Farm Advisory System and the Leader approach: two new reports by the Commission and the Court of Auditors

Two new reports have been published that evaluate the operation of specific Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) policy measures. The Commission’s report focuses on evaluating the implementation of the Farm Advisory System (FAS) to date and the European Court of Auditors’ report looks at the effectiveness of the Leader approach.

Farm Advisory System proved useful despite low popularity

Outlining the main logic of the FAS, the Commission’s new report recalls that the FAS was introduced to help farmers become more aware of on-farm management practices relating to the environment, food safety and animal health and welfare. The existence of a national FAS is meant to guarantee that each farmer can seek and receive appropriate advice on at least the basic cross-compliance requirements, i.e. the Statutory Management Requirements and the standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC).

One of the key messages of the report is that the existence of the mandatory elements of the FAS (the provision of advice on the implementation of cross compliance requirements) has proved beneficial, and that the flexibility provided to Member States to enable them to enhance the FAS by including advice on other issues is also delivering results. The report points out the FAS has proved successful in raising farmers’ awareness of farm processes and management practices relating to the environment, safety and animal welfare, with on-to-one advice and personalised checklists proving to be the most effective tools.

From an environmental perspective, the report shows that the FAS has played a significant role in helping farmers to meet cross-compliance requirements. Despite this, however, the FAS is reported as being unpopular with farmers, largely due to the fact that farmers often associate it only with cross-compliance, thereby casting it in a negative light. This is seen as having led to low uptake of the advice offered, limiting its potential effectiveness.

Room for improvement of the FAS

The report specifically stresses the important role that advisers play in establishing good relationships with farmers, which enables them to convey the rationale underpinning cross-compliance environmental requirements to land managers, potentially leading to a better understanding by land managers of the management needed and better implementation in practice.

According to the report, however, the system could be improved to ensure that knowledge - by way of advice, training, information, extension services and research - is enhanced. It recommends extending the mandatory scope of the FAS to farmers who are not covered by Pillar One direct payments (e.g. some pig farmers in need of advice on the nitrates Directive), as well as to include minimum requirements for the use of fertilisers and plant protection products. From an environmental viewpoint, the report highlights the potential for the FAS to be extended to introduce advice focused on the actions farmers could take to address climate change, complementing those actions that are already possible under GAEC standards, such as the protection of permanent grassland, the maintenance of minimum soil cover, reduced tillage, standards on crop residue management, on maintenance of soil organic matter and requirements relating to the application and storage of manure under the nitrates Directive.

The added value of the Leader approach is put in doubt

One of the key aims of the European Court of Auditors’ report on the Leader approach has been to look at the added value achieved by such an approach in providing opportunities for local groups to develop, design and implement initiatives that meet the needs of their particular local area. To this end the report not only considers the nature of the outcomes of specific Leader projects on the ground, but also examines whether this bottom up approach has achieved the added value intended, while at the same time adhering to the principles of sound financial management.

The Court of Auditors identified some examples of good practice but in general concluded that added value had not been delivered in a number of the specific Leader projects they audited. For instance the Local Action Groups (LAGs) responsible for the projects did not always focus their actions in a way that helped achieve the objectives of the local strategies. The report highlighted that by ‘undertaking procedures that are not always transparent and often lacking an objective basis, LAGs are essentially damaging the potential added value of the Leader approach,’.

The Commission’s response to the report, provides a robust defence for the added value of the Leader approach and provides arguments to discount certain points of Court’s criticism. But the Commission also agrees more must be done and Member States should be encouraged to improve the quality of local development strategies and their implementation through, among other things, better LAG level monitoring and evaluation.

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03 Dec 2010