Bottom up Adaptation Strategies for a Sustainable Europe

The Common Agriculture Policy and adaptation to climate change: A short review of interviews with Portuguese farmers and farmers’ organisations

The future of agriculture in the Mediterranean is threatened with increased droughts, water scarcity, heat waves, storms and changes in seasonal climate patterns. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is intended to support and guide the development of agriculture in the European Union. But how has the CAP promoted adaptation to climate change at the local, regional and national level? And how can it do this better in the future? These are some questions that were posed to farmers, farmers’ organisations and experts in Portugal, from March to September 2014, by BASE partner FFCUL. The interviews revealed very different evaluations of the past of CAP and gave plenty of constructive ideas for the future.

By André Vizinho, Rui Barreiro and Ana Lúcia Fonseca, FFCUL, Portugal

Nature will adapt to climate change, as it has for millennia. But the need for planned adaptation in agriculture and forestry in the Mediterranean reflects the need to preserve the socio-economical functions of the landscapes and ecosystems that support our livelihoods, our culture and our society. Society is currently highly dependent on the goods and services currently offered by forest and agriculture ecosystems (1). 

In Portugal, one third of the forest area is a multifunctional forest, called “Montado” where cork oaks and holm oaks are predominantly combined with non-irrigated agriculture (mainly winter cereals) and grazing (2). With the investment in large dams like the Alqueva, more than 100 000 hectares are newly available for irrigated agriculture. This has created a feeling of water abundance in some parts of the Alentejo, while at the same time 58% of the country (mainly in the Alentejo region) remains at high risk of desertification (3). 

Figure 1: Photo of the Alqueva Dam in the Alentejo, Portugal and the Montado system. Photo by Rui Ornelas, 2011

In order to obtain ‘bottom-up’ information on how agriculture can adapt to climate change and how this can be supported by the CAP, a set of interviews were made with Portuguese farmers and other individuals in the agriculture sector. The interviews were conducted together with a questionnaire common to the other agriculture case studies in BASE (read more about Denmark and the Czech Republic).

Interview respondents 
From March to September 2014, 22 interviews were conducted with farmers, representatives of farmers organisations, namely CAP (Confederation of the Farmers of Portugal) and CONFAGRI (Confederation of Cooperatives of Agriculture in Portugal), and one expert, an former Portuguese Minister of Agriculture. The farmers were identified by three main farmers organisations, CAP, CONFAGRI and CNA (National Confederation of Farmers) as farmers with good environmental practices that could lead the way in identifying bottom-up adaptation measures for agriculture in the south of Portugal and the Mediterranean. 
A selection of questions and responses
Question: Do you think that the CAP has, in the past, supported and promoted that farmers adapt to climate change ?
The answer to this question from farmers, representatives of farmers organisations and experts varied strongly. Some interviewees answered that the CAP has been a strong barrier to adaptation, while others state that the CAP has had a neutral role on adaptation. Still others answered that the CAP has supported and promoted adaptation. What is most interesting is not the quantitative aspect of this answers but the arguments that explain them. 
The main arguments stating that the CAP has promoted and supported the adaptation of agriculture to climate change are based on the CAPs’ role on promoting the environmental awareness of farmers, enforcing new and more strict environmental regulations and promoting some ecosystem protection measures. For example:
  • Today,(…) farmers are very careful applying phytopharmaceuticals, following environmental regulations, conserving the NATURA 2000 network and bird fauna. This is something that wasn’t seen before. (…) Some of the things that were allowed 20 years ago would be environmental crimes today.” (Representative of farmers’ organisation).
  • Yes, because through subsidies we are obliged to protect the environment. For example, here we are forbidden to plow and mobilize the soil for winter cereals [due to erosion risk]. We get money based on the area and therefore we don’t have to damage the land producing winter wheat” (Farmer in integrated farming programme).

The main arguments stating that the CAP has been a barrier to the adaptation of agriculture to climate change explain that due to strong financial incentives farmers, tend to react more to incentives than to the market or climate or their farms’ characteristics.

  • “The farmer got used to receiving this money and it became part of his income. He never questioned if what he was producing was the best or if he should produce something different or if he should sell to a different market” (Representative of farmers' organisation)

Another argument states that the subsidies incentivise practices that are bad for the soil, the environment and adaptive capacity to climate change:

  • “The farmers that do more pollutant activities per hectare receive more money (for example producing more heads of cattle per hectare), diminishing the adaptive capacity to climate change.” (Organic cattle farmer). 

Figure 2: Photo of rainfed cereal agriculture, Alentejo, Portugal. 2014. Photo by André Vizinho

It is also relevant to look at the arguments for the neutral role of the CAP in the adaptation of agriculture to climate change. The main arguments state that the CAP has been more focused in managing agriculture production in Europe, suppressing it in some countries or promoting it at other times, and that the greening measures were designed towards environmental protection, sometimes climate mitigation but hardly ever climate adaptation. This can mean that the role the CAP has had on the adaptive capacity of agriculture to climate change has been an indirect role, achieved through the promotion of good agricultural practices that increase resilience, or otherwise.
Question: How do you think that the CAP could give more support and incentive to the adaptation to climate change in agriculture?
One of the aspects that appeared commonly in the answers to this question was the need to promote the continuous training of farmers, as well as the sharing of knowledge and applied research on agriculture:
  • “I think the European Union should help unite agricultural policies and scientific and innovative policies; it should be one of its responsibilities. I think it’s very difficult for farmers to invest without the help of a national or European policy” (Former minister of agriculture).
Figure 3: Photo of an orchard planted on Keyline, Herdade do Freixo do Meio, Alentejo, Portugal 2013. Photo by Catarina Joaquim and Carlos Simões
On this topic, many ideas were proposed such as:
  1. Promoting significant diversity of crops and biodiversity;
  2. Paying the same amounts to farmers in the different countries of EU for the same service;
  3. Promoting water harvesting in the landscape;
  4. Properly managing the application of the greening measures;
  5. Promoting soil regeneration
  6. Eradicating the use of chemical fertilizers on the soil
  7. Creating two different kinds of agriculture (large scale and small scale) and giving different supports and incentives to each
  8. Taxing the farmers through IRS on a 5 year basis, to include the costs of risk management
  9. The CAP should invest in awareness raising to consumers
  10. Promoting more agricultural labour and less mechanization
  11. Promote more water efficiency;
  12. Promoting more integrated farming.


It is clear that regardless of how they perceive the CAP's past role on adaptation to climate change in agriculture, farmers, farmers' organisations and other agricultural experts have many proposals for the improvement of the role of CAP to promote adaptation to climate change in agriculture. While some proposals can be conflicting, some experts propose that different rules and incentives can be applied to different kinds of agriculture, farmers and regions, thus revealing the need for a strategic aspect of agricultural policies for the regional level. 
The role of BASE on this respect is to follow up with some of these proposals and adaptation measures and perform cost benefit and multi-criteria evaluations that can support the decision making at the European Level. 


  1. Regato, P., IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2008. Adapting to global change: Mediterranean forests. IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation, Malaga, Spain.
  2. Belo, C.C., Pereira, M.S., Moreira, A.C., Coelho, I.S., Onofre, N., Paulo, A.A., 2009. Montado. 
  3. MAMAOT, 2013. Estratégia de adaptação agricultura e floresta às alterações climáticas - Portugal Continental.
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