Future of food and farming communication is only the beginning of the road

Written by Czesław Adam Siekierski on 12 December 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

The European Commission’s communication on the future of food and farming leaves too many questions unanswered, says Czesław Adam Siekierski.

Czesław Adam Siekierski | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


On 29 November, European agriculture and rural development Commissioner Phil Hogan presented the communication on the future of food and farming. This takes account of the outcome of public consultations and outlines the Commission’s vision for the future of the common agricultural policy (CAP). On the same day, members of Parliament’s agriculture and rural development committee had the opportunity to discuss this with the Commissioner.

There seems to be a consensus in the agricultural community about the need for evolutionary - rather than revolutionary - changes in the CAP, which is due to the specific nature of agriculture. 

First, it is essential to strengthen the capacity of our agriculture to respond to emerging challenges. The ongoing globalisation, digitisation and liberalisation of the world economy make the CAP increasingly dependent on external factors that farmers themselves cannot influence. Therefore, it is necessary to harmonise the global agricultural market by standardising and equalising conditions of competition. Our agricultural sector also needs safeguards against unexpected political events, such as the Russian embargo.


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The next phase of CAP reform must start with analysing the more than 55 years’ experience this policy has under its belt, and diagnosing the current situation in rural areas. European agriculture has evolved in recent years. 

The EU praises itself for being the world’s largest exporter of food and its record-breaking surplus in agri-food trade. Our agriculture is currently more sustainable and better suited to the needs of the environment, climate or biodiversity. 

However, there are still problems of low and uncertain incomes, rural depopulation and a lack of new, replacement generations of farmers. Agricultural work is not attractive to young people; as well as inadequate income and instability, it is also quite inconvenient despite all the technical progress made to date. 

To change this, it is necessary to spend more on developing technical and social infrastructure in rural areas. The tremendous potential of rural areas for creating jobs in the green economy, mainly in the area of renewable energy sources, needs to be used more.

The EU’s current agricultural policy has, to a lesser extent, taken into account the diversity of European agriculture, resulting not only from natural but also social and historic conditions. 

Therefore, I welcome the Commission’s proposal to give member states and regions greater flexibility in matching CAP instruments to their specific needs. The communication proposes to move away from the current compliance system in order to assess performance in achieving the objectives set at EU level. 

The instruments for achieving these objectives would be agreed between the Commission and the relevant member state and then recorded in the so-called strategic plan. Certainly, the transition to the new system will require time to adjust and certain difficulties are expected, at least at the outset. 

In Parliament’s agriculture committee, there are concerns over the possible involvement of other Directorates-General in negotiating strategic plans, which can significantly hinder and delay their adoption.

In its communication, the Commission proposes abandoning a controversial and complex greening system aimed in favour of focusing the entire CAP towards realising the EU’s environmental, climate or sustainable development commitments. It is still too early to assess the Commission’s general assumptions in this area. 

However, the call for a sound agri-environmental policy should be reiterated. Europe has the highest standards in the world in this regard, but this significantly reduces our competitiveness in the global market under the conditions of free trade. Rash decisions on environmental requirements can further aggravate the situation for our producers.

In my opinion, the communication offers too few answers to my most important questions: Why don’t young people want to work in agriculture? How can we reduce disparities in farmers’ and other occupational groups’ income, which currently stand at around 50 percent? How can we improve the quality of life in rural areas to stop depopulation?

The Commission has also failed to come up with ideas to prevent future price turbulence in agricultural markets, which was our postulate due to recent crises in the dairy, pork or horticulture markets. 

In this regard, it is necessary to correct the mistake of the 2013 reform, which was to overly limit the traditional intervention instruments in favour of the so-called safety net. It seems that, in the face of great difficulties in the agricultural markets we have recently tackled, it will be necessary to restore selected traditional forms of intervention.

The lack of understanding of the specificity and importance of agriculture remains a major problem. We need to explain to EU citizens that food security is not permanent and that ensuring this security, particularly in the current fragile international environment, requires maintaining agricultural production in Europe.

This, in turn, requires public subsidies because, as I mentioned above, the high standards we have set for our farmers significantly increase their costs and reduce their competitiveness.

A social contract is needed then, under which we support a European sustainable farming model that produces food that is healthy and of good quality while being environmentally and climate-friendly. In return, we must expect to reward farmers appropriately for the public goods they provide.

The communication is yet another step towards CAP modernisation, but we are still at the beginning of the road, which is likely to be marked by many difficulties. The document creates a framework that will now have to be filled in by member states, farmers, different institutions, organisations and more. Concrete legislative proposals for reform will be presented in the spring of 2018 upon explaining the problem of CAP funding, i.e. after announcing the projects of the next multiannual financial framework.

 

About the author

Czesław Adam Siekierski (EPP, PL) is Chair of Parliament’s agriculture and rural development committee

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