Commission throws the ball to EU capitals on future of short food chains

ECVC: "Outdoor markets are very popular and collective stores of farm products are multiplying, usually in cooperative form, which leaves the control to producers." [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Short food supply chains in Europe’s North.

The development of short food supply chains (SFSC) is constantly gaining ground in the EU. Producing and consuming locally is seen as a way to achieve fairer remunerations for farmers and higher quality local food products.

But the reduction of the EU funds for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy highlights the role the member states need to play to further boost this rising trend.

In 2015, 15% of farmers sold half of their products through such short food supply chains, according to a study carried out by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS). In addition, a 2016 Eurobarometer survey noted that four out of five European citizens consider that ‘strengthening the farmer’s role in the food chain’ is either fairly or very important.

On the other hand, critics suggest that such schemes can only provide benefits on a local level and are not a solution to the rising global population and food demand.

The concept was initially introduced by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the 2014-2020 funding period via the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

SFSC getting popular

European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), an organisation that defends farmers’ rights and sustainable farming, says that in Northern Europe, an increasing number of farms sell directly and are very popular among consumers and caterers.

Citing Austria as an example, ECVC said that 27% of farms sell directly and for half of these, direct sales make up the bulk of their income.

In France, the number is more than one out of five farms, especially in the southeast (1 to 4 regions), and concerns all kinds of productions, in particular wine, fruits and vegetables, poultry and honey.

“Outdoor markets are very popular and collective stores of farm products are multiplying, usually in cooperative form, which leaves the control to producers,” ECVC emphasised.

According to the organisation, another phenomenon in development is the creation of partnerships between consumers and producers, in the form of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or AMAP (Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne) in France.

Particularly, consumers pay growers up-front for the needed food and through this, farms and families form a network of mutual support.

“With the sale of prepaid baskets at a steady price, it makes it possible to secure the income of farmers as well as the supply of quality products for consumers.”

[Estimated number of CSAs]

A conservative CAP

ECVC criticised the executive’s proposals for the post-2020 CAP, saying that they do not promote such schemes.

“We can truly say that farm products and short circuits are developing despite the CAP and not thanks to it,” ECVC said.

“Despite claiming to be ‘modern’, the new CAP is largely conservative and in no way promotes short food supply chains, even though they are supported by an increasing number of consumers,” ECVC told EURACTIV.

The organisation said the new CAP would still be based on per hectare payments. “These farms, which are generally small, receive only small payments when they receive them. Conversely, the large payments granted to the largest farms lead to unfair competition for access to land for people who want to settle in modest areas and who cannot keep up with rising land prices.”

In addition, potentially interesting support (investment, training, help with setting up, disadvantaged areas) is found primarily in the second pillar, whose funding is greatly reduced in the CAP’s next period.

For its part, ECVC proposes a positive policy in favour of the installation of young and new producers thanks to income support for the first years of installation, which are often difficult.

Commission throws the ball to member states

According to the EU executive proposals, the rural development financial support will be decreased in the period after 2020 and it’s possible that such schemes will be negatively affected if member states do not fill the funding gap.

Contacted by EURACTIV, European Commission sources said that under the new rules, member states will have more flexibility in how to use their funding allocations, allowing them to design tailor-made programmes that respond most effectively to farmers’ and wider rural communities’ concerns.

“Member states will also have the option to transfer up to 15% of their CAP allocations between direct payments and rural development and vice-versa to ensure that their priorities and measures can be funded.”

In an effort to protect farmers’ fragile income from price volatility and reduce the pressure from large operators, the European Commission presented on 12 April its much-awaited proposals for a directive to tackle unfair trade practices in the food supply chain.

With these proposals, the executive aims to restore the imbalance in the food supply chain and provide trading partners with weak bargaining power, such as individual farmers, with safeguards.

According to Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers’ association, farmers receive on average 21% of the share of the value of the agricultural product whilst 28% goes to processors and as much as 51% to retailers.

For ECVC, though, the farmers’ main problem is not addressed: low prices imposed within a value chain dominated by oligopoly and the lack of profitability of their work.

“You need to get to the bottom of the problem, which is the deregulation of markets.”

The farmers also say that the proposal for a “directive” and not a “regulation” might result in different regulations across the EU and therefore risk the EU internal trade.

In addition, they say the directive does not cover the control and sanction of abusive practices of all operators in the agri-food chain.

“Controlling and sanctioning practices only on small and medium-sized farmers can lead operators to buy agricultural products where they do not have to comply with regulations.”

“On the other hand, the directive does not cover one of the most harmful practices for farmers, which is selling at a loss or payments to farmers below the cost of production.”

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