Fischer Boel: Future farm policy ‘should bolster production’

The European Union should resist the temptation to cut support for its common agricultural policy and instead give farmers the right tools to increase food production in Europe, EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told EURACTIV in an interview.

Mariann Fischer Boel is the EU’s commissioner for agriculture and rural development. 

She was speaking to Outi Alapekkala and Daniela-Vincenti Mitchener.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

After five years as EU agriculture commissioner, what is your personal assessment of your mandate? Did you manage to do what you wished to do, or do you have regrets? 

First of all, this has been the best period of my political life. I have enjoyed it a lot. It has been tough but it is possible to see that you have left some footprint on the policies. So I have been very privileged to spend five years in Brussels and it will be difficult for me to say goodbye to all the people around me that have contributed to the success. This is not just a one-woman or one-man show. 

Of course I have not achieved everything I would have liked because I have had to work together with the Council of Agriculture Ministers and with the European Parliament to some extent, as they have not had co-decision so far. But this is going to change now with the Lisbon Treaty. 

What would you qualify as your main footprint in EU agricultural policy? 

I think it is important to have equipped the European agricultural sector to be able to compete in a more global world. This is coming anyway and we need to know how to play a strong role in the world market, because we are the biggest exporter of agricultural products worldwide. We are also the biggest importer, but we and the sector have been very clever to add value to production. We are mostly importing raw materials – putting maybe soybeans through pigs – but then exporting high quality products worldwide. 

I think that competition might be even stronger in the future. We need to be able to compete and, therefore, we need to keep conditions for our agricultural sector that can make them develop and use new technologies, be innovative and try to help young farmers to play their role. 

Then of course we know that I have paid great attention to food security. I don’t believe that we should end up under any circumstance in a situation where we would be dependent on imports. Because then we would be as vulnerable as we could have been when you see that the Russians are closing the pipelines on energy. Talking about food – it would be a nightmare to be dependent on unstable governments in parts of the world where we would be depending on food imports. 

So of course we need to be able to, I would not say feed our own people, but to have a strong agricultural sector. 

Is our agricultural sector fit for global competition? Are you satisfied with the CAP Health Check? 

First of all I think that the ‘Health Check’ was a step on the path towards a more market-oriented agricultural sector, with more decoupling. We don’t want in the future to force a farmer to produce a specific product. I think it is much more important to give the farmer freedom to produce what the market is actually asking for. 

Secondly, we continued on the modulation – taking money from direct payments into the rural development policy. I think that the target for the new modulated money was the new challenges. I’m sure that we simply need to give the agricultural sector the possibility to face the new challenges – climate change, water management, biodiversity and energy. 

I think that these are the four main challenges that the agricultural sector will face in the future. And I think that we could call this part of the rural development policy the green growth pillar or access. So, I think we need more money – take energy as an example – to make it possible for farmers to use their raw materials. I don’t think that wheat or cereals is the future, but waste from the sector, straw, woodchips, residues from the slaughterhouses, can be transformed into renewable energies such as ethanol and biodiesel. 

What about the future CAP budget and its payment structure? 

When we talk about agriculture and the EU budget, there will be pressure on the agricultural budget. But on the other hand, I think that we have to realise as well that even if we maintain the same budget – and this will be a strong political requirement from the new member states – we have a more flat-rate distribution of direct payments. And there will be winners and there will be losers. The old member states will certainly have to reduce the value of their direct payments and the new member states will get more. You cannot link a payment to historical production anymore – those days are gone. 

But I think that on the other hand, if the result will be a reduction of direct payments, you would need a long transitional period because if you do it overnight, farmers will certainly be technically insolvent. I would say a very big part of the direct payment has been capitalised in the price of land and you simply need to be able to have a period where farmers can adapt to a new situation, otherwise you would be devastating the sector. 

We need more money for more targeted rural development policy with fewer options. We have three pillars, plus the Leader programme today. So I think there should be a discussion among the member states on what the areas we would really like to sustain are. We need to continue with the less-favoured areas, the LFAs. That has to be a possibility. 

We have not yet clarified all our ideas, but I see basic payments and then the LFAs and then on top of that the farmers can decide which building block from the rural development policy they want to use. Farmers could actually create their own programmes from the menu, but then it would be free for farmers to take in the most suitable building bloc from the rural development policy. But this would not be mandatory. 

What is the role played by EU member states in co-financing the CAP budget? 

I have always been very resistant to a co-financing idea on the first pillar of direct payments, because it would be about giving the policy back to the member states. You would then see a re-nationalisation, which would definitely not be to the benefit of all farmers in all member states. 

I know some countries would be very generous while others would be very cautious on any payment. If there was co-financing, this would certainly reduce the Commission’s CAP budget but then the addition from member states would need to be compulsory – otherwise you would have no common policy anymore, but a competition between finance ministers in different member states on who was willing to give the best offer and pay the most. That would completely spoil any common policy on the agricultural sector and be the totally wrong decision. 

Agriculture is a big consumer of the EU budget, but this is only because of the fact that it is the only common policy we have. And if you put it into the right context, you should link it to the GDP of member states, because you do that with all the other policies that are not common policies. And if you link it to the GDP of member states, it is 0.4% of the GDP. This is considerably lower than any budget for defence, health or social policies. 

I think people are looking at agriculture and saying that one is spending a lot on it. This is of course true if you look at the EU budget, but if you link it to GDP, which would be the normal way to do it, 0.4% is not that much. This is to put it into the right context. 

What is at stake if we re-nationalise agricultural policy? Why do we need a common EU agricultural policy? 

We need the CAP to keep a level playing field for all farmers within the European Union. Because if you take for example the UK, which is very much in favour of a market-oriented agricultural policy, and France, where there is a huge willingness to always have extra funding for the agricultural sector – you would put uneven competition between French and UK farmers. That is not in the interests of food production in Europe. 

What will be the main priority of the next CAP? 

I’m looking to be able to maintain production of food in Europe. Because if we would solve all the greenhouse gas emissions, we should just automatically reduce our internal production of meat, which does not mean that the consumer will stop eating meat, but which would increase our imports. I don’t think that this is something we would like to see. 

The future CAP, I hope, could give farmers the best possibilities – via the rural development policy – to bolster their production in a way that they will be able to produce from an environmental and animal welfare point of view products that will be high on the agenda for all those countries in Asia that will need products in the future. 

We know that with the forecast of world population increasing from the current six to nine billion by 2050. With the calculation that we have made and with the changes in eating habits, we would probably have to double food production globally. And here I think ‘why shouldn’t European agriculture contribute to the solutions of the future challenges?’ but taking into account that we have to produce in a way that takes into account biodiversity and climate change. 

Do you think that Europe should produce more to contribute to world food security? 

I think that we would actually be able to produce more using new technologies. I am not afraid of biotechnology. And I am quite sure that this is coming – one way or the other. There is some reluctance in some member states to cultivate GMOs and I think that the clear message from [European Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso in his hearing indicates that the Commission would like to give more possibilities for the member states to decide themselves whether they want to cultivate. 

This, of course, without jeopardising the internal market. You would not be able to close your borders or production – but the cultivation can be discussed in member states if you can justify that the size of your fields is so small that you would never be able to avoid contamination. Here we should be able to find a solution, but we will need imports. 

Today, 85-90% of all the soybean imports to Europe are GM [genetically modified]. And if we suddenly decided that we don’t want them – a decision which would be based more on emotions rather than science – we would see a dramatic reduction in meat production in Europe. Then we would import and the imported animals or the meat would be fed with GMOs that were not even approved in Europe. From the consumer point of view, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot. Therefore, I think we need to find the right balance. 

I think that there are a lot of possibilities in GM, also for developing countries, which have worse weather conditions and water scarcity. They can develop new types of cereals that can be resistant to these situations. We need to increase production in developing countries and that’s why we introduced this €1 billion EU food facility exclusively targeted at the countries where the food production could not at all reach the level of self-sufficiency. It was for seeds and fertilisers for farmers. I’ve said from the start that this help needs to be given to women, who are much more efficient. You need to support the women to try to generate more food production. This is a big issue and I hope that we can have a discussion on this in Rome. 

We need to do more to secure that there is food production in developing countries. The EU food facility is one step. 

What is your response to global criticism on CAP subsidies? 

I know that the Americans of course have a certain interest in hammering the CAP. But the fact is that our policy is much much less trade-distorting than the American policy. 

The US policy is linked to production. It is a counter-cyclical payment, which means that it is a security net under the income of ours – when prices go down, support goes up. You can take cotton as an example – there is very significant support for cotton production in the US, making it more economically sustainable for the Indians to buy cotton in the US than in their neighbouring country, Bangladesh. 

And in the Doha Round, we have been much more forthcoming and ready to contribute to a positive outcome than the Americans. So nobody can blame the Commission of not contributing to finding a political agreement on the Doha Round. The Americans are not yet ready to deliver on the Doha round. 

What is at stake for the EU in the Doha Round? 

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the past five years discussing the modalities for the conclusion of the Doha Round. One of the regrets that I have before leaving is that we did not manage to get a deal. We were so close last July in Geneva that the disappointment was huge, that we failed at that moment. Now we are still discussing with the other big players – but the next ministerial meeting in early December will not conclude anything. 

We know that if we want to have the final single undertaking ready by the end of 2010, we should need to agree on the modalities at the latest by the end of March. If we do not see any clear commitments from the big players, the US and the two emerging economies of India and China, where the US wants more market access, then I think that the window of opportunity is gone. But we need this – in particular now with the financial and economic crisis. If we don’t make it, bilateral agreements will take over, which is of course fine. But we cannot discipline domestic support in a bilateral agreement. If we really want to reduce distorting domestic support, we need a multilateral agreement. My only fear is that we don’t have this tool. 

How can EU reduce its CO2 emissions from agriculture? 

We have already reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 20% compared to 1990. Partly because the number of animals has been going down, but also because we have been using new technologies. A lot can be done, a lot more can be done. This is why this is part of the new rural development package on climate change. A lot can be done on the way we use our input and the possibility for agriculture to contribute to renewable energies for the transport sector. 

The transport sector is a big problem. Emissions from transport have been increasing, whereas those from agriculture have been going down. I would not be resistant to a discussion on an emissions trading scheme for agriculture. But that’s not for Copenhagen, but for later. 

Would the CAP’s ‘green growth’ pillar be mandatory or optional? 

If you have a reduction obligation, it will be mandatory – because you cannot have an optional reduction of greenhouse gases. We have to contribute to the reduction of 20% of CO2 by 2020 – and 30% if we get a global deal. Agriculture cannot just sit outside and say that we don’t want to contribute. 

But there are a lot of options: you can add enzymes to feed, which will help cattle absorb the feed better and produce less methane. One can also reduce emissions from manure by putting it directly into the energy production process. A lot of research is going on in the dairy sector to use virgin whey in milk production, and you cannot taste the difference. The pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would certainly give a lot of young entrepreneurs ideas to develop further. I’m not that pessimistic on the contribution from the agricultural sector. 

What are the implications of the Lisbon Treaty and co-decision on agricultural political decision-making? 

It [political decision making] will not be easier. We will present the communication on the new CAP late summer/early autumn next year. The legal proposals will be tabled not later than in 2011 to go through the whole procedure with the Parliament. 

Subscribe to our newsletters