A Born-Again CAP

WAGENINGEN, NETHERLANDS – Born in 1957, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is now more than 50 years old, and the European Commission is proposing what it calls a health check for its middle-aged child. But superficial repairs will not meet the European Union’s future needs. The CAP must be born again.

WAGENINGEN, NETHERLANDS – Born in 1957, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is now more than 50 years old, and the European Commission is proposing what it calls a health check for its middle-aged child. But superficial repairs will not meet the European Union’s future needs. The CAP must be born again.

Work on its renewal is due to start now, with the completed project ready in 2013. But a much more profound re-think is needed.

The CAP’s original aim was to provide a secure source of food for the six original member states of the Union, which were importers of food and sought a degree of self-sufficiency.

Good, healthy, and cheap food had to be accessible for all citizens. Improved agricultural productivity would benefit rural areas and give farmers a comparative share in the Union’s growing wealth. Instruments to achieve those objectives were developed, and food security was achieved.

The CAP quickly came to be seen as the jewel in the crown of the European project. As the EU has evolved and expanded, food systems have become more complex, involving production, processing, supply-chain organization, and wholesale and retail distribution, with all of these involving new issues like health and the environment. The use of land is also receiving more serious scrutiny.

A 1991 study by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Governmental Policy, entitled Ground for Choices, demonstrated that the EU’s food supply could be met with 50% less cultivated land, 80% less pesticides, and at 50% less cost. Pollution would be reduced by 70% as a result of fewer nitrates in the surface water, and greenhouse gases would be cut.

Those figures were for an EU of 15 countries, so with today’s 27 members the possibilities are even greater.

A Dutch analysis of land use has shown that by employing the best technical and ecological means on the best available land, substantial gains could be made in food production. So it is not surprising that the number of farmers needed has fallen substantially.

Viewed from the standpoint of food security and the wealth of rural areas, there is now an urgent need to revisit the CAP’s main instruments so that a new policy formula can be introduced.

Perverse subsidies must be removed and recent new ones favoring products such as bio-fuels reconsidered. The status quo clearly has to be changed. Rural policy in the EU is too often reduced to income guarantees for the farming community. But that attitude is undermining change.

Competition must be encouraged, as more rural entrepreneurship will strengthen the farming community, with fewer farmers but better farms.

A simplified CAP would encourage cleaner, more productive, and efficient agriculture. A side benefit for the EU’s standing in the world could be that the World Trade Organization’s stalled Doha negotiations could be restarted once farmers in developing countries are assured of getting a fair deal from Europe.

Moreover, the CAP’s role as a motor of political and social integration in Europe could be restored once renewed policies are in place. But renewal of this sort cannot be left to global market forces, as the results might not necessarily benefit European agriculture and society.

If the market “misbehaves,” farmers could be reduced to poverty, leading to the neglect of large areas of Europe. That is a real enough danger to which policymakers must give serious thought as they reform the CAP on the basis of the following five pillars.

1. The EU needs a knowledge and innovation policy that strengthens European agriculture’s competitiveness. Such a policy has been successful in the Netherlands, substantially contributing to the development and power of the country’s agribusiness.

Ten of 21 branches of Dutch agribusiness, including horticultural seeds, ornamentals, seed potatoes, and veal, are among the top contributors to the national economy and the country’s trade balance.

In the EU as a whole, a policy directed toward research programs stimulating scientific excellence and greater coherence in the European knowledge system would greatly strengthen agriculture’s competitiveness and contribute to food security and sustainable development.

2. Europe also needs a restructuring policy for land use. Many structural improvement programs have been financed at the European level, but agricultural production and land use are not among them.

The development of an Agricultural Main Structure would compliment the European Ecological Main Structure. Reforestation and the repair of natural ecosystems should also be part of a land use policy.

3. A policy for European food systems would treat production, processing, distribution, logistics, and retailing in combination. Consumption patterns and preferences are an integral part of such systems. Preliminary studies by the European Science Foundation’s “Forward Look on European Food Systems” could prove useful in devising an EU-wide policy.

4. Metropolitan agriculture in a rapidly urbanizing world can provide high-quality produce on small amounts of land. It offers an answer to rising demand for healthy food with minimal environmental side effects.

5. A new CAP should include a policy to safeguard Europe’s landscapes. But a cultural heritage should not be maintained everywhere, nor should it ignore cost. And it should not be a defensive policy of the sort that tends to concentrate on poor-quality land.

These five pillars involve drastic choices, but they will probably require less money from Europe’s taxpayers, not more. They could make a real contribution to cleaner, more productive, and efficient farming and land use, while addressing social needs.

Rudy Rabbinge is a Dutch agriculture expert who until 2007 was a member of the Dutch Senate. He is now University Professor at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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