Farm subsidies represent the largest slice of the EU’s proposed budget for 2014 -2020. Negotiations are at a critical stage on revamping the Common Agricultural Policy. Though reduced, the CAP will still cost 50 billion euros a year, more than one-third the total EU budget.
Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos is under intense pressure from farmers, environmental and consumer groups, Member States and the European Parliament. The largest benefactor, France, faces countries in the east asking why their cows and cropland are worth far less in subsidies.
Angry taxpayers like farmsubsidy.org want to slash the payments. In Brussels, farmers and consumers from more than 20 EU countries held a Good Food March to protest the CAP proposals.
In the developing world, there is an outcry that European and US food subsidies are crushing their farmers with cheap food. How to reconcile the clashing interests? Mr. Ciolos is between a rock and a hard place.
To discuss the issue, The Network spoke to Roger Waite, the spokesperson for Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Ciolos. They also spoke to Lee Rotherham, a Research Fellow at the Tax Payers’ Alliance, who says the EU needs to scrap the CAP. His study Food for Thought says the CAP costs every family more than £400 or about 470 euros, a year. The Network also spoke to Ursula Hudson, the president of Slow Food Germany and a member of the Executive Committee of Slow Food International. The NGO says the CAP should restructure European agriculture around sustainable small-and medium-scale production.
Chris Burns: “A question to all of you, starting with Roger. The budget fight is far from over. The European Parliament now has, for the first time, co-decision powers with the member states on the CAP. Will they, should they, go along with the reform as it is?”
Roger Waite: “Well, we think they should. Heads of government have set a budget now, and what we need to do is, with the European Parliament and the Member States, we need to finalise how the money is spent. What we want is a fairer CAP, which means there’s a fairer distribution of funds between the Member States but also within the Member States. For example, that also includes a cap on how much certain individual farms can receive.”
Chris Burns: “OK, Lee, what do you think, scrap the CAP?
Lee Rotherham: “Yes, absolutely. I mean, the question as you originally placed it, was: should MEPs go along with the deal? Yes. The trouble is, of course, the MEPs are in charge of a large budget, they like having a large budget, so a lot of them won’t want to do that. I would go a lot further than they are suggesting: even the CAP run by the UK itself would save UK taxpayers one billion pounds, running an identical CAP with just UK taxpayers paying for UK farmers.
Chris Burns: “Ursula, what do you think about it?”
Ursula Hudson: “We should go ahead with reform but real reform, in the way Roger outlined it earlier. We need a reform for a fairer CAP, a greener CAP, and if we can achieve that, then we should go ahead with it.”
Chris Burns: “Under the summit-approved budget plan, agricultural spending is to fall about 13%, making up about 38% of the total EU budget over the next seven years. Do the cuts go too far or not far enough? Lee?”
Lee Rotherham: “Nowhere near far enough. If you look at where the money is actually being spent, there’s a huge discrepancy between the various countries. So the UK, on a per capita, per farm basis, gets about 5/8th of the deal compared to Italian farmers and 6/10th of what it would do with respect to the Germans. And the French get about 20% of the CAP. So there’s a huge discrepancy even within how the budget itself is distributed.”
Chris Burns: “Roger, how can this go on the way it is? Is this sustainable?”
Roger Waite: “Well, what we’re trying to do is to have a better allocation. And the trouble is because these direct payments in particular play such a large part in farmer incomes, we really can’t make changes overnight. We have a seven-year period coming up, and this is why we’re looking to make changes in the course of that seven-year period to have a fairer distribution not only between the Member States but within the Member States.”
Chris Burns: “Now the European Commission, your Commission, is proposing a system of convergence reducing income disparities between Eastern and Western Europe. Some say the reform doesn’t go far enough. Ursula, what do you think?”
Ursula Hudson: “What we are concerned about, as an organisation that has food at the centre at its interest, out of pleasure, then on the other hand as a central item that links us to our environment, we are really interested in reforming towards green sustainability and good quality food.
Chris Burns: “So the Commission, yes, is proposing 30% of the payments requiring crop diversification, permanent pastures, preserving environmental landscapes, all part of this greening of the CAP and greening of agriculture. But small farmers are exempted! What’s with that, Roger?”
Roger Waite: “Well the idea is that the administrative burden on something like that would be absolutely enormous, and what tends to happen is smaller farmers certainly have their hedges and their areas, for example, for ecological focus area. What we really want to cut back on, on this greening, is to make sure we don’t have mono-culture everywhere, and to make sure that, for example, farmers are not necessarily farming un-cultivatable areas simply to get the subsidy.”
Chris Burns: “Let me go to Lee. Some MEPs have told me they are frustrated that the CAP is sucking EU funding away from future-oriented sectors like infrastructure projects, and R&D . Shouldn’t the EU be investing more and subsidising less?”
Lee Rotherham: “Well, it depends what you mean by investing because investing for one person is another person’s spending. So you could argue that some of these funds would themselves be potentially less value for money than they should be, and should be spent at national level.”
Chris Burns: “Yeah, ok, you didn’t take the trap. Well, let’s go over to Ursula. Ursula, your group, Slow Food and Friends of the Earth, want support for family farms to move away from industrial farming. But when you’re talking small is beautiful, is that going to be able to feed Europe and the rest of the world?”
Ursula Hudson: “Well we produce worldwide food for twelve billion people. Currently, we are seven billion people, 70% of the food produced worldwide is produced on small-scale farms, so yes we can. But what we need to move away from is the industrialised system that damages the environment. The environment, the water, soil are common goods, and we need to find systems that preserve them, safeguard them for the future.”
Chris Burns: “Ok. And in the developing world, as we saw in this package that played at the beginning of this show, the US and EU subsidies are said to be perpetuating a vicious circle of aid dependency. How do you keep from running farmers there out of business. How should the EU and US deal with that? Should they agree to scrap their subsidies? Roger?”
Roger Waite: “Well, first of all, when it comes to export refunds, they have basically disappeared, and our imports from developing countries are higher than the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand together, so that should give farmers in those countries the opportunity to expand.”
Chris Burns: “Is that developing world argument a reason to scrap the CAP?”
Lee Rotherham: “Absolutely. I mean, regardless of how well, comparatively, we are doing today compared with where we were a few years ago, that still leaves tremendous barriers. The reason why the Cairns group and other producing countries want to have more of a free trade is to allow lower farm gate prices and to allow greater access in part to Third World producers, which means Third World farmers.”
Chris Burns: “Ursula, what do you think about that, you’ve got the last word on this. How do you help the developing world and not try to short-change farmers at home?”
Ursula Hudson: “We have to move away from making Europe one of the biggest export units of meat, for example, and other agricultural goods, into other countries, and also reaching those in the Third World and destroying their own farming output. This is, I think, the first step, where we have to make sure that our chicken wings and our leftovers from our consumer attitudes don’t reach their markets and destroy their markets there. That would make the system fairer to start with.”