Europe needs to nurture a new generation of farmers

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

This article is part of our special report Rio+20: Charting a green future?.

The Common Agricultural Policy's reform needs to be decoupled from strict, technical standards that will be unappealing to younger generations if we are to have a sustainable farm policy, writes Staffan Nilsson.

Staffan Nilsson is president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). The following commentary was first published here.

"There is no man-powered industrial process which is as efficient as photosynthesis when sunlight converts the carbon from the atmosphere into growing material. This process and water maintain all life on earth. This is the foundation of agriculture and of the farmer's role.

Staffan Nilsson is president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). The following commentary was first published here.

"There is no man-powered industrial process which is as efficient as photosynthesis when sunlight converts the carbon from the atmosphere into growing material. This process and water maintain all life on earth. This is the foundation of agriculture and of the farmer's role.

We tend to forget this when we talk about the future reform of EU farm policy. Some EU member states and politicians often repeat that we should abolish the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but they do not see that this policy is key to the development of the EU common internal market. And in an internal common market we need a level playing field, not least when it comes to state aid.

I see the future EU farm policy elements as the same elements I strive to have on my plate in order to eat healthily: I know half of needs to consist of vegetables, a quarter of carbohydrates and the other quarter of meat. In the EU farm policy the balance we strive to strike is the following: 50% going into sustainable use of our limited natural resources, 25% into rural development and 25% into employment.

How is it that greening our economies and agriculture has become so indispensable for tomorrow's future? First, because we are rapidly reaching our planet's limits, with trends such as the destruction of biological diversity jeopardising our natural life support systems. Economic players, producers and consumers, must be mindful of this. Secondly, agriculture is about biological processes and these processes are by definition about taking care of life on earth: from soil and micro-organisms to plants, fauna and people.

This is where discussions on agriculture take centre stage in sustainable development strategies, and in the preparations for Rio+20. And this is where we find full compatibility between sustainable agriculture and solutions to lots of other societal concerns such as the eradication of poverty and unemployment. Agriculture is part of the solution. Still, can we limit sustainability to food production, when in Europe and in other developed parts of the world we throw away one-third of the food we produce? The share of "produced but not consumed" food is even higher in the developing world, due to poor infrastructure for transport and storage. So we may also need to look more closely at consumption and waste.

At the same time, we have seen the average cost of household expenditure on food falling in real terms to historically low levels. Last year the UN FAO warned about the risk of a long-term rise in food prices, which have already, to some extent, affected people's reactions regarding the so-called Arab Spring. And the challenge for agriculture is to produce food for the expected additional two billion people by 2050.

A slightly different but related matter is the supply of big cities, totally dependent on transport systems. Today's distribution of food products from producers to people in the urban environment is based on a constant and daily flow. Is there any awareness of the vulnerability of supply systems?

Discussions between farmers, agro-industry players, environmental groups and consumers in the 27 member states are far from easy. Fair enough – debate and bargaining for the common good is at the heart of the European integration process. We need to make sure that a robust budget for the CAP is maintained. Otherwise, is it possible that the market price will pay for all farmers' supply? Unfortunately it is not so. And we need to make sure that there are neither losers nor winners, but fair, balanced and pragmatic redistribution of financial resources among Member States, bearing in mind the agricultural diversity across the EU and that the CAP budget is an investment for the future. It is important that farmers, whether from old or new member states, should not be hurt.

The greening component is actually a way of creating a stronger and more visible link between direct payments and the environmental public goods produced by farming. When possible, environmental measures should be based on win-win solutions for both the environment and growth. We cannot end up in a situation where the EU increases the costs of compliance for European farmers on the one hand, and on the other accepts, through trade agreements, cheap imports that need not to comply with the same rules.

We need to encourage and reform EU farm policy so that agriculture attracts younger generations. And the present economic crisis coupled with compliance with high quality and environmental standards are everyday challenges for European farmers. They are under pressure from markets. One-sixth of all jobs in Europe are related directly or indirectly to agricultural production, this figure being much higher in some member states. And it could be much more.

All this must be taken into account when we discuss a future CAP for the EU. There is no simple equation, but it must be resolved."

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