Last week’s news

It’s quite difficult to get past the headlines to understand the details of the EU budget agreement.  Yes the budget has been capped thanks to some good negotiation by plucky David Cameron but what does that mean – particularly for the environment?

I bought the FT, Independent and Guardian on Saturday and found them no help at all in telling me what were the consequences of the budget agreement for how money will actually be spent and what the consequences of that spend will be.  There was mention of CAP reform – but no meat on the bones.  In fact the papers were far more interested in talking about the horse meat off the bones and in some lasagne.

It’s worth visiting the EU website to try to gain a bit more understanding of what happened (the bit about CAP starts in para 61).

Of course it’s quite witty that the section is entitled ‘Sustainable Growth: Natural Resources’ rather than ‘Knackering the countryside through unsustainable policies’ but it’s always good when policy makers demonstrate a sense of humour.

Para 64 seems to say that Pillar 1 payments will be reduced overall but increased in those members states with low payments – an equalisation process.  Is that what it says – I always did need some help understanding these things but I used to have a bunch of clever staff to help me?  However, anything along those lines seems like the right sort of thing in an age of austerity.  I’d be worried though about the increases of payments in some countries, presumably often eastern European countries – and their effects on wildlife.

Para 65 says that capping of Pillar 1 payments will be voluntary – so it won’t happen much and won’t happen in the UK.  Can you imagine Richard Benyon wanting to cap his own CAP payments, or the NT, or the RSPB?  Personally, I can see no reason why income support should go to people and organisations who don’t need it so I regard this as wimping out.  A chance for further savings and a more progressive system has been lost.  And a chance to increase the influence of Pillar 2 compared with Pillar 1 has been missed too.

Para 67 leads to greening of Pillar 1 – conditions being attached to Pillar 1 payments.  This can’t really be bad – but we’ll have to see if it is any good.

Paras 68 and 69 say that Member States can switch money between Pillars 1 and 2: in my view this should be a one way street with money being transferred from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 but para 69 allows the opposite to occur.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t.

Para 72  looks interesting. It says a few states will get extra money and then lists a large number of Member States which doesn’t include the UK.  I’m not sure what this is all about.

My reading of this is that implementation is everything and this is neither great news nor a disaster.  But I may be wrong.  What did others say about it – that always gives us a few clues?

CLA President Harry Cotterell said: “Obviously, we need to have the details of the deal confirmed, but it does appear to pave the way for a fair deal for farmers. However, we would work with Defra to discourage the use of the flexibility allowed under this agreement to shift money away from supporting farmers or towards imposing stricter regulations.”

“The provisional deal, which could still be vetoed by the European Parliament, has taken on board a number of key issues on which the Association has been lobbying. We are pleased the European Council appears to have recognised the impact needless regulation can have on farm businesses. 

“The CLA particularly welcomes the statements that participation in agri-environment schemes should be treated as at least equivalent in doing good for the environment as the Commission’s own specific greening proposals and that the implementation of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) would not require land to be taken out of production.” 

“It is also good that capping of payments has been made voluntary, particularly since the UK Government’s position is not to cap.”

“In our view, this was not really about the total amount of money spent on the CAP. The CLA has always accepted that in the present climate agriculture has to take its share of cuts like every other sector.

“The key issue was to safeguard the competitiveness of UK farming. We cannot have a situation in which mainland European farmers have the benefit of significantly greater levels of support than their equivalents in the UK, or are subject to less onerous environmental standards.” 

That’s quite sensible comment.

The NFU don’t appear to have a view on the outcome – they are too busy commenting on the culinary delights of dobbin.

Defra also don’t seem to have noticed that the CAP has changed at all.  How pathetically incompetent of Defra that they don’t have any account of major changes in international policy affecting 70% of the UK (and English) countryside on their website;s home page.  What a hopeless shower they are!

The RSPB’s Martin Harper described the deal as regressive.  Commenting on the budget outcome, he said: “Wildlife across Europe will pay a heavy price for this terribly regressive deal, and we’re bound to see further declines in some species whose numbers have crashed. Since the 1980s Europe has lost 300 million farmland birds, how many more will we lose over the next seven years?”

The RSPB said that the deal struck on Friday cuts the amount of money available for conservation by just over 11 billion Euros. Worse still it allows all member states to raid what little is left in conservation coffers and siphon it off into untargeted subsidies.

Martin Harper added: “This is a bad deal for Europe’s wildlife, providing flexibility for a race to the bottom. But there is hope for the UK, a country which has led the way in investing in wildlife-friendly farming.

“The Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, and his counterparts in the devolved administrations, now need to take the necessary decisions to make good on their environmental promises. This is nothing less than those 30,000 RSPB supporters who contacted David Cameron this week would expect.

“This means using the flexibility to shift as much funding as possible from direct payments into Rural Development, the bit of the CAP that can really drive more sustainable farming.”

The Wildlife Trusts commented in similar vein:

The nature of the countryside could start to change significantly for the worse, following budget cuts agreed by EU leaders in Brussels today.

The future of many of the treasured elements of our agricultural landscapes are now at risk because European funding for conserving our countryside has been cut by more than 11% over the next seven years. 

From 2014, this could mean significant cuts to the £400 million spent annually in England on maintaining hedgerows, wildflower meadows, wetlands and other important natural habitats.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes, The Wildlife Trusts, explains:

“This funding is critical to the management of some of our most precious and valuable wildlife-rich places as well as for nature-friendly farming in the wider countryside.  At a time when communities, governments and businesses are increasingly recognising the value of nature, this decision threatens to undo 25 years of investment in our natural heritage and so undermine nature’s recovery. 

 “Despite the EU budget cuts announced today, we are calling on the Government to maintain or increase the funding available to support nature-friendly farming. They must not allow money to be shifted into direct payments that create little or no public benefit.

The Wildlife Trusts will continue to press Government to stick to its task – as set out in the Natural Environment White Paper – to leave the natural environment in a better state than it was when the Government inherited it. Without sufficient resources it will fail. The public will be justified in demanding to know why the Government has traded away their natural environment on this day in Brussels.          

 The EU budget for Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which supports nature-friendly farming, will be €84.96 billion for the period 2014-2020, a reduction of around €11 billion from the EU budget period 2007-13.

I can’t really find much other comment at all.  It’s a bit odd that a policy area that spends around a third of the EU budget, and whose spending affect 70% of our country’s land surface, doesn’t get any proper analysis by the media.  Instead we are regaled by tales of horse meat.

In some ways this is right – after all, there is more than enough money to make a huge difference to the EU, UK and English countryside already: if only it were properly spent.  If Defra would fix ELS so that it delivers good value for money we could see a regeneration in countryside wildlife and still have change left from agri-environment schemes.  Clearly spending more money on a policy mechanism that is not delivering in its current form would only be supported by policy geeks of the highest order.

There is a danger that the NGOs have become dazzled by the huge attractiveness of the politics and have neglected to put in sufficient grunt work to make the existing system deliver to the maximum. Let us hope that this is not so and that efforts will be redoubled to get good value from the existing sums of money available to regenerate the ecological value of the countryside.

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30 Comments

  1. Joe W

    An interesting analysis of a hugely important issue that needs resolving sooner rather than later, however I suspect that it suits the present administration to draw out things out.
    The transitional arrangements are certainly worthy of comment. Defra has reassured farmers that the current SPS payment regime will remain as it is until 2015, as will ELS. Understandably the farming industry is quite pleased about this and who can blame them ?
    So what about HLS, the agri-environment scheme that is proven to deliver the goods for the environment whilst offering the tax-payer good value for money? It appears that this scheme will close on December 1st 2013 and will reopen at some point (and in some form) at some point in 2015. In other words it will remain closed for at least a year, possibly longer.

    This is a disastrous situation for those farms whose CSS/ESA agreements expire in 2014 and wish to reapply. Many of these businesses will be small, extensively managed, upland farms that are highly dependent on CSS/ESA income to support their farming systems. How has this been allowed to happen ?

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    • Mark

      Joe W - thank you. I wasn't aware of that and agree with you that that is a truly bad way forward. HLS is the one bit of this whole set-up that delivers good value to wildlife and the taxpayer (and is popular amongst farmers too).

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      • DVEA

        The ELS scheme will close at the end of 2013 too if the British doesn't decide to fund it out of it's own budget. And they haven't committed to that yet! We live in interesting times as the saying goes

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  2. John Miles

    There was a time when charities just spent the money they had. Now it seems they rely on government pay outs from things like HLS. Sure employment by the charities has risen but this leaves them vulnerable to change. How would they react if this money is cut? Is it the wildlife suffering or the charities themselves? My feeling when working for a charity was it would be great to be made redundant. Job well done! But that never seems to be the case especially when talking about Birds of Prey.

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  3. Julian

    As recently as last year HLS was under pressure. We come out of an ESA agreement this year on quite an important area of water meadows and at our meeting with NE we were categorically told that we would not qualify for HLS on this area and that we were basically on our own.

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    • Mark

      Julian - that's very sad. In my last year at the RSPB we fought very hard to protect HLS funding in the first year of the coalition government because it does such a good job.

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  4. Roderick Leslie

    Mark, you obviously missed the point I picked up a few weeks ago - in amongst his demand for EU budget cuts David Cameron's one and only comment on CAP was that he would NOT support capping payments (ie limiting the maximum paid to any one owner). Speaks volumes, doesn't it ?

    The disaster around a suspended HLS will be far greater than simply some farmers losing some payments (which is bad enough, as they are the farmers who are the spearhead of environmental farming): it will destroy confidence in the future at just the point more farmers are thinking about easing back, not trying to compete to maximise production and to farm the environment as well as crops.

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    • Mark

      Roderick - the UK has more or less always been against capping payments, I think. I can't really understand why - except that the fact that there is no strong lobby for capping doesn't help.

      Quite right about HLS.

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  5. Just a strictly personal point of view, but I was counting how many people are saying this is a bad deal, yet some in a previous post were pretty much in favour of a withdrawl from the EU if it was put to a refrendum in 2017! Yet these are THE points that have to be discussed when/if a refrendum comes along in 2017 and not immigration issues and "straight" bannas etc
    Also Mark I wonder if the papers didn't cover the story in any great detail (the tories were also alot quiter then I would've expected too) as you've mentioned as the European Parliament has yet to vote on this deal, and there is strong rumours that it could very likely be vetoed and we start all over again. It seems from your summarisation that farmers still get a big hand out at the expense of wildlife.

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  6. Dennis Ames

    Think you did a great job in explaining a lot of what is going to be done,Telegraph seems to say a cut of Pillar 2 of 11%.
    Of course there is no law against any of the general public instead of lots of moaning giving donations to the wildlife organisations and them giving it to farmers for wildlife improvements.They can then say he who pays the piper calls the tune.Wouldn't it be interesting to see if they are as clever as they think they are.
    Does for instance in a situation where money came in the RSPB splash the cash on foreign projects or on our own farmland bird improvement,I for one one like to see the response on that problem from RSPB without a lot of waffle.
    As I see it there is no reason that the RSPB if it can have a campaigns for lots of money to purchase land for reserves cannot have a campaign for farmland birds and give farmers money with strict controls to improve farmland bird numbers.Surely all the clever people there could organise something so simple(they always suggest things to do in that respect are really simple,such as Skylark patches).They could in that situation make Skylark patches compulsory.

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    • Joe W

      "Of course there is no law against any of the general public instead of lots of moaning giving donations to the wildlife organisations and them giving it to farmers for wildlife improvements"

      We already do Dennis, to the tune of around £400 million each year. The trouble is the scheme that spends most of this money isn't working very well, whilst the one that does work has had its budget cut back considerably and will be closed for at least a year.

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  7. Julian

    Mark, going back to this ESA funding versus HLS in our case NE's argument revolved around one of value. They strongly felt that HLS funding would be better targeted on arable land where there was a better cost benefit ratio. To an extent I feel they had a point in that some ESA areas ( certainly ours ) does qualify for SPS funding which it didn't under IACS when the CSA,s came into being. Our thinking on this, which I hope will be mirrored by others, is that our management of the ESA is unlikely to change however it may tip the balance in favour of includeing it in any future ELS agreement.

    Unfortunately reality in terms of budget cuts has to be accepted. It's just not a sustainable argument to insist on P2 increases given the overall picture

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    • MK

      Julian - isn't it? Surely it's relevant and all the more important to divert the remaining public funds to those areas that give greatest public benefit? Surely the age of austerity makes this an *especially* strong argument?

      Given that our PM's brave position and the result of the negotiation is that Member States won't be capping the overall level of payments, I'm not sure there's much of a budget cut anyway is there?!

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  8. MK

    It is funny isn't it how the 'meejah' love hyperventilating coverage of a scandal and most rarely scratch the surface of the real stories? Now the Pope has resigned the finer points of how crap most of the CAP is for the countryside could be lost forever ...

    Thankfully we have MEPs as well as MPs as our democratic representatives to write to. I must find out who mine is. The EP seems to have done a fine job of being a Parliament recently with the Common Fisheries Policy, despite intense pressure to do the wrong thing, so maybe they can vote down the environmentally nastiest bits of this latest budget if we ask them to?

    And I refuse to get excited about horsemeat - given that our overindustrialised food production has become so completely unsustainable. Why should poor traceability and dubious animal welfare come as a surprise? Along with gargantuan consumption of fossil fuels in transport, storage and single use packaging whilst anything cheeky enough to describe itself as organic, freerange or in some small way sustainably produced attracts a premium price. On the occasions when I have eaten a meal that goes ping (too many I confess) I far feel more sinning than sinned against; my lasagne and I, like a certain ex couple who've recently been in the news, probably deserved each other, whatever was actually in it.

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  9. Dennis Ames

    Joe W,think you mean the scheme that means you and everyone else instead of spending 34% of your income on food 50 years ago now spend 17% of your income on food,think that is working brilliantly.What is not working well is that the taxes that 96% of population who do not care about conservation pay goes to things for the pleasure of the 4% who think conservation important.That is clearly unfair.

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    • Mark

      Dennis - you have never explained to us how paying money to the Duke of Westminster or the RSPB for owning farmland to the tune of 1.5 billion pounds per annum makes our food cheaper. Do tell please?

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    • Joe W

      Sorry Denis but this is nonsense.

      Nowhere in my comments have I claimed that the current system of payment support is "working brilliantly".

      If you think the current payment system delivers cheap food then you are very much detached from the reality of modern food production and externalities associated with 'cheap food'. I would argue that the present system results in Joe Public often paying three times for some of the food that they buy. Firstly through taxes, secondly at the till and frequently for a third time to ameliorate the damage caused to the environment by certain farming practices that the system encourages.

      So no, it is not working brilliantly, far from it! So I hope you will forgive my frustration when the scheme with the smallest budget, that is proven to offer Joe Public the best value for money is allowed to stall whilst the more expensive and less efficient scheme continues unabated for another couple of years. That is what I call unfair and actually rather stupid.

      I am probably one of the few people readers of this blog that would be in favour of paying farmers more money than we currently do. Farming is an incredibly demanding industry and there is not a day that goes by when I fail to be impressed by the work ethic of the British farming industry. I think that they should receive public support but it is how the money is spent that is the key, if spent wisely it could save us all a lot of money in the long-term and well as enhancing the environment we all live in.

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  10. Filbert Cobb

    "excited about horsemeat"

    I'm rather relieved to hear that waste horses are being eaten rather than landfilled. Think what their carbon hoofprint might be, otherwise. No doubt the price of equiburgers will come down soon - supplies may ease by the Ides of March.

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    • Bob Philpott

      'No doubt the price of equiburgers will come down soon'. Bound to reach equilibrium by the flat season.

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      • Filbert Cobb

        Tesco has "Rooster" potatoes on sale. Where will it all end?

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        • Joe W

          The furore probably won't last furlong.

          For years the NHS has been advising people to watch what they eat. I never realised that this meant Channel 4 racing.

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  11. Roderick Leslie

    Dennis, Sorry, it is not working brilliantly - and its about far more than conservation. Intensification is undermining the basic biological productivity of our environment and farmland and our obsession with cheap food is also destroying its quality.

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  12. Circus maximus

    I'd really like to see a proper evaluation of the success of these "support" schemes. Do they really deliver the best value for our wildlife? The reports I see are always from "best practice" demonstrations sites......95% (ish) dont get the same level of commitment from the farmer and probably deliver a fraction of the potential. In my experience, money is often committed to unsuitable management option...
    Yes they do help, but could the money be better targeted?

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  13. Jenna Hegarty

    Hi Mark,

    Just a comment re the CLA's 'sensible' statement - I'm afraid it isn’t'. In a nutshell, they are arguing strongly against any money moving from Pillar 1 into Pillar 2 because it would harm UK farmers competiveness - this is a nonsense because Pillar 2 is much more able to support farmers to become more flexible, responsive to the market and of course, through agri-environment, adopt more sustainable land management approaches. Given that we currently spend far too little on the environment in the UK (even with our current use of modulation) we will still need to boost Pillar 2 coffers next time round. CLA (and NFU) resistance to this will not only risk environmental delivery here, it will undermine efforts to reduce UK farmers’ current dependence on direct payments.

    And as for the proposals (which CLA supports) that 'Ecological Focus Areas' must never take land out of production - well this just renders it meaningless - the whole point of EFAs is to ensure every farm does a little bit for the environment in return for their direct payments. I have a terrible fear that given enough time, our farming lobbies will go so far as to argue that agri-environment scheme options should also not take land out of production - wave goodbye to skylark plots, flower rich margins, i.e. the good stuff that delivers.

    This kind of argument must be challenged - we need to improve the environmental performance of farming and one clear way we can do this is to attach conditions to CAP money. After all, this is not forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to but rather requiring them to deliver something in return for their payments - not unreasonable is it?

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    • Mark

      Jenna - hi! and thanks for your comment. When Owen Patersen has stopped dealing with the 'delicious meat found in lasagne' shock he may get around to telling the UK taxpayers, whose money goes to farmers, what he thinks the implications are for the UK countryside.

      The CLA commentary clearly is not perfect, for the reasons you say, but nor is it completely bonkers.

      Skylarks (and all other farmland wildlife) could be very much commoner if domestic implementation of a-e schemes were up to scratch.

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  14. Dennis Ames

    Mark,of course you just mention 2 but there are actually thousands of small farmers and we both know that if they did not get Pillar 1 then law of supply and demand would mean food would go up because some of these small farms on income support would go out and others would go over to extensive probably sheep farming and food price inevitably go up.
    Mark,Joe W and Roderick Leslie.----you all conveniently slyly have a go at farmers and the system that they HAVE NO CONTROL OVER.You really need to address the other part by (a)explain how you do not get cheap food from the current system when you all only spend half as much of your income on food as you would have done 50 years ago,come on the it is obvious in this case without doubt my interpretation has logic whereas yours has no logic.(b)explain how it is fair for the 96% of tax payers who do not give a toss about conservation should pay taxes so that 4% of conservationists get pleasure.This is so obviously unfair and that 4% has to be prepared to pay for their own pleasure.
    Out of everything in your comments you conveniently did not give any answers to those points.

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    • Dennis I'm not sure on a couple of your points you've made. Firstly (I've said it before and have to say it again), I'm not sure about "cheap" food, as it seems from my wallets point of view I'm spending more and more on food and actually eating less, I can't compare to what it was like 50 years ago, but I know compared to this time last year I'm spending more on wheat based products like bread etc and more on milk. More on pork and chicken too, It has nowt to do with greed in my case, as I know for a fact I'm only eating one meal a day, THINGS ARE THAT TOUGH FOR LOW INCOME PEOPLE like myself. The recent food scare had me scratching my head as to what's left to eat for someone like myself, I know some will say processed food is bad (it is) but if I was to make lets say a lasagne from fresh (which I can do) by the time I brought the sauce,the pasta leafs, the mince it's already cost me an extra £4.75 then I have to factor in 30 minutes in the oven and the current gas rates compared to 8 minutes in a microwave all these factors/extras count when on a low income regardless how small an amount.
      I'm also not sure where you get the figure for 4% of conservationists. I for one wouldn't be in that 4% but do care about the envrioment and conserving habitats and species found within that habitat, but in my opinion that doesn't make me a conservationist, so if I was asked or had to tick a box I wouldn't be ticking the conservationist box, and I'm guessing there's plenty more like me, who wouldn't count themselves as a conservationist but do care, so 4% seems a bit low. But also if an enviromentallist manages to stop the destruction of the rainforest and whilst doing so enjoys the nature around them, do they do it for simply their pleasure or is it for the benefit of the whole planet? Or someone campaigns to stop the building of new homes on a flood plain, are they doing it for their own pleasure or to prevent wider flooding within an area, Also I think the 4% you mention that should pay for their own pleasure do already pay, how many of that 4% will be members of the RSPB, local wildlife trusts etc.

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  15. Jamie McMillan

    Mark, I thought I understood this till I read your blog post. Correct me if I'm wrong, folks but my take on it is as follows:
    - the EU has agreed to cut CAP payments.
    - instead of deciding which to cut, they have left it up to the individual countries mostly.
    - this has delighted the industrial farming lobby, agrochemical and food companies, grain barons and owners of large farms and estates who do very nicely thank you out of production subsidies, but much less well out of labour-intensive environmental schemes.
    - because the individual countries are much easier to lobby and put pressure on than the EU as a whole, which has a healthy proportion of Green/Environmentally aware MEPs.
    - so given a choice between cutting environmental and production subsidies, individual countries are far more likely to cut environmental ones, given the relative strength of the two lobbies.

    But these lobbies have to get going, as the CLA already have by the sound of it. For 'maintaining farming competitiveness' read 'keep production subsidies and cut environmental ones'. Expect the NFU to weigh in on similar lines, and Owen Paterson, who sits fairly and squarely within the intensive farming/large landowner lobby.

    And of course CLA (and the Conservatives) would be against capping of individual payments, which would limit the payments to large estates and wealthy landowners, and leave more for the small-scale and subsistence farmer. But I can see the problem of this last point for conservation if RSPB, NT and The Wildlife Trusts each count as just one payment! Anyone know the answer to this one?

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  16. Richard Lockett

    Here's a link to a useful analysis of the CAP / Budget deal. Not very good news from a wildlife / environment point of view.

    http://capreform.eu/what-the-proposed-mff-has-for-agriculture/

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  17. Dennis Ames

    Mark,I am convinced that you just go against this Pillar 1 gives cheap food theory just to get discussion and good luck to you.
    Another way of explaining it would be that if as a self employed conservationist you received a grant you would certainly without doubt charge less for each of your services.
    Of course you also know no one dislikes these wealthy land owners gaining from the arrangement but nothing I can do about it unfortunately.

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