Europeans deserve a better agricultural and food policy

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

Organic farm, Catalonia. [Christopher Wagner/Flickr]

Organic research and exchange of good practices must empower farmers to move towards resilient farming systems, write Bart Staes, José Bové and Martin Häusling.

Bart Staes, José Bové and Martin Häusling are Members of the European Parliament for the Greens/European Free Alliance. 

Industrial agriculture has a massive problem. Never before has so much food been produced. Yet despite this, there are more than 800 million people who are malnourished and the basic resources for our food like soil, water and biodiversity are increasingly lost. Monocultures and factory farming adorn our countryside, needing permanent intensive care with all kind of treatments against diseases and pests. The soil is almost dead after too many years of exploitive practices. Nutrients are so exhausted, that even costly synthetic fertilisers cannot raise or even preserve current productivity. The less our soils can provide balanced nutrition and self-defence to our crops and farm animals, the more agro-chemical inputs turn into big business for only a few mega-companies The “agro-chemical-food complex” has become entrenched as a dangerous status quo.

Even though the European Commission and member states admit that biodiversity in soils and agro-ecological systems are deteriorating rapidly, they have not taken the chance during the recent CAP reform to move towards the paradigm change urgently needed in European farming since years.. Europe continues its “business as usual”  in its agricultural research agenda, focusing on biotechnology and further intensification of agro-industrial production.

We need research for change. While the dominant agro-industrial science and research agenda treats living organisms and eco-systems like raw material, agro-ecological research offers the way out of the deadlock by enhancing living systems within crop and animal production, taking into account the limits of external resource availability and the potential of regeneration of food resources. Organic farming is a promising starting point for this approach.

More demand than supply

This is why we are organising the “Research for Transition” conference , where the findings of a new study with some new facts and figures of the EU agricultural research agenda will be presented. And questions will be asked. Who benefits from the current research agenda (biotech research and agro-industrial intensification vs. organic/agro-ecological research)? What are the main obstacles, from a research point of view, for achieving this transitions towards sustainability?  What should be the priority if we could double the research budget for organic farming? The conference will also focus on the pioneering role of organic farming for a transition towards a really sustainable agricultural practice. We can shift in the long run towards organic being the new conventional farming practice, while being socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.

We note that the demand of Europeans for and consumption of organic food is rising fast every year, while organic production on our European farms lags far behind this demand.

What is wrong?

We believe that there is not enough new and innovative research and development being done in Europe which allows us to adapt our knowledge and practices to the real challenges agriculture and farmers face these days.

Are there ideological or economic barriers in the way to turn our farming and food system into a more sustainable framework of science, development and policies?

To explore these questions, the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament asked the Université Catholique de Louvain (BE) and the Organic Research Centre (UK) to carry out a study on how the available EU research funds are spent in the agricultural sector. Research is a key element in the exploration and development of new pathways in farming systems. After a thorough search for figures, it became clear that available data are neither precise nor comprehensive, while billions of euros are spent. Where is this money going?

Greening by principle

Apart from the lack of reliable data, the researchers found a clear imbalance between funds spent on research in organic farming and funds spent on research in biotechnology in the agronomic sector. Biotechnology and agro-chemical approaches receive the big bulk of public research money. So-called “green” biotechnology techniques are expensive, locking farmers into expensive chemical input dependency and simply further empower the dominant agro-chemical complex which promotes the same outdated, chemically intensive business model.

On many occasions, the European Commission has acknowledged the many benefits of organic farming for a move into more sustainable farming systems. In the recently adopted reform of CAP Common Agriculture Policy organic farming was exempted from greening obligations with the argument that it is offering “greening by principle”.

Greens promote this “greening by principle” through a paradigm shift which looks at organic farming as a tool to move towards a more sustainable way of responding to current challenges – not as an exception but as the rule for future farming. It can internalise the real costs of production. It opens a chance for farmers to resist the exploitive structure of the agro-industrial complex. It can help clawing back farmers control over their own capacities and resources.

Doing agro-ecological and agronomic research from the bottom up is about preserving and developing farmers own seeds and animal breeds adapted to their regional climatic conditions and local needs. It is about obtaining a fair income from the food chain in which supermarkets have gained a growing unfair share.

In all this, organic research and exchange of good practices must empower farmers to move towards resilient farming systems if we stand a chance of surviving the challenges our societies currently face.

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