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New research points out key gaps in EU’s largest funding scheme, the Common Agricultural Policy

An agricultural field with trees in the background. Photo: Unsplash..
Photo by Ira Mint on Unsplash.

Properly managed, the agricultural sector in Europe can contribute to many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by improving food security, reducing poverty and enhancing biodiversity. But new research shows that indicators to measure key SDGs such as health and equality are entirely missing from the EU’s most expensive funding scheme.

– What gets measured, gets managed. From our new study of policy indicators for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), we can see that key Sustainable Development Goals are completely missed by agricultural monitoring indicators such as: health, gender equality, oceans, and strong institutions. These results contradict claims that agriculture currently contributes to all of the SDGs, says Murray Scown, who led the study along with Kimberly Nicholas, researchers at Utrecht University and Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS).


Interview with Kimberly Nicholas about the EU's Common Agricultural Policy

The CAP, launched in 1962, is the European Union’s common agricultural policy, averaging 38% of EU’s 2014-2020 budget (€54 billion annually). The CAP aims to support farmers, improve agricultural productivity, ensure food supply, promote rural development, help tackle climate change, and enable sustainable management of natural resources. The implementation and performance of the CAP is measured through a monitoring and evaluation framework.

The research study, published open-access in the peer-reviewed journal Global Sustainability, shows that the CAP contains indicators for mainly three of the Sustainable Development Goals: Zero Hunger, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Life on Land. Progress towards the goals are measured by indicators such as agricultural factor income, number of organic farms, greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions from farming, soil erosion by water, farmland bird diversity, and rural youth unemployment. These indicators enable countries to follow up on how the CAP contributes to the achievement of the SDGs over time, and also for comparisons between countries. Yet, other important goals are entirely missing from the agricultural indicators, including health (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), oceans (SDG 14) and institutions (SDG 16). 

– Without indicators and frameworks to track and manage how we work with certain Sustainable Development Goals, for example health, we have no way to assess how, and if, the CAP really contributes to the realisation of these specific goals. That means that we can’t actually measure how agriculture improves the health and wellbeing of citizens in Europe. Now with the new CAP being launched in 2021, we have an opportunity to align it with not just three, but all of the SDGs, noted Kimberly Nicholas.


An illustration of the SDG:s and how they relate to the common agricultural policy, 2020, from a research article by Scown and Nicholas.

Figure from the research article
Fig. 3. Distribution of 29 existing European Union (EU) agricultural policy indicators core to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Radiating bars in the inner pie represent the number of agricultural indicators (Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) or Agri-Environmental Indicators (AEIs)) aligned with EU SDG indicators; indicator names are summarized in boxes. The inner edge of the outer circle represents the total number of EU SDG indicators within each goal (100 in total; 5 each for SDGs 14 and 17 and 6 each for all others); white space represents EU SDG indicators not aligned with agricultural indicators. Please see Supplementary Data File S1 for the full indicator list, including where multiple CAP indicators align with a single EU SDG indicator. * Gross nitrogen balance and gross phosphorus balance are counted separately here, but are lumped as gross nutrient balance in the official EU SDG indicators list.

Consolidate existing frameworks and policies

– What we are suggesting, based on our study, is to start by doing a stock-take of the indicators already in place, then filling the missing gaps for monitoring the CAP’s contribution to the SDGs. The CAP should make use of existing indicators, instead of reinventing the wheel. It’s a matter of consolidating what we already have, and including other available indicators in the new CAP, says Murray Scown. 

Examples of indicators to measure progress on the goals covering health and equality could for example include mental wellbeing in rural areas from the European Quality of Life Survey, or gender disparities in agricultural income or farm tenure from Eurostat. 

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the proposed European Green Deal will require coordination across sectors. The researchers point out that the method they have developed in the study for evaluating policy contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals can be applied to any sector beyond agriculture.

They believe that monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting of policy impacts are essential to steer sectors towards shared goals. 

–The EU is committed to being a world leader in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But what our study shows is that right now, EU agriculture is missing the chance to deliver on these goals, because we lack indicators to monitor how existing policies actually contribute. The new CAP after 2020 needs to measure progress towards goals to track policy impact in practice, concludes Kimberly Nicholas.


About the researchers

Murray Scown is a geographer and post-doctoral researcher at LUCSUS with a passion for spatial analyses of complex social-ecological systems.

Read more about Murray Scown's research and work.

Kimberly Nicholas is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. She studies how to manage natural resources to both support a good life today, and leave a living planet for future generations.

Read more about Kimberly Nicholas' research and work.

Research theme: Land Use, Governance & Development

This research is related to LUCSUS' research theme: Land Use, Governance & Development.

Read about the theme