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18 March 2010

Common Agriculture Policy after 2013: free market will not save European agriculture

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), as the first EU institution, rose to the challenge of providing a comprehensive vision for the future of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), in advance of the European Commission's papers on the matter, due to be issued later this year and in 2011. The EESC's opinion on this divisive and highly controversial issue was adopted with near-unanimity, a move that EESC Vice-President Seppo Kallio called "historical".

The current funding for the CAP expires in 2013 and discussions on its future go hand in hand with a review of the EU budget for the post-2013 era. The EESC adamantly states that all debate on the post-2013 CAP needs to begin with a precise definition of its ultimate goal, which, once subscribed to, should be followed by an agreement on a set of policy instruments and a financial settlement. "It is wrong to assign money to a specific policy and only then to divide it up between different measures and among Member States", said rapporteur Lutz Ribbe (Various Interests Group, Germany). "Agriculture policy is about more than allocating money".

The European agricultural model, that is sustainable farming, designed to provide varied and safe bio-food whilst at the same time preserving landscape and rural areas is under threat, since it is increasingly subject to market conditions, says the Committee. Food prices do not include the cost of tasks that farmers are required to fulfil, such as environmental protection and landscape conservation. As a result, multifunctional agriculture that Europe prides itself on might, unless conditions alter, push many farmers into poverty and out of farming. "There is an ever-growing gulf between the lip-service paid to the European agricultural model on the one hand and the reality of day-to-day farm life on the other", stated Lutz Ribbe.

The Committee insists on the need to put an end to the race for higher productivity at all costs, which is also what society at large wants as it does not embrace the use of GMOs, hormones and growth stimulants that such a race inevitably entails. A sixth of all jobs in Europe is related directly or indirectly to agriculture, and if agricultural production disappears, then the related jobs in the upstream and downstream sectors will disappear too. It therefore calls on Europe's policymakers to ensure that a farming sector is sustainable and provides sufficient income for farmers as well as pointing to specific measures to achieve this.

The Committee notes that, despite the market stabilisation being enshrined in the EU treaty as one of the CAP's aims, the dramatic decrease in a number of stabilisation tools has led to speculation and volatility. In turn, consumers have not profited from it as it has not translated into lower consumer prices. Support measures need to be maintained and beefed up in the light of ongoing developments on the agricultural markets. In the same vein, increasing concentration in retail, which has given the sector an unmatched bargaining power, turned farmers from "price-makers" into "price takers". The Committee calls on the European Commission to use its power to make pricing more transparent and look into these contractual practices.

Any reform of the CAP has to aim towards making it more transparent and understandable, insists the Committee. The future CAP must do away with the current system in which there is no uniform scheme of agricultural support and payments differ considerably, both in the amount and the way of calculating between the EU-15 and the EU-12. The Committee argues that any future payments must be exclusively linked to the delivery of services required by preserving European agricultural model, for example high food safety requirements, and decisions are needed to determine which services will be eligible for such payments.

The EESC also calls for investment support for farms to make them as productive and sustainable as possible, as well as to reverse past damage to rural areas from intensive farming methods.

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