The final round of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations began today in Brussels with the policy reforms seeing a shift towards more environmentally-friendly farming.

The CAP is a common EU policy that helps to support European farmers in providing guaranteed access to safe, quality, traceable and sustainably produced food for over 500 million European consumers.

IFA President Tim Cullinan was due to meet President of the EU Council Maria do Céu Antunes today in Brussels ahead of the EU Agriculture Council of Ministers meeting.

Mr Cullinan, who was acting in his capacity of First Vice President of the European umbrella farm organisation COPA, stressed that the so-called Eco Schemes had the potential to impact severely on farm incomes.

"If the EU were serious about more environmental ambition, they should put up more funding instead of taking 20% to 30% of every farmer's existing Basic Payment," Mr Cullinan said.

"We have no option other than to keep these so-called Eco Schemes to a minimum as it is clear that they will cost farmers money and compound the impact of convergence on farmers with higher per hectare payments," he said.

"It's very important that countries which have committed a lot of their Pillar II payments to environmental initiatives, including Ireland, are given credit for this when it comes to finalising their Eco Scheme percentage," he added.

He also stressed the need to ensure that the conditions for eligibility (GAECS) were practical and do not impact on commercial agriculture including on peat lands.

"This is a hugely important week for Irish agriculture as the outcome of CAP reform will decide the future viability of thousands of farmers," the IFA President said.

"At present, only one-third of farmers in Ireland are classed as viable. This redistributive effect of this reform is likely to reduce the number of viable farmers. It is counter to all logic," he stated.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue said today that farmers' incomes will not be cut by 30% as a result of the new Common Agriculture Policy.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, he added that he will seek a way to ensure that convergence on payments does not overly impact farm incomes.

The Minister said that key to the new CAP plan being finalised this week in Brussels is the linking of payments to increased environmental ambitions.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue

Charlie McConalogue said it is important that "as farmers are asked to do more there are income streams associated with that that ensure farm families are sustainable and we continue to produce top-quality food".

He said there is an issue in relation to convergence about various payments to different farmers about entitlements under the single payment scheme.

There will be changes to this, which the Minister said will see "some farmers' incomes go up and some go down".

He said the next few days are really important in finalising CAP plans at European level .

The Minister said that he aims this week to ensure the final CAP programme allows the opportunity for the Irish Government to develop its own CAP plan that meets the needs of the Irish industry.

He said he will then discuss the issue of convergence with farmers over the summer.

But the President of ICMSA has said that the new CAP likely to be concluded is not just neutral but actually worse than the present system.

Pat McCormack said that based on the most up-to-date reports we were headed towards a situation where thousands of farm families across the entire country will suffer substantial cuts to their direct payments and incomes, while having to meet new and unsurpassed levels of inspection and regulation.

"Based on what we're hearing as of now, we’re headed towards less payments for much more regulation and absolutely nothing for meaningful sustainability," Pat McCormack said.

"The current CAP proposals will deliver for consultants and people involved in enforcement, but will critically undermine farmers unless changes are made," he cautioned..

The ICMSA President said he is very concerned that the CAP debate is being hijacked by vested interests, who were intent on turning CAP into an "unworkable environmental policy".