In light of an unprecedented farming crisis, EU agriculture ministers will gather in France today (2 September) to exchange views on the future role of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after Britain’s decision to leave the 28-country bloc.
Stéphane Le Foll, France’s agriculture minister, has invited his EU counterparts for informal talks in the lush surroundings of Chambord castle to discuss the CAP’s future, without the UK’s agriculture minister.
European farmers have found themselves in a permanent crisis situation over the last two years, hit hard by the Russian embargo which has affected exports of meat, fruit and vegetable.
Milk producers, for their part, have suffered from sluggish demand, notably in China, which has failed to compensate for the abolition of EU production quotas in April 2015, leading to a collapse in prices.
In this context, the CAP’s “greening” goals have been put in question by farmers who feel regulators are raising the bar on environmental standards at the worst possible moment.
Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan has launched a “diplomatic campaign” to find new markets for EU products.
However, the complexity of external trade makes it difficult to get tangible results quickly.
CAP’s legitimacy “into question”
In this tense context, part of the debate around the future CAP has focused on the new seven-year budgetary period, which starts in 2020.
The French NGO France Nature Environnement (FNE) and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) this week sent a letter to Le Foll warning that environmental NGOs will not support a strong CAP budget unless the content of Europe’s future farm policy is clearly defined first.
In their letter, the NGOs emphasised that tomorrow’s CAP should propose a new contract between farmers and society that helps them in the transition towards more sustainable practices rather than “locking them into a cycle of vicious industrialisation”.
According to both organisations, the various environmental, social, and economic crises affecting the agriculture sector are alarming and call into question the legitimacy of the CAP.
“Several recent studies have concluded that the CAP will not meet its own initial objectives, in particular the sustainable management of natural resources,” the letter noted, adding that resources such as biodiversity, water and soil, on which agricultural activity depends so heavily, are in constant decline.
In France, the number of farmland birds had fallen by 32% in 25 years while butterfly numbers had halved, the organisations stress.
Pesticides and industrialisation
FNE and EEB added that due to the constantly increasing use of pesticides the cost of cleaning up pollution from agriculture in France has now reached new highs, between €0.9 billion and €2.9 billion a year.
“The industrialisation of farming and the race to the bottom when it comes to prices have brought farming in Europe to a crucial crossroads,” the letter underlined, adding that the current system is completely at odds with the values of a sustainable farming model, in particular agro-ecological methods.
For France Nature Environnement and the European Environmental Bureau, the current greening plan is not acceptable.
“Although the current CAP is supposed to be ‘greener’ than ever, farmers can still use pesticides on areas of land set aside for nature protection and grow maize monocultures under the guise of ‘crop rotation’. Funding for agro-environment measures and organic farming under the current CAP is highly insufficient.”
While the European Union’s expenditure with regards to the CAP equate to over €53 billion a year, the European Environment Agency underlines that agriculture is directly affecting rural biodiversity and polluting 40% of rivers.
“If the CAP cannot contribute to solving these major issues, the questioning of its legitimacy is justified. The European taxpayer should not have to finance both agriculture and decontamination generated by systems focused on over-production,” the NGOs concluded.
“Hegemony of multinationals”
Finding new export destinations and a market-oriented CAP have been a principal goal for Commissioner Hogan.
He has already led several trade missions to countries outside Europe to boost EU exports. In February, Hogan visited Colombia and Mexico. In April he went to China and Japan. In the autumn, he is planning on visiting Indonesia and Vietnam.
EU sources recently told EURACTIV.com that promotional visits for next year were “under active consideration”.
The European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), an association of small-farmers, issued a statement ahead of the meeting in France saying that the current CAP is too much focused on free trade agreements.
“We need another agricultural and food policy, one that protects the fundamental rights of our communities and puts the market at the service of the people,” ECVC noted.
According to the association, almost all sectors (pork, beef, fruit, cereal, Mediterranean products) are affected by an agricultural policy that has abandoned the essential tools needed to regulate production, in turn affecting prices and the income of producers.
Day after day, milk farmers are ceasing their activity out of despair. “France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Central and Eastern Europe – no country is spared by the disappearance of peasants devastating many rural areas”.
“The situation is particularly schizophrenic if we consider that the EU prepares to celebrate in Cork, Ireland, 20 years of ‘rural development’, which is the ‘second pillar’ of a seriously limping CAP,” it noted.
Too much focus on trade
For ECVC, free trade agreements such as TTIP, CETA, and Mercosur should be eliminated as well as the “commercial hegemony” of multinationals on European policies.
“These companies, for which milk is a commodity, weigh heavily on the sector’s development, on the expansion and the industrialization of farming.”
In a recent interview with EURACTIV Greece, Greek Minister of Agricultural Development Evangelos Apostolou stressed that the EU should change its negotiation tactics regarding trade agreements with third countries and better defend member states.
“With regard to bilateral economic and trade agreements of the EU with third countries, there should be a differentiation of the negotiation tactics of the EU towards greater balancing of the defence of interests of member states and EU producers who face a competition from lower costs and production standards of third countries,” the leftist politician underlined.
The statement continued saying that if future farming is to be legitimated in EU citizens’ eyes it has to take a radical turn towards serving people.
“A legitimate food and common agricultural policy must meet the needs of people and be structured around basic human rights,” it said, adding that agro-ecological farming should take center stage allowing food sovereignty in Europe and third countries.