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Le Monde debates the CAP

Last Friday, Le Monde, the leading French daily newspaper, devoted a double-page spread on its comment pages to the common agricultural policy. Along with José Bové, Michiel A. Keyzer and Jean-Christophe Bureau I was invited to contribute an article to the debate. You can read it in French on the Le Monde website. I’ve posted an English version below.

Farming should protect Europe’s environmental resources not use them up

In 2009, farm incomes fell across the whole of the EU, not least in France. Dairy farms have been hardest hit with average prices down twenty per cent. This is despite the EU spending 55 billion euro on the common agricultural policy, one of whose aims is to ensure farmers a fair standard of living.

Not long ago the lists of who gets what from farm subsidies were considered ‘state secrets’. No wonder. They reveal that far from supporting small family farms, as the public might suppose, the CAP is lining the pockets of Europe’s biggest landowners and agri-businesses. The data shows that across Europe, 85 per cent of aid goes to the top 17 per cent of recipients.

This is because under the twisted logic of the CAP, the biggest farms with the best land get the most public assistance. Besides helping the rich get richer and big farms to buy out their smaller neighbours, subsidies for land ownership and production rights creates a kind of closed shop. Young farmers must buy their way in and are saddled with heavy debts.

Modern agriculture has brought an abundance of food but it has come at a price that goes beyond the financial costs of the CAP. Over the past quarter century, 40 per cent Europe’s farmland birds have disappeared. Bee colonies, so necessary for pollination of arable crops, are experiencing sudden collapse. Rivers and seas are fouled with fertilizers, pesticides and animal effluent. Each year more ancient natural pasture is put to the plough and more wetlands are drained: once gone, forever lost. The CAP has done little to help. In France, for example, payments for farmland conservation amount to 380 million euro in 2008. They are dwarfed by old-style subsidies of 9.34 billion euro.

Things have improved a little in the past few years and Europe is no longer hurting farmers in developing countries by dumping big surpluses overseas. Farmers are mostly free to farm to market demand rather than to government diktat. Yet these reforms have been opposed at every turn by farm unions and the politicians and civil servants in ministries of agriculture, between whom there are often close ties.

And now, even this modest progress is at risk from a new wind of protectionism blowing across the continent. With a growing world population and a changing climate the question of how humanity will feed itself is back on the political agenda. And rightly so. During the winter of 2007/08, food prices leaped to record levels and the world’s poor faced hunger and even comparatively wealthy Europeans felt the pinch. The response in some quarters has been to adopt a siege mentality and aim for self-sufficiency in food. Why, it is argued, should we put ourselves at the mercy of global markets when there is more we can squeeze out of our own lands?

To base an entire agriculture policy on this logic would be a mistake. Seductive though it may be, the promise of European food self-sufficiency is an illusion as it would come through even greater dependency on on imports of natural gas from Russia for fertilizer and oil from the Middle East to run farm machinery.

Instead of a renewed push for unsustainable agricultural intensification, we should encourage more environmentally-friendly farming. Climate change will increase the risk of drought, flooding and poor harvests and the frightening reality is that any food shortages we may have experienced lately are nothing compared to what we might expect mid-century. We would be wise to safeguard the fertility of our own over-exploited soils, conserve our own precious water, protect the biodiversity we need for the pollination of fruits and vegetables and the ecological resources we will need in an uncertain future. In Europe there is little ‘spare land’ to cultivate and big increases in yields will be hard to find. Increasing global food production can best be achieved by helping farmers in poorer countries whose agricultural productivity lags far behind ours.

Following the election of a new European Parliament and the appointment of a new Commission, the EU will this year embark on a fundamental review of its agriculture policy, which still accounts for 40 per cent of the community’s entire budget. Aside from providing income support to a sector of society that is, more often than not, richer than the average citizen, taxpayers get little for our money. The future must be a common European policy to protect and preserve Europe’s lands, recognising the role played by sustainable farming.

It is certain that such a shift will be fought hard by those who have got used to receiving ‘money for nothing’ but at a time when government budgets are under such strain, we cannot go on like this. In 2009 we discovered where money goes and witnessed the sheer the waste and inequity of a system that in 2008 paid 1,583,120 euro to Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein and 253,987 euro to Prince Albert of Monaco. This year we must start taking action to build a better policy.

Jack Thurston is co-founder of farmsubsidy.org, a network of journalists, researchers and activists pushing for greater transparency in the CAP.

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