MEP Huitema: EU should use CAP to reduce dependence on farm subsidies

MEP Jan Huitema [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy should focus on investments to become more competitive in the global market and get less dependent on subsidies, MEP Jan Huitema told euractiv.com in an interview.

Jan Huitema is a dairy farmer and an MEP for the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD) party, affiliated to the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

You recently authored an own-initiative draft report for the European Parliament, on “enhancing innovation and economic development in future European farm management”. What are the main elements of it?

There are two goals in my report. A first goal is to explain what agriculture is doing, and also to show people that agriculture can play a very important part in finding a solution for the challenges ahead like feeding the world, and reducing environmental impact.

The second goal is indeed to mention some innovations that you cannot use because of the EU legislation. It is not always unwillingness, but most of the time the EU legislation is old.

For instance?

In the fertilizers’ regulation, you can only make fertilizer from inorganic resources, for example, from minerals out of the earth. In some areas in the EU, we have enough animal manure to fertilize our grounds, so in a way, we don’t need any fertilizer. We have even innovations that can process animal manure in such a way that the efficiency of those products is almost similar to artificial fertilizer.

We have experience with these techniques already for 10 years in the Netherlands, but because of the fertilizers’ regulation, we cannot use the animal manure as a resource for making fertilizers.

The report is urging (us) to change the regulation. More or less, the whole report says that we need to have room for innovation, and in the legislation, too, so that we can use new insight and innovation. If we make legislation now, we should take into account that the world is changing, that new innovations are coming, and we should always take that into consideration. It is also on the agenda of better regulation.

The interesting thing on the fertilizer aspect is that we can reuse animal manure as a fertilizer and replace artificial fertilizer. It’s much better for the environment as well. We import a lot of phosphate fertilizer from the mines in Morocco, but we have already a lot of phosphates in animal manure and we will, therefore, become less dependent on imports.

The Commission is currently making a legal analysis of new plant breeding techniques. What is ALDE’s opinion?

In new techniques in biotechnology, we should see what the promising effects are before we say no. We really need to have a discussion on science-based effects to make a decision on this.

Plant breeding techniques can be very promising, because in a way we are accelerating the classical breeding of plants. In a lot of those techniques, we don’t talk about GMOs that use genes of others species into plants, but we stick to the gene of the gene cocktail of the plant itself. So the outcome of those new breeding techniques is not different than we could have with classical breeding.

The only thing is that we can accelerate. And to give you an example: In the tomato plant in the last 40 years, we only emphasized the taste, that it should be red and big, focusing on the breeding on food. And we lost, more or less, the genes of the wild tomato species to have for example an insect repellent effect or whatever.

With these new breeding techniques, we can try to cross-breed these wild species’ genes for example as an insect repellent for drought-resistance that the wild tomatoes have. We can cross-breed them, and this does not take 30 years, like (in) classical breeding, but maybe a couple of weeks.

The Commission says we have to produce more with less. At the same time, we need to protect the environment. This is a tough combination.

And I think it is doable. Wageningen University, which is famous in agriculture, is saying this. With new innovations and new insights, we can produce twice as more and reduce the environmental impact by half as well.

So, you see that for example, between different countries in the world, some are more efficient and innovative than others, and then you see there is lot of low-hanging food in other countries that is not so efficient, productive and innovative.

But there are also countries that are more productive and efficient, like, for example, in the Netherlands. There is much to gain from precision farming or e-farming, where we can produce more with less use of fertilizers, water, plant protection materials etc.

In a way, we can reduce the ecological footprint per kilogram of food that we produce.

Do we have sufficient financial tools to do that? Do these new technologies need to be accessible?

Indeed, for example, the technologies that are invented in the Netherlands can be used by others countries as well. It is important to share best practices. Of course, money is always an issue and the new Common Agricultural Policy should focus on innovation as well. To do research and also to look at the fact that research in innovation is currently fragmented in the EU and we need a better coordination what to do research on.

But also, keep in mind that new technologies and innovation have a better impact on the environment, but at the same time a better effect on the competition of a farm.

Also, we should have financial instruments to guarantee a margin for the farmers to have more capital and more money to invest in the long run.

Innovations can also be important to maybe shorten the supply chain, by selling directly from your farm to consumer.

To avoid the brokers’ interference?

Yes exactly.

How do you see the CAP after 2020?

It should focus much more on competitiveness and innovation. In this way, you become more competitive and more sustainable.

Will this affect the subsidies?

Every healthy sector should get the money from the market instead of being dependent on subsidies. So I want to use the CAP as much as possible to invest in agriculture sector and be more competitive in the global market and get less dependent on subsidies.

You can also think, but this is a political decision, whether we should use the CAP also for environmental measures or preserving the landscape that we as farmers cannot directly get back from the market but we have to invest in doing so. If the CAP should compensate the farmers for the cost of those things they cannot get compensated from the market. But that’s a political decision. We should have a dialogue on that already now, towards 2020.

What is the goal of the CAP? For me very clearly two things: To be more competitive and more innovative.

What is the current state of play regarding smart farming in the Netherlands?

Well, in the cattle sector, Dutch farmers use a lot of technologies for example to monitor the animals health situation before they get sick, in order to offer them special treatment, separate them from the rest of animals so that they don’t have to use antibiotics.

On the land, it’s the same thing. We have drones to map the hectares of the crops and monitor what the need is per square centimeter precisely, demand for fertilizer and water, or if a disease is occurring in a small sport before it can spread we can tring it under control.

It is also important that in the Netherlands we have broadband internet and this is an issue the European Commission should highlight. In addition, we gain a lot of data for all the sensor techniques. With this data, we make an analysis and we tell the farmer what to do and what time. For instance, now it’s 16:00, the sun is almost coming, hours before it was raining, and maybe you can do some land work.

With big data, one can have management tools that can help the farmer when to interfere.

In the Netherlands, also, tractors and other machines can talk to each other with Internet of Things GPS technologies. A lot of crop farms have a GPS technology.

EU farmers are increasingly talking against the Russian embargo which has severely hit them. How do you think we should handle that? 

I understand the farmers. I also understand the EU has put forward sanctions against the Russian Federation. I think it is important that the EU does not fall apart with this Russian embargo and (that) the member states should stand together.

Taking into account that to a quite large extent, the exports drop of the Russian ban is compensated by finding new export markets, the Commission should focus on it.

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