Let’s get concrete and controversial!

Recently, I attended a conference of the British Land Use Policy Group (LUPG) on ‘Securing our Common Future through Environmentally Sustainable Land Management – Vision for the Future of the CAP post 2013’. The first speaker noted that ‘the challenge of the next months is to identify the questions for CAP reform’. Toward the end, a commentator from the floor summarized the discussion: ‘We had a lot of questions and not many answers.’ Should we really place ourselves at such an early, exploratory stage where we struggle to grasp the main dimensions of the problems, at best determine broad directions for reform?

Clearly not! We know a great deal about the deficiencies of the current CAP and where we should head. What we should grapple with now – at least within the informed community – is the detail: How should we phase out the SFP, while minimizing hardship for low-income households? Which public goods should receive EU subsidies and how much? How should the European Commission assess submissions for EU subsidies and how should it control national subsidies once budgetary responsibility has shifted to an important degree from the European to the national and local level?

Instead, the discussion remained vague and consensual. One critical (Swedish) question was raised on how to determine European public goods. The answer from the podium came that biodiversity is generally seen as a global public good and that ‘there is a feeling that we are somehow in this together.’ This is wholly insufficient for keeping agricultural subsidies at European level: we are somehow together in everything. We need clear guidelines on what elements of biodiversity are in the European interest and to what extent.

Another point that worried me was that the emerging leitmotif of bringing together food security and environmental security. Food security was understood as both a European ‘domestic’ concern and a global moral responsibility. Yet we all know that Europe’s food security is not threatened, and that, in any case, promoting European food security would require measures very different from what we see in the CAP. On the global scale, food security as an argument for a heavy CAP is no less of an intellectual nonstarter. It’s difficult to disentangle the short- and long-term effects of (directly or indirectly) promoting European agricultural production on world hunger. But even if we believe that greater European food production would diminish hunger, other measures – such as paying for agricultural research and extension in developing countries or income support for the poorest – are incomparably more effective than handing out money to European farmers. And still, the promoters of environmental protection seem to feel that they had to make concessions to food security (in the old-fashioned sense of productivity and not only as preserving soil, water, genetic variety, and ecosystem stability).

If we are serious about CAP reform, we need a more outspoken debate that digs down to where the conflicts start to emerge and that rejects rather than accommodates false arguments.

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