"Getting paid to pollute": Billions of EU farming subsidies are being misspent

A unique study, led by UU researcher Murray Scown, has analysed in detail how EU agricultural subsidies flow down to the local level. The new data show that most income support payments go to intensively farmed regions already above median EU income, while climate-friendly and biodiverse farming regions, as well as poorer regions, are insufficiently funded. Consequently, the majority of payments are going to the regions causing the most environmental damage and the farmers in the least need of income support.

Misspent money

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the EU’s largest budget item, averaging EUR 54 billion annually. "Over 80% of payments are going to only 20% of farmers, but to what extent these payments support policy goals is poorly understood, due to a lack of transparency, complex reporting, and insufficient monitoring," says Murray Scown, lead author and researcher at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development.

"Our analysis shows that at least €24 billion per year goes to income support in the richest regions, while the poorest regions with the most farm jobs are being left further behind. That misspent money would more than cover the €20 billion per year needed to meet the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy," adds Kimberly Nicholas, co-author of the study and senior lecturer at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Sweden.

Detailed breakdown

For the first time, the researchers have created a unique database that maps the geographical location and purpose of CAP payments. It includes individual payments to all farmers in the EU from 2015. This detailed breakdown allowed analysing and mapping how CAP money is spent across its nine modern goals and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

"We show in black-and-white that current spending is exacerbating, rather than reducing income inequality among farmers, and that payments intended to support rural development are going to urban areas like London. Current payments primarily support farming regions causing the most climate pollution, with the least biodiversity-friendly farming and fewest farm jobs," says Mark Brady, economist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Lund University, and co-author of the study.

Policy reform

With CAP currently up for reform, the researchers believe their results are timely, as the opportunity exists for re-allocating funds to meet the massive social and environmental challenges highlighted in existing policy goals, as well as creating a more sustainable food system and vibrant rural societies.

"Right now, the farming regions with the highest greenhouse gas emissions from intensive livestock production are getting paid to pollute. Farm payments should be needs and results-based to ensure social and environmental benefits. The EU has an obligation to harmonise reporting of CAP spending data, tracked using more relevant indicators, to ensure public spending actually provides public benefits," Nicholas concludes.


Murray W. Scown, Mark V. Brady, and Kimberly A. Nicholas, 2020. Billions in Misspent EU Agricultural Subsidies Could Support the Sustainable Development Goals. One Earth, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.07.011