Common Agricultural Policy: Poor peasants!

2 July 2013
La Repubblica Rome

Common Agricultural Policy reforms unveiled in June have not come up to expectations, believes the head of the Slow Food movement. Member states have too much leeway and reforms fail to sufficiently promote sustainability and reduce inequalities between operators.

Are we united in diversity, or are we diverse in our unity? The Brussels negotiations on the new Common Agricultural Policy, the CAP, are wrapping up. While the agreement does introduce some interesting novelties, it comes as a disappointment to those who care about the environment and sustainable small-scale farming. Above all, though, it raises questions about Europe. It questions our perspectives – those that we share, and those that we do not.

This reform, which ought to have promoted the quality of our food, the return – possible and desirable – of new generations to the land, and the safeguarding of the environment, has missed out on an historic opportunity. It has sparked unprecedented debate and encouraged civil society and involved associations to make their demands heard with force and clarity. And for the first time, the European Parliament has stepped in to give a voice to citizens.

However, to a large extent the decisions that would put in place a greener and fairer agricultural policy, capable of pumping public funds (40 per cent of the European Union budget) into public goods such as landscapes, soil quality and human health, have not been taken, or have been left to the discretion of the member states.

Beyond these decisions, it is important to look at the issues that were not the subject of an agreement, and which each state is free to pick and choose between. Support for small farmers, cuts to the most important subsidies (20 per cent of firms receive 80 per cent of the funding) and to the annual ceiling, the possibility to distribute much of the resources for rural development – i.e., to innovative ecological, social and productive practices – in the form of land rents (direct payment calculated based on acreage) or private insurance, which may be detrimental.

Culture of ‘de-Europeanisation’

At the moment, it’s been left to citizens to put pressure on their governments. The work is not done. But what exactly is the good of a so-called “common” agricultural policy, so important in terms of budget and debates, if it is not a policy common to all? If Europe is not capable of putting forward strong ideas that can lead to something that we can all take advantage of, something our own money buys for the common good? This lack of decisions, some have noted, suggests a kind of “de-Europeanisation”.

There are several “fronts” that the CAP should tackle, where it should serve as a mediator or intervene directly on behalf of citizens. The first front could be called “agribusiness versus small-scale agriculture”.

You could endlessly squabble over questions of whether it is better or not to force all firms to set aside a small percentage of their acreage for conservation zones that have an ecological function – 3, 5 or 7 per cent? (For the record, the rate of 5 per cent won out). The fact is, though, that on one side we have large firms that receive €300,000 in grants per year, and on the other, small farmers that states may choose to help (or not) with an annual contribution of no more than €1,250. What does this kind of sum change in the economics of a business?

The hundreds of thousands of euros from the CAP keep in place an unsustainable monoculture system. The thousand euros seems like a “little gift” that changes nothing in the work or life of a small farmer. Small farmers, it is true, have been exempt from many bureaucratic obligations, but practical help is another thing. Moreover, the contribution they make in terms of good and healthy food, preservation of land and of the common good is worth infinitely more than these thousand euros. From this point of view, it seems that the reform of the CAP has “changed some things so that nothing changes”: the biggest slice of the cake continues to go to the biggest eaters.

Leaving a bitter taste

Another front: agriculture in the old member states versus agriculture in the new members – the countries of the east. The latter are more fragile, less modern, and as such, still rich in natural and productive diversity. They have the right to grow, but also to be protected. There was some talk of “internal convergence” to harmonise the subsidies, but there too the decision will ultimately be up to each state.

And then there is the issue of “Europe versus developing countries”. This time, while the states look beyond the borders of the continent, as if by magic, the union is back: no mechanism has been provided to control the effects of CAP trade policies – such as export subsidies or artificially low prices – on small farmers in Asia and Africa.

The states have also preserved a united front to water down measures for “greening”, aimed at making farming practices more environmentally sound. Introducing this concept has been important, for sure, but the exemptions are so numerous that 60 per cent of the cultivated land of the EU may not be covered. A good measure, but it’s an obligation only on paper.

Despite some positive aspects, such as streamlining the bureaucracy and increasing resources earmarked for young farmers, this new CAP leaves a bitter taste. Europe seems to remain mired in the old systems of liberalism and multinational lobbying, and lacks the courage it needs to propose genuine legislative changes, as well as new, global, modern perspectives. This Europe has given shape to a common agricultural policy that is common only in name, a policy which seems to hide behind different factions rather than imposing on all a high and noble and rigorous direction to serve the public interest.

In the fields of food and agriculture, this same Europe is urging us to broaden our diversity to achieve a unity that it has clearly yet to define. While the small farmers are fighting alone, young people are struggling to get back to the land, agribusiness continues to dominate the landscape and the development of new social, economic, cultural, agricultural and food paradigms, that’s all been left entirely in the hands of citizens and European farmers who are full of goodwill and fresh ideas. These may be just the ones who will reveal to us the “European union” of tomorrow.

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