23rd Mar 2018


Where agriculture trumps the environment

  • Gone are the days of small-scale farms in Europe. (Photo: Pete Zarria)

This week in Brussels, the who’s who of industrial agriculture meet for their annual bean-feast, sponsored by the agri-business' finest chemical and machinery companies.

This is apparently where “agriculture and environment meet”.

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It’s unlikely they will be concerned with the increasing amount of pesticides being sold in Europe (almost 400,000 tonnes in 2014), nor with the fact that emissions from livestock significantly contribute to air pollution and are responsible for over 400,000 deaths in the European Union.

They are also not likely to be worried about the high levels of antibiotics used in animal farming - contributing to antimicrobial resistance, which some say could evolve into a global crisis, with the potential to kill 10 million people annually by 2050.

But they won’t be alone in their lack of concern about the current farm system.

Broken farming

In early March, the EU’s agricultural commissioner, Phil Hogan, publicly refuted claims that the EU’s farming policy was “broken,” saying the current framework provides high-quality food for EU citizens and has created a record number of jobs.

The EU’s own statistics show that the number of farms in most EU countries is in rapid decline, and that only a small number of companies farm European fields.

Between 2003 and 2013, the EU lost 4 million small farms, 33% of its total, whilst the number of farms over 100 hectare increased by a factor of 2 or 3 in most member states.

Although they represent only 3% of European farms, these large-scale operations control 52% of agricultural land. This trend is supported by the fact that 80% of all direct payments made by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) go to only 20% of farms.

The CAP, which developed out of the post-war landscape to ensure food security, is the EU’s biggest single budget item. It dishes out €58 billion per year to support farmers and has lurched from crisis to crisis ever since - proving stubbornly difficult to reform. But now it's time for radical change.

Radical rethink

There is an ongoing public consultation on the CAP, however, the vision set out by the European Commission leaves little scope for a radical rethink.

A focus on opening agricultural markets and encouraging privatised insurance schemes, instead of supporting local markets, pitches the environment against the well-being of farmers.

Whether you are a fervent pesticide supporter or dedicated organic farmer, all roads lead to the same old commission model for farming.

To add insult to injury, blurry language around a “fair standard of living for farmers” gives little clarity on how to really improve income and well-being of farmers. In contrast, contributing to the EU’s trade performance is seen as an objective in itself.

Away from corporate-fed conferences and EU commission consultations, people are making their opinions clear, increasingly seeking out locally-sourced and fairly produced food.

Farmers markets, community-supported agriculture projects, and farmer-consumer cooperatives are becoming increasingly common.

Studies show these contribute to increased incomes for producers, generate greater autonomy for farmers, and strengthen local economies by supporting small businesses.

Fairer agriculture

In many cases, farmers who sell their products in shorter food supply chains receive between 50% and a staggering 649% higher income than in the conventional globalised market place.

The European Commission isn’t completely blind to these developments. As part of its vision paper, it cites “strong redistribution of support from larger to smaller and environmentally friendly farms… short supply chains and local markets” as an option.

The only drawback is that is nothing meaningful in its public consultation to subscribe to this view. International trade, pitting farmer against farmer is the only option they appear to be interested in.

Two weeks ago, over 150 civil society organisations called for a radical overhaul of Europe’s food and farm policies. Public policies and taxpayers’ money needs to deliver for both farmers and the environment.

It is time to shut out the agri-business lobby and for decision-makers to recognise the dire situation in farming and the food system.

Our money needs to be put into the burgeoning local food scene, the organic and agro-ecological farms, and small and medium-sized enterprises that are feeding local communities across Europe.

Only then will farming really meet the environment.

Stanka Becheva is a food and farming campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Blanca Ruibal is a food and farming campaigner for Amigos de la Tierra.

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