Why new CAP must place small sustainable producers at the centre

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

The EU's proposed reforms to the CAP in its next seven year budget risk being a missed opportunity, says Luke Flanagan. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

A new report published by a network of  European grassroots civil society organisations calls for a Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and wider policy framework that explicitly favours small-scale sustainable producers and re-localisation of food supply-chains, write Chris Chancellor and Geneviève Savigny.

Chris Chancellor is an independent researcher and writer on land rights and sustainable food systems and author of the Nyeleni Europe report.
Geneviève Savigny is a farmer in southern France and a member of the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC).

The upcoming AGRI Committee vote is the next stage in the lengthy CAP reform process, which will define the direction of EU agriculture for the period 2021-2017. It takes place amid growing public awareness of the multiple impending environmental, social and economic crises facing the agricultural sector.

Given the interlinked nature of agriculture and other facets of life, these crises, and thus the CAP, ultimately affect everyone. More and more voices are calling for urgent transformative action.

Over time, the CAP has switched its ethos from market regulation to ensure food security in Europe, to market liberalisation, removing the link between subsidies and production, and focusing on so-called ‘competitiveness’ and international trade.

The new CAP proposals look set to continue along this trajectory.

This is concerning given that the current CAP has promoted a damaging model of industrial food production and distribution. Monoculture production and intensive livestock farming have risen to prominence, relying upon chemical inputs, mechanisation, cheap labour, and conducive policy incentives that reward scaling-up.

As a result, the EU’s small-scale family farms are disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 2005 and 2016, the number of farms under 50 hectares in size fell by 29.4%. In real numbers, this represents just over 4 million holdings. This excludes the many holdings considered too small to be included in the statistics.

The report

A new report published by Nyeleni Europe, a network of  European grassroots civil society organisations campaigning for food sovereignty, details the far-ranging consequences of these trends.

Heavy agrochemical use and intensive resource exploitation are damaging soils, biodiversity, water systems and the atmosphere, driving climate change and threatening the viability of production for future generations.

Human and animal health is also threatened by chemical residues of foods, the creation of a uniform and unhealthy diets, and excessive antibiotic use in livestock farming.

Poor labour conditions and exploitation, particularly of migrant labourers, have become prevalent across the industrial production and processing sectors, an issue completely passed over in the new CAP proposals.

Consequently, smaller farms are being further squeezed out of the market, damaging rural vitality and further entrenching the destructive industrial model.

This may seem like a distressing picture, but there is a simple and inexpensive solution available to policy-makers: support small-scale sustainable producers and re-localise food chains.

The good news is that small producers already form the backbone of EU agriculture: 93% of the EU’s 9.8 million farm holdings are below 50 hectares (ha) in size, with two-thirds being smaller than 5ha.

It is this base of producers that can (and has already started to) drive the required transition towards agroecological and other resilient systems of production and distribution. However, a conducive policy environment is needed to facilitate this.

Going small-scale

A food system centred on small-scale producers utilising diverse regenerative management systems minimises the reliance on external inputs and fossil fuel use and invests in soils and local ecosystems.

There is growing evidence to suggest that an agroecological transition is the most viable way to feed Europe sustainably and that concerns about yield gaps are misplaced, especially in the face of an increasingly erratic climate.

Small-scale farms can also provide a vital rural labour absorption service, as well as more rewarding employment in rural areas. The knowledge-intensive nature of agroecology can help to build trust and solidarity in fractured rural communities.

Producers are also increasingly finding innovative ways to link their produce to local consumers through short supply-chains, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) and solidarity economy networks.

This can bring fairer prices, protection from international price volatility, serve as an educational tool, and provide greater transparency within the food chain.

The Nyeleni Europe report lays out a list of necessary policy goals as well as multiple concrete measures for achieving these.

These include capping untargeted area-based payments at €60,000 until a reformed system is put in place, and making these conditional to respect for labour rights and stronger environmental and climate action criteria.

Funds need to be diverted to knowledge sharing schemes to assist young farmers, new entrants and existing producers in adopting or transitioning to holistic agroecological management systems, and support for innovation must be inclusively developed and designed for low-input regenerative systems.

Rural development funds also need to be allocated to projects that explicitly seek to support local and regional food economies and develop short supply-chains.

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