Organic farmers defend EU’s ‘green revolution’

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Outgunned by large industrial farm lobbying groups, organic producers, supported by conservation organisations, have risen up to defend some of the European Commission's proposals for a 'greener' Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Leading farmers’ organisations and some farm ministers have criticised European Commission proposals for a greener agricultural policy, fearing new bureaucratic hurdles and a decline in yields at a time of rising global food demand.

But for organic farmers, the Commission’s proposed changes to the Common Agricultural Policy are positive – if tepid – steps toward more sustainable farming practices.

Agricultural Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? has defended plans that include encouraging farmers to rotate crops, set aside permanent pasture and create woodlands or buffer zones. The proposals are part of proposed changes to the €54-billion annual farm support programme that consumes some 40% of EU spending.

The draft ‘greening’ rules that would take effect in 2014 reflect what organic farmers already do.

“We are really very happy that this is really clearly recognised,” said Antje Kölling, policy coordinator for the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM).

The proposals would use 30% of direct payments – the so-called first pillar of the CAP, which accounts for some 70% of the budget – to promote conservation measures. Up to now, the second pillar has supported ecology measures and rural development with matching contributions from member states.

Defending his turf

Since revealing the CAP proposals in October, Ciolo? has been on the defensive against criticism that the greening measures would create more paperwork and even hurt production.

“A major objective of the reform is to provide the tools to provide both growth in agriculture and sustainability,” Ciolo? said last week in Rome. “If not, it is difficult to justify the CAP as a public policy.”

IFOAM and other groups, however, say more could be done to improve sustainability but fear the current proposals will be weakened in the coming months in the European Parliament and by national leaders.

“It’s quite clear that in [review] process there is a danger that everything will be watered down,” Kölling told EURACTIV in an interview. “I think that it will not be a big reform step in the end.”

IFOAM joined BirdLife Europe and several other groups in criticising a recent CAP Parliamentary hearing organised by the EU’s Polish presidency. They complained that the discussions on the future of farming policy dominated by large farmers’ and industrial organisations that often don’t see eye-to-eye with organic farmers or conservationists.

Small potatoes

Organic farming remains a tiny part of European agriculture despite strong support programmes in Austria, Sweden, Estonia and a few other countries. Some 9.3 million hectares – barely 5% of EU farmland – is organic, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, in Frick, Switzerland.

Farming and industry organisations worry that dedicating land for conservation buffers and pasture doesn’t make sense amid global warnings about food security.

A new UN Food and Agricultural Organization report forecasts a 70% rise in global agricultural demand by 2050 – and a doubling of need in low- and middle-income countries. The report also warns that climate change, unsustainable freshwater use and deteriorating soil quality from pesticides and fertiliser use threaten future food production.

The organic industry says the food security argument used by critics of a greener CAP doesn’t wash.

“In the CAP debate there is so much debate about food security and it usually ends in, OK, ‘we have to produce more, we have to produce cheaper [food], we have lower environmental requirements’,” said IFOAM’s Kölling.

“We have 1 billion people starving in the world – of course there is a food security issue. But I think the debate in the CAP reform is completely turned around to the wrong direction.”

She said a “real green revolution” in agriculture should focus on sustainability, better training, and helping farmers in developing countries improve their skills.

A recent report on future energy, food and water demand by the research arm of McKinsey and Company say the world faces sharply higher – and more unpredictable – resource prices without “revolution” in efficiency.

“A radical rethink of how we manage our global resources is needed to meet resource challenges over the next 20 years, on both the supply and productivity sides,” Richard Dobbs, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute, said in a statement.

“The good news is that there is an opportunity to achieve a resource productivity revolution comparable with the progress made on labor productivity during the 20th century,” he said.

 

Efficient resource use is seen as crucial to meeting food demand while taming consumption of energy, water and other resources. But agriculture and industry, for instance, are enormous consumers of resources.

Globally, farming accounts for 80% of freshwater consumption, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, and in the more arid regions of the Middle East, Northern Africa and Central Asia, it approaches 90% - levels that the FAO says are unsustainable. In Europe, 29% or consumption is for agriculture, whereas 55% is withdrawn by industry.

With global population expected to grow from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century, experts warn that at current rates of water consumption, combined with mounting demand for food crops and plant-based fuels, many parts of the world are on an unsustainable path of resource use.

In October, the European Commission unveiled its plans to make the Common Agricultural policy greener starting in 2014. However, some of its proposals are under fire by farm organisations and national agricultural ministers.

  • 19 Dec.: Scientists to discuss CAP reforms with the European Commission.
  • 2012-2013: Debate on the proposals in the European Parliament and the Council.
  • By end 2013: Expected approval of the different regulations and implementing acts.
  • 1 Jan. 2014: New CAP expected to enter into force.

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