Farmers for the future

Agriculture in the 21st century

Evidence keeps rising that our agriculture and food system is out of balance. On its turn, Europe has understood a different and better plan is needed. The making of the EU’s new Common Agricultural Policy is in full swing. The question remains whether it will pose a solution to the real challenges of the agricultural sector today.

In the last fifty years, modern agriculture has boosted beyond imagination: the output per hectare has risen spectacularly, industrial farms have transformed the farmer profession and the food market is now organised on a global scale. This very system of modern agriculture meanwhile has created serious threats. It is a global market that paradoxically generates hunger and proves incapable of giving farmers a fair income – not in Europe, and even less so elsewhere.

The Doha Development Agenda, created by the World Trade Organisation, has been locked up for years due to disagreement. The pressure is high to continue opening markets for food, but development countries on their turn have learned to put their demands on the table and refuse to participate in a market that handles double standards.

Out of balance

The production system has become extremely dependent on fossil fuels, putting huge pressures on the environment and ecosystems by means of greenhouse gases, use of water and soil erosion. An impressive seventy percent of biodiversity loss is being attributed to agriculture. This type of agriculture is also responsible for depleting water supplies, for seventy percent of worldwide water use goes to agriculture. Indeed, this is a socially and ecologically unsustainable system.

Furthermore, the two recent food crises – in 2008 and 2011 – have demonstrated how our current agricultural system is also economically unsustainable. The Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef illustrated this well on In southern Chile, milk products of a very high quality are being produced. Yet at the breakfast table of a Chilean hotel, Max-Neef was served butter from New-Zealand.

Max-Neef argues: ‘And why? Because economists don’t know how to calculate real costs, you know? To bring butter from 20,000 kilometers to a place where you make the best butter, under the argument that it was cheaper, is a colossal stupidity, because they don’t take into consideration what is the impact of 20,000 kilometers of transport? And in addition, I mean, it’s cheaper because it’s subsidized.’

Strategic priority

The imbalances seem even heavier to take, considering the serious challenges which agriculture is facing. On top of a growing world population (nine billion people by 2050), we are observing increasing urbanisation. More than half of the world’s population today is living in an urban setting. Moreover, consumption is rising in a number of growing economies. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is expecting the demand for food to rise by seventy percent by 2050. In the meantime, the conditions that are needed for food growth are deteriorating. Dropping water levels and shrinking supplies of raw materials pose problems, which are in turn topped by climate change messing with ancient agricultural cycles.

In short, our agricultural system and the way we organise our food supplies, need to be revised deeply. Publications on the future of agriculture are popping up and transition studies reveal pathways to a new agricultural models. Looking at these new ideas, two insights show up. Firstly, agriculture is no longer an issue that only concerns farmers. For tomorrow’s agriculture will determine our natural landscapes and the way we deal with raw materials. Secondly, governments will put agriculture back on top of their strategic agendas in the coming years. In the European Union too, we are seeing fierce debate on the future of agriculture. By 2013 the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be updated, followed by a change in legislation.

1260 amendements

After a first series of debates, European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Ciolos published his proposal in November 2010, called The Common Agricultural Policy by 2020. Answers to future challenges concerning food, raw materials and territory. Ciolos distinguishes three strategic goals: the CAP needs to guarantee food safety for European citizens, it should deal sustainably with the landscapes’ natural resources and help to battle climate change, and there has to be ‘territorial balance’.

The latter means that rural development should also gain opportunities in less productive areas. The European Parliament, granted more decision power since the Lisbon Treaty end of 2009, has added an impressive 1260 amendments to Ciolos’ draft proposal. These have lead to the publication of the Dess repport, named after Member of European Parliament Albert Dess, who composed this memorandum.

Amongst others, a point of discussion is the size of the total agricultural budget. Great-Britain has been demanding a strong reduction, France on its turn would not hear of that. Eventually, they decided to stagnate the share of agriculture in the total European budget after 2013. It concerns 371.72 billion euro, spread out over a seven year time period. This amounts to just more than a third of the total EU-budget.

Also, they agreed to stop indexing the amount. Another point of discussion for some countries constitutes the ‘fairness’ of the agricultural policy. Commissioner Ciolos is considering a limit to the income support of big receivers. The production support to farmers – more production means more subsidy, hence the butter mountains and milk lakes – has long been replaced by direct income support. Until recently, this was however linked to historical rights, with the largest producers continuing to guzzle the lion’s share of the pie.

Quite often these are food processing companies, even members of the nobility or financial institutions. Europe now wants to set right these skewed proportions.

‘Fairness’ also means that the gap between the old and new member states needs to be bridged, with Eastern European countries receiving more. At this moment, a Greek farmer is receiving 500 euro per hectare, a Lithuanian one 100 euro. Proposition goes to guarantee to all farmers a minimum wage equal to 271 euro per hectare – a whole lot less than the 460 euro which each Belgian farmer receives today.

Chair of the Farmer Union Piet Vanthemsche says: ‘Redistribution means winners and losers. Internally speaking this is posing a very difficult discussion, but as an agricultural organisation we must be looking forward. We demand a sufficiently long transition period, so that farmers can adapt to the new situation.’ At last, the draft proposal emphasises the importance of diversity in agricultural models and states explicitly that ‘not a single option should be excluded’, referring both to GMOs and agro-ecology.


The subdivision between the first and second pillar remains for the total EU agricultural budget. Seventy percent of the total budget goes to the first pillar, which stands for production support, hence the money for direct income support to farmers. Twenty percent goes to the second pillar, destined for supporting rural development. The remainder goes to export subsidies and mechanisms which support the market. In order to make the new CAP more green, some are calling for devoting thirty percent of the first pillar to biodiversity management and the ‘greening’ of agriculture.

Think of a more efficient use of water, less use of pesticides, land fallowing, crop rotation… . However, this proposal is being met with considerable resistance, such as from the European farmer federation Copa-Cogeca. They consider it an expensive burden to the farmers. Chair of the Farmer Union Vanthemsche too shows reservations: ‘This could work to the extent one can interiorate such greening rules into the farm’s business model, provided that the economic sustainability is preserved.

Farmers are not the only members of society causing the loss of biodiversity. It is not at all self-explanatory that farmers should take up this task. Moreover, Flanders is densely populated and strongly industrialised. Agriculture faces difficulties in such an environment. We want to ask Europe to give us credit for such a disability.’

On October 12th the legislative proposals for the CAP reform will be proposed. On October 20th and 21st the European ministers of agriculture will discuss them for the first time. By the second half of 2012 – with Cyprus then chairing the EU – the legislative procedure should be rounded up. The ultimate deadline is the first half of 2013, under Irish presidency. The entire reform package indeed should be finished off in 2013 in order to take effect in 2014.

Missed opportunity

Question remains whether the reform of the agricultural policy, as it is now on the table, will provide an answer to the current bottlenecks and future challenges. In the European Parliament, the Greens have been advocating a greener CAP for years. Are they satisfied? Member of European Parliament Bart Staes (Groen!): ‘It means a green step in the right direction, but whether this reform will be historical, largely depends on the concrete interpretation.’ Staes shows enthusiasm for the broader attention for the climate, however fears the fact that these thirty percent resources for green measures will not be binding.

The Greens were unique in the way they pledged a more ecological and social agriculture, lead by protagonists such as José Bové. According to the Greens, followed by a majority in the European Parliament, the CAP’s reform could at least reduce our dependency on protein crops coming from the South, being mainly soy from Brasil. These crops can also be grown in Eastern European member states, which harbour enough space for this. It would also be an important step in curbing land occupation in the South.

At the moment, Europe is using millions of hectares elsewhere destined for food consumption inside Europe. Not tackling this problem, means a missed opportunity and significant void that keeps us from getting to a socially just and ecologically sustainable system, critics argue.

In Commissioner Ciolos’ draft proposal, sustainability and competitiveness are also presented as an inextricable whole. Fear is stated that the need for higher production will undermine sustainability. UN reporter for the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, marks that such an assumption is far too one-sided. Food safety, he argues, is not just a matter of supply and production. It is truly a matter of a sound distribution system, social justice and human rights.

Another aspect of this ‘productionist’ thinking is the prominence of waste on the food market. Estimates read that a third of global food production meant for human consumption is being lost or thrown away – about 1.3 billion tons a year. Different consumption habits could partly improve this situation. About half of the corn production goes to cattle feed. Another diet could indeed curb this growing demand considerably.

A radical turn

For many years, agricultural and food organisations have been crying for a more sustainable and just model of agriculture. Last summer they crossed roads in Austrian Krems at the Nyeleni Forum. At this spot, they launched a common declaration, calling for food sovereignty in Europe and demanding a radical turn in production and consumption patterns. This call is trickling down into the academic world, too.

The European Commission charged a team of scientists, one of whom was agricultural economist at the Catholic University of Louvain Erik Mathijs, to draw up future scenarios for European agriculture. The results are listed in the so-called SCAR report (Standing Committee on Agriculture Research). The researchers conclude at a point far beyond the proposals currently stated in the European proposal as discussed above.

Production and consumption should be confronted as one whole, the researchers argue, with efficiency and resilience as preferable priorities next to productivity. The researchers state that the necessary transition cannot be achieved by the common story of continuous rise in production. In order to set up a sustainable model, we need just food models and sufficiency.

Researcher Mathijs thinks that a robust agricultural model is only possible seated within a robust society model. It is not enough to just add some green corrections. The whole cluster of raw material and energy flows need to be redesigned, added by a change in our diet. ‘An agricultural model based on agro-ecology is only possible when society too is structured differently,’ Mathijs concludes. Measured by this benchmark, European agricultural policy has a long way to go.

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