2024 Research lessons to inform future CAP reform event summary

Wednesday, Feb 14, 2024

Welcome and keynote address

Policy design in challenging times – the role of analytical tools in the CAP policy debate

How can scientific evidence improve the CAP so that it better addresses the environment? With this pressing question, Gabriele Sacchettini, of the RISE Foundation, set the scene for the day’s discussion.

The context for the debate came in the keynote address from Tassos Haniotis, Special Advisor for Sustainable Productivity at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture. He was frank: current debates about agriculture, the Green Deal, food security and climate change are extremely polarised. This polarisation is fuelling frustration, one of the flagship policies of the Green Deal has been abandoned, and every reference to agriculture is now negative. “We have reached a level where debate is so polarised it is going to be a dark day whether we change something, or we don’t change anything,” he stated. We have to put the debates back on track, to see what has to be done – but how do we reach this turning point?

One fundamental need is to revisit assumptions made and targets set in the past and produce a credible baseline. Another need is to discuss data – which would be one of the recurring topics of the day – data use, data privacy, accessibility, the overwhelming amount of data available, but also the lack of data. The agricultural world badly needs to prioritise the data that is useful, he said: with so much available, people do not know which to use. Food chain data is opaque and does not adequately explain price ups and downs. Collection of data has problems: environmental data is lacking, and is not harmonised. The use of data also has issues – for example, biophysical models need to take account of the economy, and economic models need to take account of the environment.

And what story are we telling with data? For Mr Haniotis, the narrative should be about productivity, but he has seen a negative reaction to the word. “There is huge potential to increase productivity sustainably… to reduce the cost of producing and to do it by improving the environment. This is where meetings like this one are important. There are examples out there…to demonstrate that this is feasible. Where we have failed badly is in communicating these examples and therefore the debate has been based on evidence instead of an exchange of slogans.”

The examples of what is feasible came next with presentations of the three projects in the Horizon AGRIMODELS cluster, BESTMAP, MIND STEP and AGRICORE. Each project was described in terms of goals, methodology and outcomes, and policy recommendations were discussed later in the session.

Behavioural, ecological and socio-economic tools for modelling agricultural policy – the BESTMAP project

Tomáš Václavík of Palacký University Olomouc, outlined the goal: develop a modelling framework to show how well agri-environmental schemes and policies have been adopted by farmers, and the impact on the landscape. The project used a mixed method approach combining interviews with farmers and data, developing models, and building five case studies. One big challenge was harmonising data. “Agri-environmental scheme” means different things in different countries, some countries have many schemes, some only a few, and there were other issues around data as mentioned by Mr Haniotis.

BESTMAP was a step-change, though, compared to traditional models which have ignored the complexity of farmers’ decision making. “We tried to wear the farmer’s hat and disentangle the motivation, the rationale that drives their decisions, and how their decisions affect the farmland,” Mr Václavík explained.

The project was structured to allow the team to look at different categories of farms and how they adopt agri-environmental schemes, and the adoption rate of various types of schemes. The outcome was a complex picture, but the researchers were able to draw a general conclusion: “Large farms, especially the ones focusing on general cropping and grazing livestock, are more likely to adopt agri-environmental practices than small farms. And they adopt a much wide range.” There was an important lesson about farmers’ motivation – it is mainly economic, and environmental concerns are secondary. And what of the effect of such schemes on biodiversity and ecosystems? They do have an impact – but it is quite marginal, Mr Václavík concluded, often due to bureaucracy and inflexible, longer-term contracts.

Modelling agricultural individual decision making – the MIND STEP Model Toolbox

The second project, MIND STEP, had a broader objective when compared to BESTMAP, said John Helming, Senior Researcher at Wageningen Economic Research. The goal was to improve decision-making models, resulting in the MIND STEP toolbox – a set of tools that allows for better representation of the diversity of farms heterogeneity in modelling , interaction between farms, improved interfaces between data, and models at different scales. The objectives were also to improve transparency of methods, sustainability, sustainable software development, model evaluation and policy evaluation.

The project was organised around different case studies, either focusing on different themes like agri-environmental schemes, greenhouse gas emissions, risk management and so on, or improving existing models. “My ultimate goal would be to improve consistency between the models at different scales,” Mr Helming said. “What would the results from large-scale models mean for the individual farmer? This should help to improve policy design and also to improve prediction of policy impacts.”

One of the most important elements was the question of integrating and connecting data, and particularly trying to integrate biophysical data with economic data, as Mr Haniotis has mentioned. MIND STEP resulted in new data being generated – for example, socio-psychological factors that drive farmers’ intentions and adoption – which could then be connected in to models.

The project included two benchmark scenarios, one on climate mitigation taxation scenarios, and another on the reduction of natural fertiliser use, which led to positive feedback from policy stakeholders, along with many questions about implementation and feasibility.

AGRICORE, an agent-based support tool for the development of agricultural policies

As the third project in the cluster, AGRICORE complements the others by adopting an agent-based approach (ABM ) where each farm is modelled as an autonomous decision-maker which individually assesses its own context and makes decisions based on its current situation and expectations. Lisa Baldi, of the University of Parma, highlighted the synergies, saying “We provide a tool where all of the information [from BESTMAP and MIND STEP] can eventually be reused and collected”.

She showcased the project’s innovative modelling architecture and introduced one component platform, the Agricultural Research Data Index Tool (ARDIT), a powerful resource for identifying data sources.

The core of the project, though, is the development of a new generation of ABM tool, using advanced computational science and ICT. With this, agents – individual farm holders or farms – can trigger individual scenarios and use the results to make decisions for the long term. “The long-term objectives that the farmers have set are used as a boundary for a decision in the short term, the yearly basis,” Ms Baldi explained. The project, run by a consortium of 10 diverse partners, is due to conclude in May 2024.

From regional case studies to European policy recommendations

Now with an overview of the three projects that had gathered data and built models, the audience were asked to turn their attention to the next step. How to upscale from the BESTMAP case studies to a wider area of Europe – and how to use the project’s findings to inform policy recommendations?

Presenting the session, James Bullock, from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, explained that the starting point is to understand how similar other parts of Europe are to the case study regions. This is done using data and a “distance metric”, a statistical measure of how different the other regions’ characteristics are. The second step is to understand how the models can be transferred to other regions using meta models. “This gives us a way of knowing where we can transfer our models to,” said Mr Bullock.

Turning to European policy recommendations, or as he put it “policy thoughts”, he asked: “Why do we think agri-environmental schemes are currently insufficient to support biodiversity and ecosystem services in Europe?”

Some of the reasons he gave:
1. Farmers don’t take up schemes because of too much bureaucratic effort in reporting; a lack of advice or confusing advice; lack of flexibility; and not enough financial incentive.
2. When they do take up agri-environmental schemes, they do not tend to place them where it is best for biodiversity or ecosystem services, but where they have less impact on productivity or the most economic benefit.
3. Some schemes have significant positive effects, but others are inconsistent.
4. A lack of monitoring and data hinders policy improvement.

On a positive note, the audience were given a large menu of possible solutions. First, better regional and national land use framework coordination. Better targeting of agri-environmental schemes to where impact in maximised, rather than just where farmers prefer to do them. Better use of models and data to identify the landscape impacts of local measures. Co-design, so schemes are better adapted to local environmental and farming conditions. Improving advice to farmers. Payment for public goods, rather than for just doing agri-environmental schemes. Better monitoring.

“Maybe we also need a better policy cycle to achieve these things,” said Mr Bullock. This would be more adaptive, agile and multi-scale than the current top-down, seven-year CAP renewal approach.

Panel discussion and dialogue

The output from the event will feed into the Forum for the Future of Agriculture Annual Meeting in March 2024. With this in mind Emmanuelle Mikosz, Deputy & Programme Director at the Forum, asked the six panellists to suggest how to integrate the tremendous amount of knowledge from the room into policy recommendations.

Ignacio Perez-Dominguez, of the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said that data-driven tools are important, along with bottom-up approaches and clearer communication to farmers. “We have to focus on the tools, on the policies that have an effect on the environment, but are also easy to convey and easy to monitor.”

Antonia Lütteken, from the Environmental Sustainability Unit at DG AGRI, highlighted that in the past, authorities at the national level have not taken all the opportunities presented by the CAP. “We need to really get the member states on board at the policy level and discuss the opportunities.”

Tassos Haniotis brought up “time-pertinent issues” – first, the policy cycle, and second, the time it takes to see the results of agri-environmental measures. And before measures are implemented, it needs to be clear what will work or if there are issues ahead.

Elisabet Nadeu, Senior Policy Analyst, CAP and Food, Institute for European Environmental Policy, felt that the failure of current agri-environmental schemes was being driven in part by issues with the current monitoring and evaluation framework, the choice of indicators, and lack of clear targets. “It’s not just about the figures that we need to attain, it’s about having an impact. But for that, we need to know where we are going.”

That said, she felt that there is now a more tailored approach to CAP which is overall positive. What could help drive improvements? Integrating the CAP with what is left of the Green Deal objectives; changes to governance, involving different kinds of authorities at different levels; and integrating environmental and climate authorities into the process so as to avoid setting unattainable objectives. The design of financing could be looked at as well.

On the question of indicators, Mr Haniotis brought up soil. “If we focused on soil organic matter, and what exactly we measure, we would be so much better off in focusing on a few indicators.”

Ana Rocha, who is Director of EU’s Agri & Forestry-Related Policies at the European Landowners’ Organization, and also linked to her family’s farm, came back to rewards for public goods and ecosystems services, saying there is a lot of room for improvement. She felt the CAP reform does open a door to that.

Ms Rocha also touched on data – specifically, data privacy and the idea that data should be more freely accessible to help drive bottom-up schemes and sharing of best practices. From the landowners’ perspective, there was a need for control, and also to build trust around the many issues that are still “up in the air”, like who is gathering data, who is analysing, who is aggregating.

The last words came from Mr Perez-Dominguez, who said he would be provocative. “Going back to economic sustainability, price is very important, we have been looking at price for a long time. But maybe we centred too much on the economics and missed the environmental part. With food inflation, very high prices, farmers never made as much as in 2023. But there are other issues than agricultural income. Bureaucracy, an accumulation of policies that are indirectly affecting farmers…climate law, pesticides, animal welfare legislation. It is complicated and something we should debate and reflect on ourselves.”

Find out more

Listen to audio recordings from the sessions on our videos page and you can view the slides or listen to our podcast with Guy Ziv of the University of/video Leeds discussing BESTMAP. For detailed information on the AGRIMODELS cluster and each of the projects, visit https://agrimodels-cluster.eu

The full agenda and speakers for the event are available on the event page.

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