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A chorus of despair

Earlier this week I was invited to take part in a round table discussion, as part of a major conference on the future of the CAP, organised by Birdlife/SEO and WWF. The conference began with a joint presentation by SEO and WWF of an interesting new proposal for CAP reform in Spain. The proposal envisages an end to Pillar 1 by 2019 and the transfer of all CAP funds to an environmental and rural policy oriented around the principle of ‘public money for public goods’, by which is meant those environmental ‘services’ provided by farmers, particularly in areas of high nature value (HNV) farming such as upland pastures and native grasslands.

The conference took place in the new Spanish Ministry for the Environment, Rural Affairs and Marine Policy (recently formed in a merger between the old Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment) and the organisers were kind enough to invite a seven-strong panel of farming and rural business representatives to offer their reactions to the proposal: Ignacio Senovilla (UPA), Pedro Barato (ASAJA), Andoni García Arriola (COAG), Gabriel Trenzado (UE de Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias), Fernanto Molina (COSE), Marina Moya Moreno and Jose Zebeiro (both of REDR).

I am used to farm unions expressing their reservations about any talk of changes in the CAP but the not-so Magnificent Seven assembled in Madrid on Monday plumbed new depths of conservatism and profound lack of imagination. In an unrelenting chorus of hopelessness and despair, the panelists rehearsed similar arguments, most of which boil down to the following six points:

- Things are bad out there in Spain’s rural areas and a mass exodus of the population means that that many farmers can’t find girlfriends and wives. Something needs to be done.*

- The volatility in commodity prices over the past two years shows that the market doesn’t work and decoupling of farm aids was a mistake. It’s time to return to a policy of price fixing to ensure farmers are properly remunerated for their production.

- European farmers can never compete with farmers in New Zeland, Argentina or Nebraska and this is why we must have a policy of community preference to keep out imports.

- Food production is a public good, agriculture is a strategic industry. Compared to what’s being spent on bailing out the banks, the CAP is a bargain.

- ‘Modulation’ of funds from pillar 1 to pay for environmental and rural development policy is little more than theft and should be stopped at once.

- The CAP is under threat. Now is not the time to talk about policy change. In fact, what Birdlife/SEO and WWF are doing is little less than treachery and it will only play into the hands of those who would do away with the CAP altogether. Environmentalists should be standing united with farmers to defend the CAP.

The session ran for almost two hours but I felt as though I had aged ten years. Yet the most depressing part was that the speech given by the state secretary from the Spanish government more or less echoed the views of the farmers. Birdlife/SEO and WWF are doing a good job in putting the case for reform but they have a hard row to hoe and need all the help they can get.

* In a sublime moment of policy innovation in response to this particular complaint, Ana Etchenique of the Spanish consumers association, speaking in a subsequent session, advocated an expansion of the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programme in rural areas. She made a powerful case for the role of international lovemaking in the forging of a new European consciousness.

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One Response to “A chorus of despair”

  1. Wyn Grant →
    April 5, 2009 at 06:24 #

    You couldn’t make it up. Perhaps rural development funds should be used to provide a dating agency for farmers. I think there is one online in the UK.