COPA chief: ‘All farmers should be connected to the worldwide web’

Being connected to the internet has become “vital” for farmers’ everyday work, says Martin Merrild. But this should not encourage regulators to introduce new control programmes that will make farmers’ life even more difficult, he told in an interview.

Martin Merrild is the President of COPA, the European farmers association. He spoke with EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos on the sidelines of the Congress of European Farmers in Athens.

How can the EU ensure its push for the digitalisation of agriculture will be affordable to all farmers after 2020?

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) cannot make sure that a strong policy will be useful and affordable for all farmers in all countries.

That should be done on a national level, but the CAP should secure that there is a framework. This framework should make it possible and at the same time provide an obligation for national governments to work with this and make it accessible to all kinds of farmers.

There are still crucial challenges to be addressed, such as the broadband infrastructure and digital skills development of farmers.

The most important thing is the broadband infrastructure, as all farmers should be connected to the worldwide web. It’s so vital for the everyday work, to connect the machinery and all kinds of technological devices. It’s just vital.

Regarding skills development, the next CAP, in a better way than the current one, should ensure that there is a possibility for skills development.

Already now the national governments should work on this and initiate programmes to train farmers and provide them with support to invest in some of these new digital devices.

What is your vision about the next CAP in general?

The next CAP, of course, as we have seen before, must support farmers’ incomes and most importantly, stabilise them.

I think that it is very important for the next CAP to ensure that European farmers will be able to compete on a global level. Because, I see there is a true need to discuss the balance between the expectations from the EU politicians who are saying we want a European agricultural policy to be liberal and able to work with the world market prices.

And then at the same time, it makes it too costly and more difficult to live up to the bureaucracy in the greening of the CAP. This is the dilemma we need to discuss. We cannot compete with the rest of the world and then face a huge burden, both bureaucratic and economic.

So the next CAP must be simple.

We need simplification, the CAP should be simple. I talk to a lot of farmers and this is the main message they are delivering. Make it simple in order for us to understand it, and above all be able to sleep at night.

The current CAP’s greening already made things complicated. Do you think the introduction of the digital angle will make things even more complex?

Well, we have seen some examples in our society where the new digital techniques have actually resulted in extra bureaucracy and we should avoid that in the agricultural policy.

We should not use digital technologies to get new ideas about new control programmes that will make farmers’ every day more difficult.

The new techniques should improve the productivity on an individual farm.

How will we fund the digital farming? Some stakeholders believe that both direct payments and rural development pillars should be used.

It must be the rural development pillar to support the precision, digital farming. I think we are already late talking about precision farming, we are late supporting farmers entering the precision era, because our competitors in Northern America have been supported for this by their governments for many years.

Considering the economic stagnation, where will we take this money from?

I think it’s important for the EU to find new money because these digital techniques will help both the agricultural sector and the whole European society take a step forward.

I am sure that there is a benefit not only for the farmers and people in rural areas but also the EU as a whole as the productivity will be increased.

Do you feel comfortable with the trade negotiations currently ongoing between the EU and third countries?

It’s very difficult to explain in a few lines the trade negotiations. We are talking about trade with Canada, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, Vietnam, and the US.

We must remember that in the EU we are net exporters of agricultural products. We need to have access to markets around the world. We need to support the European Commission’s line to open up new markets.

But it’s also important when we talk about international trade to note that it must be fair, not only free but also fair. We must be on a level playing field and we know that there are some products that we cannot compete with and so we need restrictions on these products. This is what trade negotiations are about, how to do more trade in a fair way.

You support the Commission’s line for more trade but at the same there is a Russian embargo that has hit EU agricultural exports.

The Russian embargo showed us how dangerous it is for individual farmers when trade is mixed with politics. What happened with the Russian ban was that politicians made decisions that forced Russia to decide the ban. It was a political decision from both the EU and Russia and the Russian market was closed.

Who paid for it? The farmers. Trade deals should be isolated from daily politics.

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