Economy Agriculture

CAP: The Green revolution hits Europe

30 January 2013
La Repubblica Rome

A seasonal worker harvests strawberries in Saxony, Germany

A seasonal worker harvests strawberries in Saxony, Germany

The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is to be wrapped up this year, is resulting in a move towards sustainable development and greater fairness. However, it is being threatened by pressure from the agro-food lobbies, declares the founder of the Slow Food movement, who is launching an appeal to Europe's citizens and their MEPs.

The hope for more environmentally aware and therefore fairer European agriculture, both for the taxpayer and for those who opt for sustainable farming, has taken a blow.

On January 28 in Brussels, a crucial stage was reached in the long and complex procedure that in 2014, will result in the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – the policy instrument that will decide the future of our food.

For 50 years, the CAP has soaked up almost half of the EU budget. Reforming it is a chance for a paradigm shift towards an agriculture that is less geared towards production and much more towards soil and landscape preservation, natural resources, farmers and citizens. So far, we have given preference to agricultural practices that harm soil fertility, the environment, landscapes, biodiversity and the passing down of farms and holdings to the next generation, and that are also grossly unfair to poorer countries outside Europe. And so, without realising it, Europeans have been supporting an unhealthy system of production for which they are ultimately paying twice: first for the subsidies, and secondly for the damage done to the health and safety of the lands of Europe by the quality of air, water, soil and food. The old CAP has been a total fiasco.

On January 23 and 24, the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament passed the amendments to the draft CAP reform tabled more than a year ago. And it has decided to block, water down or delete most of the measures meant to give a more sustainable stamp to our agricultural production system. The ball is now in the court of the governments, which in February will set the new budget for the CAP (the deep cuts that are likely will only worsen the situation) – and especially in the court of the European Parliament, which, at its plenary session in March, will still have the chance to correct the drift.

‘Greening measures’

So-called "greening" measures, for example, could be introduced. The thickest slice of the CAP cake has always been doled out according to farm size. Over the years, this system has ended up favouring the biggest land-holdings, which, are not usually the ones which show most respect for the environment: it is, though, a juicy "cadastral" income for the agro-food industry. Conversely, getting ecology into the proposed reform would be revolutionary: it would force the bigger holdings to bring in sustainable practices, such as crop rotation, maintaining grassland and zones that have an ecological function.

However, the amendments have made these green measures "multi-speed": the Commission has taken them apart, one after the other, by introducing so many loopholes that they have been rendered useless.

The greening has turned into greenwashing. Under the new standards, 82 per cent of European farms will be exempt from mandatory environmental best practices. Moreover, while it was fair that certified organic farms were automatically ranked among the "virtuous" actors in the sector, it is much less fair to argue that other “green” practices – but much less ecological ones – be equated with "organic" and so entitled to subsidies.

Subsidy loopholes

Other weak points are not lacking. One is the opportunity to receive a dual subsidy for the same type of environmental measure, or the fact that the obligation to preserve 7 per cent of the farmland as protected green areas has been modified to shrink this figure to 3 per cent. There are simply too many negatives, and they outweigh the few positive measures that have slipped through the cracks, like a few more resources provided to youth who take up agriculture, the introduction of a ceiling of €300,000 for grants to big landowners (to drop a well-known name, the Queen of England, who receives €8m a year), or even the adoption of a more accurate definition of "active farmer" to keep other beneficiaries, like airports or golf clubs, from dipping into the agricultural subsidies.

Provided that the reform is not definitively unravelled by budgetary decisions that will be taken in February, the European Parliament, from March 11 to 14, will have a historic opportunity to reverse the trend. For the first time in the history of the European Union, Parliament may indeed intervene in this negotiation, and so we must pressure our MPs not to repeat the mistake of supporting the old paradigm that, far from serving the general interest, encouraged the worst methods of production.

It is not fair to use public resources to promote the interests of a minority. Across Europe, farmers' and civil society networks have launched an action under the catchy name "Go M.A.D." Go Meet A Deputy, which Slow Food is also joining. This action gives us the chance to explain the significance of the meeting coming up in March to our parliamentarians, to help them stand up to the food industry lobbyists.

Citizens can get involved – and they must participate in the debate before it is too late. What is at stake is the future of our food, the places where we live, and our well-being.

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