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Agriculture

EU agricultural policy at a crossroads: the vision of a Green minister for rural affairs

By Alexander Bonde

Agricultural policy in Europe is facing immense challenges. On the one hand there is rising consumer demand for high quality food produced increasingly in line with strict ecological, social and animal welfare standards; at the same time, the past ten years have seen an unprecedented switch to industrialised modes of production in both arable and livestock farming in many parts of Europe. The consequences include rising numbers of farmers abandoning their farms, a dramatic reduction in biodiversity in the countryside and a never-ending series of scandals associated with the food industry.

Quality not quantity

The current debate around the reform of European agricultural policy vividly illustrates this conflict. Large groups within society have been working for many years to move our farming system towards sustainable management of the resources of our unique landscapes in harmony with the environment, the climate and animal welfare. Under the banner ‘Quality not quantity’ (‘Klasse statt Masse’), they voice their support for developing a competitive food production sector focused on value creation through high-quality products with both national and international appeal. This requires a reduction in the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers that are potentially harmful to the soil, to water and to biodiversity. It entails rejecting the use of genetically modified plants because of the high risks posed to human beings and the environment. The reform of European agricultural policy should involve linking public payments – that is, payments made from our taxes – to the delivery of social goods. For the countryside is comprised not just of fields and woods: it is also crucially important in economic and social terms. The rural population contributes significantly to the preservation of unique landscapes. They not only produce high-quality foodstuffs and renewable raw materials, they also create valuable capital for nature conservation and tourism. These immensely important services are not properly compensated through the market, and it therefore falls to society to acknowledge and reward those who provide them. This approach is behind not only the ‘greening’ of agricultural payments proposed by the European Commission, but also most of the subsidies under the so-called second pillar of European agricultural policy.

On the opposing side stands a well-organised lobby, consisting of large agricultural producers, the chemicals industry and seed companies, pushing for a continuation of ‘business as usual’ in agricultural policy regardless of the consequences for natural resources or for employment. Their strategic focus for the European agricultural sector is consistently oriented towards exports and global markets, and they are prepared to accept the costs in terms of erosion of the social and natural foundations of farming both here in Europe and in those newly industrialised and developing countries whose markets they want to capture. Their aim is an increasingly intensive production system involving industrialised models of arable and livestock farming and high pesticide and fertiliser use. They strenuously resist the linking of European public finances to the provision of wider social goods. This means, however, that they are jeopardising the productive basis of more than two-thirds of our farms.

On the opposing side stands a well-organised lobby, consisting of large agricultural producers, the chemicals industry and seed companies, pushing for a continuation of ‘business as usual’ in agricultural policy regardless of the consequences for natural resources or for employment

A Green magic triangle

The demand for organic and regional produce (which has been continuously rising for some years now in the German food retail sector), consistently rising consumer pressure for humane animal husbandry, the growth of tourism in rural areas with rich landscapes – all point towards a different path. What might be called the ‘magic triangle’ of agricultural production models, nature conservation and tourism all working in harmony demonstrates the opportunities, sadly underexploited to date, offered by our native rural economy. For the great wealth-creating potential of the countryside can only be mobilised if the economic, social and ecological interests of the various rural sectors are no longer developed independently of one another but rather brought into alignment so that they create new synergies. The flight to maize monocultures for energy or animal fodder production, or livestock factories with tens of thousands of hens or pigs, both restrict profits in the rural economy to a small number of businesses, destroy the natural capital of landscapes that have developed over centuries and render whole regions unattractive to their own populations as well as to tourists.

A farming policy that takes full account of its responsibilities, by way of contrast, needs to strengthen the economic basis of the many businesses still in family ownership. It needs to use incentives to enable them to gain a steady income through high-quality, locally-sold organic produce while preserving the natural resource base of the region.

Baden-Würtemberg promotes switching to organic farming

This is what we are doing in Baden-Württemberg. The Red-Green coalition governing the region [Land] promotes both organic farming and GMO-free production of food and animal fodder, and it supports the conservation of nature and the environment. One of my first decisions was to re-activate the support system for farms switching over from conventional to organic production in order to ensure that such a change would continue to make economic sense for farmers. For it is especially in the changeover period that organic farms need help. In addition, we provide support for education, research and marketing in the organic farming sector through our Organic Action Plan [Bio-Aktionsplan].

One of my first decisions was to re-activate the support system for farms switching over from conventional to organic production in order to ensure that such a change would continue to make economic sense for farmers.

Baden-Württemberg joined the European Network of GMO-free Regions on 10 October 2012. This sends out a clear political signal against the introduction of genetic engineering in agriculture and in favour of safe food and animal fodder. We have also extended the quality label ‘Baden-Württemberg’ so that products bearing this mark will soon have to be GMO-free in terms of both cultivation and feeding. The publicly-owned research institutes in the region now source only GMO-free fodder, and new tenants of publicly-owned land have to pledge that they will practise only GMO-free cultivation. This helps to increase the sales of produce from our region, as ever-growing numbers of consumers want to buy locally-produced foodstuffs. They are thereby supporting a vibrant diversity of tastes, and helping at the same time to determine how the farming industry can contribute to the environment and animal welfare.

We have also set out a new path for tourism. For example, we are currently developing a sustainability check for the sector, supporting an upgrading of the energy performance of the hospitality industry stock, and promoting environmentally friendly, nature-based holiday options through the ‘Green South’ project.