Agriculture

From the Common Agricultural Policy to Sustainable Food Systems

During centuries, the symbol of a society’s progress and evolution was its industrial character and its move away from agriculture. Yet, in the aftermath of World War 2, Europeans realised the strategic importance of maintaining a strong agriculture sector; to feed its own people, but also to reach a certain level of self-sufficiency vis-à-vis the rest of the world. As a result, the emerging European Community massively invested in communalising all agricultural models across the continent and supported them through strong intervention mechanisms (fixed prices, quotas, export subsidies, import tariffs, etc.).

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the first real symbol of European integration, was born. Today, somewhat paradoxically, after being des-invested and discarded for centuries, agriculture is starting to be re-associated with progress; it is being looked upon as one of the key sectors that will contribute to a new economic, social and ecological paradigm. Farming is being re-introduced in cities, arable land is becoming an increasingly scarce – and therefore valuable – resource, and the agricultural sector sits at the crossroads of the industrial, social and territorial revolution of our century. In times when citizens are asked to re-connect with their natural environment, farmers are in a strategic position to work with nature, rather than against it.

However, despite the overall sense of urgency in the face of current challenges, there is still a long way to go before the actors of the agricultural sector take full possession of the new role society has assigned to them. Unfortunately, and to the Greens’ great disappointment, the on-going CAP reform is not going to facilitate this process, rather the opposite. The recently adopted position of the European Parliament confirms the conservative and resistant-to-change character of the CAP

A highly unequal, inefficient, unsustainable policy: a difficult child

Since its last reform in 2003, the CAP has been under increasing criticism and scrutiny from the European taxpayer. The inequalities of payments between old Member States (average 2010 payment of €7,486) and new Member States (average 2010 payment of €1,552), but also within the farmers’ communities revealed the highly unfair character of what is supposed to be a farmers’ support policy.  The economic evidence also pointed to the fundamentally inefficient system of support in place, which increases the value of land, rather than significantly contributing to the farmers’ income[1]. Food scares highlighted the inability of the CAP to track down fraud and enforce efficient food traceability, and the environmental degradation directly linked to the CAP (loss of biodiversity, soil, air & water pollution, etc) confirmed its largely unsustainable character.

Today, somewhat paradoxically, after being des-invested and discarded for centuries, agriculture is starting to be re-associated with progress; it is being looked upon as one of the key sectors that will contribute to a new economic, social and ecological paradigm

Finally, the competition bias towards larger actors of the supply chain, at the expense of smaller producers, the obsession of being competitive on world markets rather than optimising the European potential (e.g. through quality labels, promotion policy, etc.), and many other fundamental flaws in the CAP structure and implementation, have all significantly darkened the image of this public policy in the eyes of European citizens. Yet, many stakeholders and decision-makers – from opposite sides of the political spectrum– fight to death to keep the CAP alive.

Resistance to change: why the CAP won’t grow up

As the first child of European integration, there is a very strange – and sometimes not very rational – relationship between the CAP and its conceivers. Despite their most dreadful mistakes in designing the CAP, and despite the latter’s resistance to change, Europeans don’t seem ready to let it go. Perhaps, because you just don’t give up on food. The Greens still hope that this huge amount of money (currently 40% of the EU budget, and €373,179 million for the period 2014-2020[2]) could be re-directed towards sustainable farming, that these funds could serve the transition that our agricultural systems crave for; that they could finally support the farmers who really need it.  Who? The small farmers who haven’t blindly followed the industrial path but who keep our rural areas alive; the farmers who produce more than food; the farmers whose products are not currently sold at their real production costs; the farmers who can’t compete with Chinese powder milk but who we still need in our countryside; farmers who want to change but are trapped in the vicious circle of economies of scale; young farmers, urban farmers, and many more.

The Greens still fight for this policy to be maintained, but in a fundamentally different way; from a production policy to an all-compassing food policy, re-connecting producers and consumers. On the other side of the spectrum, the conservative political forces also want to keep the CAP alive, with, they hope, as little change as possible. They fight for keeping a system in place, which has largely benefitted landowners and strong agricultural corporations, at the expense of the environment, our rural areas and our health.

In broad terms, the content of the CAP reform package embodies an archaic and productivist vision of agriculture, inherited from the post-World-War II period, but which is far from responding to the challenges of the 21st Century. Nevertheless, beyond the disappointment, and because of the far-reaching implications of agriculture for the entire society, there is hope that farmers and citizens will operate their own change.

Despite their most dreadful mistakes in designing the CAP, and despite the latter’s resistance to change, Europeans don’t seem ready to let it go.

If the CAP can’t change, can we?

Re-shifting the financial resources allocated to the CAP (over €373,179 million for the period 2014-2020[3]) towards the transformation of our food systems would of course make a significant contribution to the ecological transition of our economies. The fact that this shift is now very unlikely to take place[4] does not mean that we, citizens, politicians, activists, farmers, consumers, can’t be key actors of the transition. On the contrary. There are many citizen-led actions, grassroots initiatives, and loopholes in the legislation that allow us to move a little closer to sustainable food systems.

The Greens in Belgium have been a leading figure in broadening the scope of action on food, re-connecting agriculture with the rest of economy and trying to erect sustainability as the rule along the food supply chain. Ecolo has significantly contributed to the ongoing conceptual thinking around “sustainable food systems”, of which the Conseil Fédéral du Développement Durable (CFDD, Belgium), provides a useful definition:

We define a sustainable food system as one that realises its purpose of guaranteeing a right to food and respects food sovereignty, that makes sufficient and healthy food available for all at an affordable price, that reflects all production costs and internalises external environmental and social costs and benefits in end prices, that uses resources at their rate of recovery and that respects different aspects of the food-culture. All actors of the food chain and governments should contribute to achieve this sustainable food system.

From this broad definition, Ecolo has derived a few key ecological principles, which guides its concrete political actions in the Brussels and Wallonia Regions.

Changing the world from your plate

One of the biggest flaws of the mainstream conception of food systems is its biased focused on one side of the supply chain: production. This approach has led to a situation where agriculture has increasingly been considered like any other “industrial” sector, producing commodities at the cheapest possible price. By obfuscating agriculture’s specificities, we have managed to turn our most vital sector into an industrial machine capable of poisoning us and destroying the natural resources on which it depends. The Greens strongly oppose this vision and believe in agriculture’s exceptionalism. They believe that this sector should not be treated like any other. If food has historically been such an important civilizational factor, there are good reasons to hope that the agro-food sector may be at the heart of the fundamental transition we are calling for.

Consumers are co-producers

A second dysfunction of the currently dominant agricultural model is the increasing disconnection and fast-widening gap between producers and consumers. Demographic changes and urbanisation, together with the industrialisation of our agro-food sector, have led to a situation where most consumers have very little knowledge about the food they consume, where it comes from, how it was processed or transformed, when it should be eaten, how it should be prepared, etc. The long and complex food supply chains have obvious environmental consequences (linked to the transportation of food, etc.), but also have less obvious economic, social and cultural consequences. Under the pressure of the largest actors of the supply chain (processors and retailers), and of ever-lower prices, primary producers are forced to take increasing risks, at the expense of long-lasting traditions, our health and the environment. For this reason, the Greens have put re-connection at the heart of their political strategy towards sustainable food systems, by promoting short supply chains, direct producer-consumer relationship and urban agriculture.

Farmers contributing to the relocalisation of agriculture should ultimately be rewarded by food prices, which should reflect all positive and negative externalities linked to its production. Until we get there and until an effective re-localisation of agriculture has taken place, the Greens focus on strengthening the producers’ position against retailers and processors, so they can have a greater say in the food price-making.

You are what you eat

Along with the industrialisation of agriculture, consumers have been the victims of an increase of pesticide and fertiliser use, a loss of nutrients (e.g. in mass production of non-seasonal foodstuffs), and an increase of salt, sugar and fat contents in the ultimate products of today’s food systems: ready-made meals and fast food. Today, nobody would question the negative impacts of these nutritional evolutions. However, there are some different cultural interpretations of what is “healthy” food. Despite these differences, increasing evidence points to the nutritional advantages of eating less meat, consuming seasonal and fresh food, etc. This supports our environmental arguments on the relocalisation of agriculture, as fresh food would most likely have to originate from local rural areas, instead of being imported. Sustainable food is therefore inevitably healthy food.

Sustainable food is quality, enjoyable food

The Greens in Belgium have been a leading figure in broadening the scope of action on food, re-connecting agriculture with the rest of economy and trying to erect sustainability as the rule along the food supply chain

The Greens don’t have the political monopoly on healthy food. What they do have is a particularly innovative way of linking quality, sustainability and pleasure. Eating is a socially-important, culturally-significant and festive moment, which should be full of pleasure and enjoyment. The love of good food, and the full appreciation of what a meal actually represents is a key step in moving towards sustainability. By re-discovering the taste and the culture associated with food, consumers have a higher incentive to pay more attention to the food they consume, and how it should be prepared. In a multi-cultural environmental, this is also of crucial importance, as the “health” argument is not always strong enough to significantly improve deep-rooted eating habits. Overall quality food should therefore be defined as tasty, healthy, environmentally-friendly, socially-acceptable and culturally-respectful.

Food is only sustainable when it is accessible to all

All this talk could easily be interpreted as an elitist discussion, reserved to a few privileged who can afford to think about quality, while others struggle to find enough food, of whatever kind. But quality food doesn’t need to be a privilege. In fact, the idea that quality & healthy food is more expensive is probably one of the most difficult myths to dispel. The overall cost – in economic but also in environmental and social terms – of industrially-produced food is far greater than the costs linked to seasonal, locally and organically-produced food. Unfortunately, for many consumers the reality is that industrially-produced food are still cheaper when displayed in the supermarket. Sustainable eating is indeed costly, but mostly in terms of knowledge and awareness. It’s about knowing exactly what to buy, how to be in touch directly with producers, where to find fresh produce. A better understanding of how food gets along from farm to fork, and a better knowledge about alternative supply possibilities (other than supermarkets) are key for households to move towards more sustainable consumption patterns.

Sustainable eating as an act of solidarity

As explained above, consumers are co-producers in the sense that they are co-responsible for the way food is produced here, but also abroad. The act of consuming therefore has fundamental implications for a country’s food security and food sovereignty.  We have never produced as much food, used as much land for farming, and yet counted as few farmers as today. In the space of 30 years (from 1980-2010), Belgium has lost 63% of its farms, 45% of its farmers, while the average farmland size has more than doubled[5]. In this context, no food can be called sustainable, however high the environmental and health standards are, if its production, distribution and consumption destroys the social fabric of rural areas. There will be no sustainable food systems without the participation of its main actors: the farmers themselves.

 

Notes


[1] As payments are calcuated per hectare or land, and based on the level of production during a year of reference, they have been increasingly capitalised into land values, instead of going towards farmers’ incomes.
[2] Figure based on the Council conclusions of 8.02.2013 on the new Multiannual Financial Framework (2014-2020). These figures are still subject to change, as the European Parliament has not yet adopted its position.
[3] Figure based on the Council conclusions of 8.02.2013 on the new Multiannual Financial Framework (2014-2020). These figures are still subject to change, as the European Parliament has not yet adopted its position.
[4] The negotiations which will take place over the next months (until July 2013) between the European Parliament and the Council will unlikely reverse the trend that has been initiated after the publication of the European Commission’s proposals in October 2011: a gradual watering down of  the measures which would bring about significant change to the agricultural sector. The Member States in particular are likely to continue the weakening of an already unconvincing proposal.
[5] Direction Générale Statistique et Information Economique, Les Chiffres Clés de L’Agriculture : L’Agriculture en Belgique en Chiffres, 2012

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