'Winners and losers' in review of Less Favoured Areas scheme
New science-based criteria look set to reduce both the area and number of farmers that qualify for the Less Favoured Areas scheme.
Formerly known as the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme (DAS), it currently benefits 95,000 farmers to the tune of €195m annually and covers 75pc of the national farmland.
However, EU auditors have ruled the original socio-economic criteria first used in the 1970s that took into account average farm incomes and populations are now obsolete.
The Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, admitted on Friday that "there will be winners and losers" as a result of the countrywide review, which is expected to be completed by Teagasc within the coming weeks.
"It will be a controversial issue among farmers, but the reality is that in the same way we have to take a science-based approach towards food production, in terms of measuring carbon footprint, feed conversion efficiency and growth rate, we also have to take a more scientific approach as to how we categorise land," the minister explained.
"The reality is that there are farms that are claiming DAS payments that are very good farms in Galway, Sligo, Clare and other areas of the country, and there are very poor disadvantaged farms in areas that are not designated as disadvantaged in certain parts of West Cork and areas in the midlands."
The new measure of whether a farm qualifies for the new Areas of Natural Constraint scheme will centre on how saturated soil remains throughout the year. Data is being collated on this measure over a 10-year period in Johnstown Castle.
"Whether we like it or not, the commission is insisting on a more science-based approach in measuring soil type, depth, moisture and a whole range of other scientific measures around deciding disadvantage," Minister Coveney told delegates attending the Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA) annual conference in Cork last week.
The minister insisted it was "unlikely" there will be a major change in the total area on which payment will apply following the revision, and assured farmers that funding of €195m had been committed to the scheme over the next five years of the National Development Plan.
However, observers of the review believe many areas in the eastern half of the country that originally qualified for the scheme are likely to find themselves excluded in future. This may open the possibility of the current payment rates of €82-110/ha being increased for those remaining within the scheme.
At the same event, Minister Coveney claimed the details on Pillar I in CAP reform will be completed within the next 10 days. He added that his officials were aiming to submit final proposals for schemes to be funded under Pillar II to the EU Commission for approval by Easter.
Challenged that the cap of €150,000 on the base payment would have serious impact on the cereal sector, he robustly defended the decision, stressing that the function of the SFP was not to fund very large commercial operations.
He agreed to consider a request from ACA for more access for members to scientific information from Teagasc.