Rural promoter: EU should prop up local food markets

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The EU's Common Agricultural Policy should be reformed to allow local farm cooperatives to deliver more sustainable food production, shorter food miles and more economic development in rural areas, Professor Michael Dower told EurActiv in an interview.

Michael Dower is a professor at the UK-based Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI). He is involved with the Agricultural and Rural Convention (ARC 2020) process.

He was speaking to Outi Alapekkala.

You talk about the economic renaissance of rural areas and of a paradigm shift for agriculture. Does the paradigm shift you refer to stand for sustainable agriculture everywhere?

Yes, as well as a greater emphasis on regional and local foods, markets, producers and chains. Obviously, the big boys have their place and international trade may have its place. Europe is not only a common market, however, but also a multiplicity of local and regional markets which are not watertight but which exist and relate to each other.

The fact is that an enormous proportion of Europe's food is traded locally. We should celebrate this and build on it rather than feel that we have to move into a massive international model of enormous farms and a complete monopoly of the food chain by supermarkets and big processing companies.

How could the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) help in creating these local markets?

I'm talking about the whole food chain. For example, one way in which farmers can get better prices for their food is by themselves cooperating and getting involved in vertical integration, and that is actually processing themselves and acting as traders of finished products. That does happen – you have meat and milk cooperatives, as well as wine and cheese cooperatives, in some parts of the food chain - just as you do in the field of forestry, where companies and woodland owners get together and run saw mills and furniture factories and other things.

The CAP can encourage that kind of activity by giving support through cooperative systems and by encouraging the local infrastructure which enables such bodies to thrive, like markets and information systems.

So, a small family farmer could process milk for cheese and in that way employ more people?

Exactly, and this is happening across Europe. Individual farmers are diversifying their enterprises, sometimes directly adding value to their own products like making fruit into jam or milk into cheese, but also farm-based tourism, where they are getting the full value of their food because they are selling it directly to visitors.

So it can happen at the local level through individual enterprise or groups of enterprises, or at regional level. We now have cities like Amsterdam and Manchester, for example, which are pursuing a complete city-wide food programme in which public bodies in particular are buying, as a deliberate policy, food from producers in the region because they believe in short 'food miles', fresh food and knowing where the stuff has come from and the quality of the production.

So a school manager will choose to buy food from one farmer or group of farmers in order for his children to know about the quality of the food.

Having short food miles is thus linked to all the debate about environmental public goods, protecting the environment and fighting against climate change.

Does the economic renaissance of rural areas you talk about originate from re-localised food production and consumption?

They are closely related.

The fact is that Dacian Cioloş is the commissioner for agriculture and rural development. So he is responsible on the one hand for agriculture, with its links to food policy, and on the other for the well-being of the rural areas of Europe. They overlap.

Only about 10% of the total money at his disposal is currently put into rural development.

Current rural development measures supported include helping young farmers, helping farmers to retire, helping them to improve infrastructure, such as farm buildings, and they can be given 'agri-environment' payments where they are paid to do particular things that look after the environment.

But the Rural Development Programme also includes village improvement schemes, support to rural services, bus services and water supply.

And does this money deliver?

No, it doesn't. It is no way near adequate. But other money comes into rural development from, for example, the Regional Development Fund. And one thing that the people have been saying here in this conference is that life is not in reality on the farm or in the village divided into lots of different sectors – it is a whole life.

And the European Union itself has to get its act together and reconcile its different policies in different fields in order, in this case, to serve the economic renaissance of rural areas.

And the reason for this, which showed up so clearly in the public consultation which Commissioner Cioloş carried out, is that the new member states and the outer regions of the old member states are feeling extremely aggrieved by the lack of effective support to regions which are losing population - particularly young people - where the economies are narrow, services are poor and the population is ageing.

It is a sort of downward spiral of decline and what we are calling for is a renaissance in those areas, because they contain great resources for the European population, very high value landscapes and ecosystems and, crucially, are the homes still of millions of people who should not have to suffer in this way.

So, clearly, much more money is needed for rural development. How do you see this being organised? Where should the money come from: from the first pillar?

The first resource for rural development is the people and their energy. European money should be used to stimulate them to take the initiative and to use the resources that are available to them of local, regional and national authorities and all the different part of the European Union's family of funds.

I am not pleading for a great increase in rural development funds as such. I am pleading for a new message which is the rural renaissance and for an initiative from this DG through the CAP to really stimulate that idea. It doesn't take a great deal more money narrowly from that fund, it takes an intelligent application of all the relevant European funds and the energy of the people.

Wouldn't it be easier to have a single fund for rural development?

Absolutely. I am perfectly happy for this to be treated as a single fund, provided that they accept a double mission: the new paradigm for the CAP for food and agriculture and the rural renaissance or rural areas.

This is the way the EU has decided to divide its responsibilities. I could have farmers talking to two different DGs or commissioners – one for rural development and one for farming and food. But that is not they way they have organised it. I'm talking to a single man who is responsible for both. The two points overlap substantially.

In fact, in order to have a renaissance of the rural economy, we need to do intelligent things with our food. If you send all your food as raw material from the rural areas into the cities to be processed and then traded – then you see no value added of that food in rural areas, nor have you helped the rural economy.

Whereas if you add value to food in the rural economy, you have a starting point for a rural renaissance. So they are closely connected.  

How do you think multinational agri-food and drinks companies will react to this? Wouldn't they disappear?

No, they wouldn't disappear. In fact many supermarkets are now in areas in Europe where consumers are wealthy and educated enough to insist on buying fresh, locally-produced food – and supermarkets are beginning to offer it.

If consumers vote with their money and their mouth that they want fresh food of known origin and of good, safe quality, then the trade will supply it. So supermarkets will move that way. At the moment, they are taking us for granted as being ignorant consumers in large part who will buy whatever cheapest food they put in front of us. And they are squeezing everybody else in the food chain in the process.

So you are talking about retailers here, but what about the big agri-food companies that produce processed foods?

They will knock on straight through the food chain, if the consumers insist that they want fresh, local, regional and safe food, and worry for instance about what happens on the farm in terms of the livelihood of a farmer, who takes care of the environment and of his animals – then this will knock on straight through the food chain.

At the moment, the people in the food chain, in some cases, are purely cynical and self-interested people not interested in this overall picture.

Farmers say that the most important thing was the income of farmers. This isn't true. The most important thing is to look out for the countryside and the environment and produce good quality food.

But if the farmer does not get his income he won't do it.

Paying farmers is not the aim, it is the means.

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