing numbers as opposed to productivity in the best environmental interests.

“But just flatline convergence for the sake of doing it, is something that we need to be weary of.

“We could end up taking money from quite highly efficient production systems – and very efficient in terms of the environment – to just rewarding someone who hasn’t been doing anything, so we have to be careful,” said Doyle.

‘Forestry fruits’

Having served as junior minister for agriculture, with responsibility for forestry, Doyle believes his knowledge and understanding of the sector will “ensure the Irish farmer’s voice is heard” in parliament – particular when it comes to tackling climate change and agricultural emissions.

“As somebody who has been involved in preparing a report of land-use optimisation during the last Dáil, and realising that land can be part of the solution, I understand the importance of defending farming systems – particularly against a lot of populism that is out there,” he said.

In terms of tackling Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions at EU level, the suckler farmer insists that forestry can play a “pivotal role”.

“Ireland’s current afforestation level is 11%, while the EU average is in excess of 30%.

“Some countries in northern Europe have 70% plus in lowly populated areas, so there is loads of potential there within our land bases to actually up our forestry level.

We have the natural attributes and environment to develop a really significant bio-economy and replace fossil-based fuels.

“Forestry will play a key part in that and I think there are huge possibilities in terms of the CAP, our own afforestation programme, and in terms of the output increase in dairying in particular.

“There will be a requirement to have some carbon abatement measures in place and forestry, in many ways, is the low-hanging fruit for that,” he said.