Karl Falkenberg’s reflections on the CAP

Karl who, you might well ask? Well, Mr Falkenberg has just published a reflections paper setting out a European vision for sustainability which goes into some detail about his views on the future of EU agricultural policy. Indeed, one-fifth of his relatively short document is devoted to this topic. You might well shrug that yet another viewpoint added to the hundreds of others (including those aired on this blog) discussing how Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy should be reformed after 2020 is hardly worth getting exercised about. But Mr Falkenberg’s views may deserve more attention than most.

After all, Mr Falkenberg spent more than six years as Director-General in DG ENVI after a distinguished career in the Commission civil service including a stint as Deputy Director-General in DG TRADE. Perhaps more important, he was appointed in September 2015 as a Senior Advisor for Sustainable Development to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. He sits along with a group of elite advisors to the President in the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), an in-house think-tank within the Commission reporting directly to the Commission President.

His brief at the EPSC is to assess the implications of the commitments in the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development for the Commission and to advise on how to integrate sustainable development into EU policies. This reflections paper is his first public pronouncement and thus deserves close attention. At a minimum, Mr Falkenberg will surely find it easier to get the ear of Commission President Juncker than most others trying to influence the shape of the future CAP.

Unfortunately, despite good intentions, the advice given in the paper is rather vague and ill-defined and sometimes downright harmful. It remains to be seen what influence it might have in the debate now starting on the future CAP.

Starting observations

Mr Falkenberg observes that the great success of EU agriculture in increasing productivity in recent decades has come at a price:

continued reduction of the number of farms and farm employment, larger specialised production units, leading to monocultures with considerable environmental impacts and food quality that is increasingly questioned by consumers …. Long-term trends on rural employment, farming incomes and major environmental indicators for soil quality and biodiversity remain problematic.

He notes that “there are serious concerns about the environmental impact of our present agricultural production methods. Large-size animal production leads to large amounts of manure, which the crop production cannot absorb … [leading] to unhealthy levels of nitrogen in surface waters in the main production areas”.

In his view,

All of this argues for a lower animal per hectare production process. Comparable problems exist in intensive fish farming and intensive farming overall. The number of infringements and Court cases against Member States for not respecting the Nitrates and the Water Framework Directives illustrates that intensive farming negatively impacts the environment. Large monoculture affects biodiversity negatively to a point where pollinators are coming under real threat.

Despite several reform projects of the CAP, he notes that “its monetary benefits still largely go to large intensive farming practices which increases not only social inequalities, but also environmental problems, monocultures and rural desertification”.

Focus should be put on agroecology

In response to this damning diagnosis, Mr Falkenberg’s first suggestion, referring to the recent French initiative to encourage an integrated use of resources and nature-based solutions, is to propose that agroecology should be given full attention in a debate about transforming the Common Agricultural Policy. Now agroecology has developed a multitude of meanings for different groups (including, at a very basic level, whether it is spelled agroecology or agro-ecology, I tend to prefer the former while Mr Falkenberg prefers the latter). In particular, it is both a science and a political movement.

As a science, agroecology combines ecology (interactions among biological components at the field level, or agroecosystem) and agronomy (integration of agricultural management). It has been defined as “the global study of agroecosystems protecting natural resources, with a view to design and manage sustainable agroecosystems”. The objective of the science of agroecology is to understand better how to live with and take advantage of biological systems both to improve agricultural productivity, and enhance natural systems (natural capital). In the words of one advocate, “This approach is based on enhancing the habitat both aboveground and in the soil to produce strong and healthy plants by promoting beneficial organisms while adversely affecting crop pests (weeds, insects, diseases and nematodes)” (Altieri, p. 1).

Agroecological science has identified a number of practices which contribute to this objective. There is a strong focus on the importance of soil health, minimising the loss of soil nutrients and increasing soil organic matter. Another lesson is to minimise the use of external inputs and to work towards closed-loop systems. A further insight is the importance of promoting biodiversity, biological interactions and synergies, and to make use of these natural processes for purposes like pest management, weed control and waste management.

However, agroecology is also the name for a political movement which seeks to empower and champion the ingenuity of small farmers. From this perspective, agroecology is much more than simply a set of farm practices for managing land and growing crops. Political agroecology takes a food system approach and focuses on the distribution of power relationships along the food chain. Political agroecology is anti-industrial agriculture, anti-large scale agriculture, anti-biotechnology, critical of current food consumption habits and anti-trade. Political agroecology and the food sovereignty movement are largely overlapping responses to the perceived ills of a globalised food system dominated by large corporations.

Mr Falkenberg is careful to define what he sees as the merits of agroecology:

[A]gro-ecology … builds upon the natural synergies between plants, animals, humans and their environment. Agro-ecology brings back to farming the 3 dimensions of sustainable development: to sustain agricultural production, preserve healthy environments and support viable food and farming communities. Agro-ecology also builds upon innovation, but in an inclusive manner through e.g. social innovation and different production methods and new business models. Agro-ecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation. Agro-ecology is economically viable for those making the choice to transform their production methods to be in charge of the process rather than dependent upon firms producing seeds and inputs. It also contributes to fighting climate change and to improving nutrition. It deserves full attention in a debate about transforming the Common Agricultural Policy.

While this paragraph is largely an advocacy of agroecology on scientific grounds, there are echoes of the political movement in the notion that innovation can only be based on farmers’ knowledge and experimentation (for those of us of a less religious disposition, the neglect of the contribution of modern science, informatics and engineering can seem absurd) while the claim that agroecology can also help to improve nutrition (in the context of developed countries) seems far-fetched. However, Mr Falkenberg comes closest to the political agroecology movement in his advocacy of a future European agriculture based on labour-intensive small farms.

The labour-intensive small farm mirage

Mr Falkenberg’s vision is set out as follows:

Agriculture potentially can offer significant employment opportunities if organised in less industrial fashion. A European policy that would support more labour intensive integrated farming could not only contribute to stop the exodus but also to create additional employment in rural areas to maintain a traditional landscape, reduce qualitative and quantitative water and soil problems and help restoring biodiversity in agriculturally used land.

Organic farming and other forms of alternative agriculture are indeed more labour-intensive than conventional farming. Whether this is a positive attribute in itself can be questioned. It is easy to absorb people into low-productivity occupations which pay low wages. Sustainability in the long run (which in its economic dimension must include competitiveness) requires the ability to generate high-productivity work which can remunerate those engaged in the industry at comparable levels to the rest of the economy.

What is striking is the ahistorical nature of Mr Falkenberg’s vision. It runs counter to the historical experience of employment trends in agriculture over the past century, historical trends which are grounded in well-understood economic forces and which have led to the steady consolidation of farms over time. The primary motor behind these trends is rising labour productivity in the non-farm sector which has allowed a steady rise in living standards.

For farm living standards to keep up, farm labour productivity must also increase, particularly as for most of this period the prices of farm products were rising less rapidly than the prices of manufactured goods and services. The rising cost of labour, in turn, encouraged the substitution of capital for labour and induced innovation in industrialised countries that was labour-saving. Economies of scale due to the greater use of capital equipment on farms as well as the need to spread the fixed labour input on farms over a larger area have both driven the process of farm structural change and consolidation.

Unless we are prepared to assume that labour productivity, and thus living standards, in the nonfarm sector are going to drastically fall, or that prices of agricultural products are going to go through the roof relative to the prices of nonfarm goods and services, these economic forces behind farm consolidation will continue to determine the evolution of farm structures. In that context, pursuing a more labour-intensive agriculture is really a call to return to a managed and regulated agriculture, with high prices, behind high tariffs and closed to the rest of the world (as, to be fair, the food sovereignty movement wants and desires). It is an unattractive manifesto with no long-term perspective.

Mr Falkenberg is aware of this criticism. He quotes some results from agroecological research in France which showed both lower use of external inputs (nitrogen and herbicides) and higher returns per hectare in grain production, mainly attributable to a larger presence of natural pollinators in a more diversified landscape. He argues this research tends to demonstrate that agroecological practices would by no means imply a reduction in output, nor substantial price increases.

While not dismissing these conclusions, the key indicator in terms of farm viability – the return per unit of labour input – is not quoted. Because agroecological farming is more management and labour-intensive than conventional farming with chemicals, I suspect the comparison on that account might not be so favourable.

What might this mean for the CAP post-2020?

The unwarranted attention to the political aspects of agroecology distracts attention from the serious environmental challenges associated with conventional farming rightly outlined by Mr Falkenberg. Agroecological practices are certainly one approach to tackling these problems. This raises the questions: why are these practices not more widely adopted, and how might the CAP do more to facilitate their adoption? How should the CAP encourage farmers to “produce differently”?

The economic perspective provides one answer. Innovation responds to relative prices (this is what is meant by saying that innovation is induced). During the post-war period, farmers were encouraged to take advantage of cheap supplies of fossil fuels, cheap supplies of chemical fertilisers, the availability of chemical crop protection products and plentiful supplies of water, while at the same time being able to externalise and pass on to others the negative environmental consequences of using these inputs. Industrial or large-scale agriculture is not resource-intensive per se, this was the economic environment in which it developed.

To develop a more sustainable agriculture, these negative externalities have got to be internalised. Were carbon emissions, soil erosion, depletion of water aquifers, nitrogen leakage, loss of biodiversity and air pollution all to be properly priced or regulated, agroecology and other sustainable farm practices would compete on a more level playing field. How to design proper incentives, and the relative roles of regulation and markets to achieve this objective, are hugely important topics. It is thus of interest to ask what the Falkenberg paper has to say on these issues.

His over-riding advice to President Juncker is unexceptional if still likely to be controversial in some quarters:

Planning the next agricultural reform, more attention should be placed on sustainability, and strengthening rural development support type instead of direct payments linked to acreage.

Mr Falkenberg recognises that this would be just a first step. But in spelling out what this might mean in practice, I confess to a certain sense of disappointment. Having expertly teed up the problems, his specific recommendations are a bit of a hotch-potch:

Do a Fitness check of the Common Agricultural Policy [an explicit reference to the recent NGO call for this]; reverse the trend to overspecialisation on single farm activity; support integrated farming as a means to secure farm income in the face of world price fluctuation; privilege quality over quantity and seek to sustainably use renewable resources on land and at sea; develop more awareness for health related dietary attitudes by consumers and orient producers in the same direction; foster a more strategic use of Public Procurement rules by the Member States, building on the Commissions’ work for Innovation (Horizon 2020 support for pre-commercial procurement and public procurement innovative solutions).

There are further specific suggestions scattered throughout the text.

“The Commission must think “circular” when it will redefine the Common Agricultural Policy.”

In view of the importance of diet-related diseases in the EU, nutrition, health, environment/climate impact and consumer perception are key elements to be integrated on equal footing in the shape of the next reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

“Linking rural development and agricultural policy back to health and environment is an economic, social and environmental must”.

“Local foods, short supply chains and on-farm processing could become a key element in meeting the primary goal of the Common Agricultural Policy to increase farm revenue and to provide quality food to European citizens.

Ecosystem services should be part of a sustainable European agriculture, using “green infrastructures” to address issues like floods, climate change, soil erosion.

As part of a necessary re-evaluation of the role of natural capital, measures aimed at ensuring the preservation of pollinating insects in general terms (such as minimisation of harmful pesticides and a sufficient level of crop diversity for their nutritional needs) are essential.

These are all high-level objectives, but what these might mean for the precise modalities of the next CAP reform is not spelled out any further. This may be too much to expect. After all, the reflections paper addresses sustainability, and the CAP is addressed as just one of a number of sustainability hotspots. On the other hand, without specific recommendations, timelines and targets, the ideas will be easy to dismiss.

Next steps

Following the adoption by the UN in September 2015 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the EU has a key role in the implementation of the SDGs.

As an initial step the Commission is carrying out a broad mapping exercise, including all relevant DGs, in order to identify which existing EU policies already address challenges set by the SDGs and where there are the gaps and weaknesses.

The Commission plans to finalise this mapping in October 2016 and to publish the results. It will be interesting to see how many of Mr Falkenberg’s ideas are reflected in this document and ultimately in the Commission’s thoughts on a future CAP.

This post was written by Alan Matthews

Photo credit: Montado in Portugal by Diana Tuomasjukka via Flickr.

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4 Responses to “Karl Falkenberg’s reflections on the CAP”

  1. Liesbeth de Schutter
    September 6, 2016 at 10:37 #

    Thank you very much for this post! I fully agree with both raising awareness about the Falkenberg paper as well as with being critical about the way alternatives are being framed. Nevertheless, it is about time to take a holistic – meaning a broader societal – perspective on the costs and benefits of the current CAP and I therefore praise the courage of Falkenberg to seriously call for an exploration for alternative directions. Furthermore, considering the strong historical, cultural and economic embeddedness of current agricultural pathways (productivity improvement), it is not to be expected that this mainstream will massively be abandoned in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, productivity improvement will continue to play an important role in alternative directions as well. But a bit more room for such alternatives, if only for serious experiments, is very welcome I would argue. In that respect, I think it is quite premature to call the need for such experiments a religion, whereas it is very well known that our dominant neoliberal approach is a full church itself ;) .

  2. Simon Ward
    September 6, 2016 at 13:34 #

    I too welcome the debate but it is wrong to concentrate on an indirect solution. Sustainability allowing systems to be maintained is the issue not whether large, small, intensive, black or white. There is not a relationship that holds in all situations between farm type ans sustainability.

    There is far too much work that goes unpublished because the environmental impact is shown to be zero and thus not interesting. This allows a bias to be promulgated through small trials with a negative impact that are combined to show strong statistical significance. We need to address this unintended bias as a matter of urgency. Standard statistical methods fail where data is missing.

    If I am presented with a plot of land to farm in order to address social aspects I will happily let Mr Falkenberg farm it. It will provide me with more freedom and the land with a more efficient system. Mr Falkenberg may also learn that it is not always a great life but a refuge from doing something new. If nothing else 30 years of agricultural consultancy has shown me the real damaging impact of small farms both environmentally and socially – it is too often tragic. But if it is not for Mr Falkenberg I am the last person to dissuade him.

  3. Liesbeth de Schutter
    September 6, 2016 at 15:37 #

    Dear Simon, if mr. Falkenberg would be given the chance, he may plant trees instead of maize for dairy cattle. It would capture carbon, deliver materials and/or energy and allow him to write some more policy papers as he is not tied to the farm for 80 hrs a week. I would argue that exploring such alternatives in a societal (transformation) context is much more important than getting stuck in the large-small scale farm discussion.

  4. Alan Matthews →
    September 9, 2016 at 22:09 #

    @Liesbeth, Simon

    Thanks a lot for these thoughtful comments. One issue which I think is worth teasing out a little more is the implicit assumption that CAP subsidies favour conventional farming at the expense of alternative approaches. To the extent that conventional farming results in additional external costs which are not reflected in the costs that farmers face, to me this is a failure of the regulatory environment rather than a failure of agricultural policy as such. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that CAP subsidies slow down the rate of farm structural change and consolidation and thus work against the emergence of larger farm units which the political agroecology movement dislikes.

    I enjoyed the dig about the neoliberal church, Liesbeth, and I support your call for more research, experimentation and innovation in improving agroecological practices and productivity. I am also convinced that farmer involvement in such research is essential to its success. But just to clarify the context for my comment, I have the sense that in political agroecology it is an article of faith (hence the reference to religion) that legitimate innovations can only emerge from farmers sharing their experiences and practices, and certainly not from profit-driven private sector companies. I think this unnecessarily excludes an enormous amount of beneficial knowledge which can be generated in universities and research labs using the tools of modern science, informatics and engineering.