BRUSSELS – In what's being cast as a major breakthrough, the European Union agreed Wednesday on an outline for a major farm reform program that seeks to boost environment-friendly agriculture.
The seven-year program is to kick off next year. It is designed to move away from the subsidy-heavy policies that led to excessive red tape and rules that were kinder to huge companies than to the small farmers.
Irish Farm Minister Simon Coveney said that the negotiators from the member states and the European Parliament "have delivered a policy that I believe secures the sustainable development of the sector up to 2020 and beyond."
The deal still needs to include some financial commitments currently under discussion and to obtain the approval of the plenary of the legislature as well as another green light from the 27 member states.
Since all major players that have a say in the final approval have shown support for the deal, Wednesday's blueprint was seen as a huge breakthrough by negotiators. But some environmental activists say the plan is still too weak.
The half-century old Common Agricultural Policy has been a cornerstone of the EU and was instrumental in staving off the threat of hunger on the continent early on. But over the years, it has gotten mired in overproduction and runaway subsidies that distorted the global agricultural markets and gave rise to trans-Atlantic trade conflicts.
More recently, the environment has been the center of attention.
Key to the deal was that 30 percent of budgets for direct payments to farmers may only be carried out if linked to environmental measures. The European Parliament also said that 30 percent of rural development spending must be for green measures.
"Most farmers will now have to make extra efforts in order to receive the 'green' funding," EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said.
Environmental groups though, complained the reform had not gone far enough, with many of the best green proposals slashed in the last negotiating sessions.
Tony Long of the WWF environment group called it a "wasted opportunity," arguing it will only worsen the problems of soil erosion, water scarcity and pollution.