A group of lawmakers have called on the EU to adopt a new agricultural strategy that puts agriculture at the heart of European society and responds to the strategic challenges of the 21st century. EURACTIV France reports.
Five MEPs from the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) – Marc Tarabella (Belgium), Eric Andrieu (France), Jean-Paul Denanot (France), Nicola Caputo (Italy) and Tibor Szanyi (Hungary) – have signed an editorial published in La Libre in which they denounce the inability of the common agricultural policy (CAP) to support the European farming sector. The CAP, they say, has neither helped to guarantee farmers’ revenue, protect jobs or stabilise prices.
The lawmakers have established a think tank called “A new strategic course for the CAP”. “The idea in the long term is to bring together MEPs from the different political groups to think together about the agriculture of the future,” said Andrieu.
Sustainability and solidarity
“The aim of this think tank is to think beyond the CAP, which today provokes resistance and worry among European farmers and consumers. Europe urgently needs to rethink its agricultural model, prizing both sustainability and solidarity,” Andrieu, the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Agriculture committee (AGRI), added.
“To do this, it needs to turn away from the ultraliberal dogma that has been proved to be so ineffective by the agricultural crisis. In the longer term, it is vital it put agriculture back at the heart of our society; a kind of agriculture that is respectful of biodiversity and human health, and which can provide a decent living for those that work in the sector.”
Against the backdrop of a multi-faceted agricultural crisis, the new CAP for the period 2014-2020 has a large number of opponents. Both the European executive and the Council had promised to simplify it, but without success.
Today, S&D MEPs believe the CAP is simply unsuited to a period when “agriculture worldwide is seen as a political priority and a symbol of strength or weakness in the case of food dependency”.
Singling out the broad crisis currently affecting farmers, which had been looming since 2013, the MEPs argued that the CAP and the markets were not capable of responding to the needs to European farmers and that the EU should prioritise income stability over subsidies. The fact that the new CAP has already been rejected proves that it should be re-examined, they argued.
Better orientation of aid to farmers
According to an OECD study of 49 countries’ agricultural policies, 67% of subsidies are directly linked to prices, production or the use ‘inputs’ (products added to farmland or crops, like fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, etc.). These subsidies are only activated when prices collapse, to protect farmers from the worst of the crisis.
But this is not how agricultural subsidies work in Europe, where farmers receive direct payments. These payments are not based in reality, according to the five MEPs. “When prices are high, these payments are hardly justifiable. When they are low, the same payments are not enough to help farmers,” they said.
According to the five S&D group politicians, the direct payments system should be complemented by a model similar to that which exists in some of the biggest agricultural countries, like China and Brazil.
“The first approach should complement the second and should not be a substitute for it, as Commissioner Phil Hogan had planned last September with his announcement of a €500 million package to tackle the agricultural crisis,” Andrieu said.
“The Commission should make proposals for greater market regulation (prices) and for a change in direction of agricultural development (subsidies) towards more sustainability,” he added.
“Despite what the conservatives say, the market alone cannot stabilise the agricultural sector. We need more regulation. […] We advocate the establishment of counter-cyclical tools: they would only intervene when the market is destabilised, when we see certain limits exceeded. This would reintroduce a certain flexibility,” the AGRI committee vice-chair said.
For Luc Vernet, from Farm Europe, these ideas are “highly interesting and necessary”, but a recently published text on income volatility and agricultural policies shows his think tank does not share the MEPs’ optimism about counter-cyclical measures.
“Counter-cyclical payments may look attractive on paper, but they would be difficult to implement in the European Union for a number of reasons,” he said.
“Firstly, they would require a variable budget from one year to the next (with the possibility of serious changes in the event of a major crisis). Then to put them in place we would need a fixed trigger price – a return to individually negotiated packages would be highly unlikely in a 28-member EU, where production costs vary so greatly from one country to another.
“And finally, there would be domino effects from one sector to another: a counter-cyclical payment for cereals producers would greatly harm livestock farmers, for example, because of their reliance on cereals for feed,” Vernet said.
The MEPs argued that the values and requirements of the European population have changed since the end of the Second World War, and that the CAP should be adapted accordingly. For EU citizens, the priority is no longer creating jobs and ensuring they have enough to eat, but the quality of their food and its impact on the environment and their health.
Our agricultural policies must follow these changes and “become greener”, the MEPs said.
This change of course would include the development of techniques that are still marginal in conventional agriculture, like the use of biocontrols – the introduction of organic products or organisms – to replace pesticides. “These practices work, it has been proved. Now they have to be developed,” said Andrieu.
The MEP added that human health was an issue that could not be avoided in any debate on agricultural policy, and that it was up to the policy-makers to ensure it is protected. But such a view may not be compatible with TTIP: “Our vigilance over the quality of our food products and our health will not facilitate a trade agreement that promotes the opposite,” Andreu said.