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European Commission

Dacian Cioloş

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development

Europe's path towards sustainable agriculture

DG AGRI/DG DEVCO side event: Agriculture the way towards sustainability and inclusiveness G20/Rio de Janeiro

21 June 2012

Minister VARGAS, Commissioner TUMUSIIME, dear Commissioner Piebalgs, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you all for joining us here today in this debate on a subject that concerns us all, and is also very close to the political priorities of the European Union.

I will try to address in my intervention two questions I consider to be of particular importance:

  • What is the European Union's vision on sustainable agriculture?

  • How can we make sustainable agriculture a better contributor to food security and fighting poverty?

But before all, I will start with just one KEY question: why on Earth is sustainable agriculture so important?

Why is sustainable agriculture so important?

Farmers manage 40% of the land on our planet Earth. The link between agriculture and natural resources is unbreakable.

For over 25% of the world's population, farming is the main source of income. It accounts for 65% of the jobs in developing countries.

About 500 million smallholdings of less than 2 hectares provide a living and food for 2 billion people in Asia and in Africa. Imagine what even a small gain of productivity multiplied by half a billion could mean for food security at global level.

With a steady increase of food demand, with already nearly one billion people undernourished, farmers have a difficult mission.

The natural resources are getting scarce; farming can make the difference: positive or negative.... As policy makers, we have the responsibility to offer farmers solutions and support for sustainable agriculture.

I believe that sustainable farming can make a positive difference.

EU vision on sustainable agriculture

Now I come to the first question I want to address: the European vision on sustainable agriculture

In EU view, sustainability is the right balance between economic viability, environmental benefits and social acceptability.

These three elements are strongly linked.

Sustainable farming should aim at:

  • Increasing productivity without affecting the capacity of soil and water to regenerate and to be maintained in good conditions

  • producing high quality, safe, healthy food

  • generating enough income for farms to keep them going

  • delivering ecosystem services (preserve valuable habitats, biodiversity, genes)

  • improving quality of life in rural areas

  • strengthening the economy

  • contributing to a balanced territorial development

  • ensuring animal welfare

These are just a few fundamentals of sustainable farming that we support in the European Union with our Common Agricultural Policy – the CAP.

CAP has undergone considerable changes

Since its early days, 50 years ago, the Common Agricultural Policy has undergone considerable changes.

We moved from supporting products to supporting producers. The so called "decoupled" subsidies contribute to the economic sustainability of agriculture, but also to the environment: farmers have no incentive to produce in excess to market’s needs. With 92% of payments decoupled, we broke the link between subsidies and production.

Thus, through several reforms of the policy, the European agriculture is now market oriented.

We are also more careful on the impact of our policy on developing countries. The gloomy days when export refunds were needed to clear surpluses are a thing of the past – in 2011 export refunds were well under 0,5% of CAP expenditure (compared to more than 11% in 1999). Today, they exist only as a small part of our "safety net" for farmers in times of serious market crisis...

...It is time that the critics update their files. And their sources....

What is more, the EU is by far the largest importer of agri-food products from developing countries - more than Australia, Canada, Japan, New-Zealand and the USA put together.

The CAP promotes sustainable agriculture

To receive support from the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers have to respect a number of mandatory criteria, for instance to keep land in good agricultural conditions and to care for the environment. We give incentives for farmers to commit to voluntary initiatives favourable to soil, water, wildlife and climate change.

The current EU farm policy is well on its way towards a more sustainable agriculture. But not yet there.

The proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy put forward last year in October, will go the extra mile.

While consolidating the achievements so far, the European Commission proposed that 30% of the direct payments to farmers should be linked to respecting certain agricultural practices beneficial for the climate and the environment.

Crop diversification, maintaining permanent pastures, maintaining ecological focus areas, have beneficial effects on the quality of the soil, retention of water and organic matter, carbon sequestration , preserving biodiversity and better using the existent landscape features.

The key point with these agricultural practices linked with direct payments is to have a positive impact at a large scale, not only local or isolated impact. And we can have it only if we encourage every single farmer in the EU to employ these practices.

We are also strengthening our Farm Advisory Services, to help farmers respond to new challenges, such as adapting to climate change.

Setting agricultural production onto a sustainable growth path will be possible only with major research and innovation efforts, to which the EU Commission is committed. It is not enough to invest in research if its results are not translated immediately into agricultural practices. This is another challenge for the CAP in the years to come: access to knowledge for all types of farms, big or small.

Otherwise, the cost of doing nothing would be too high.

We are already losing 275 hectares of soil per day in the EU because of soil sealing and associate land intake. This means that over 100,000 hectares per year are lost for farming. Soil biodiversity is threatened by soil acidification, which is modifying the soil ecosystem and reducing crop yields. Intensive use of irrigation – beyond related problems of water scarcity – accelerates the salinisation of the soils, thereby affecting again soil productivity.

These are real threats for food security.

The application of sustainable agricultural practices by all farmers in the EU is a long-term investment in a sustainable competitiveness.

The competitiveness of our agriculture has to internalise these aspects of sustainability. We can no longer build at world's level a competiveness which does not take into account, in the production costs, the sustainability aspects.

Food security and fighting poverty

Now, let me move to my second point: How can sustainable farming better contribute to food security and fighting poverty?

60% of the population of the sub-Saharan African countries depends on agriculture for their livelihood.

Yet, the lands in Africa are heavily affected by soil degradation and agriculture is not capable to meet the needs of 30% of malnourished people in Africa.

I believe that food security and fighting poverty in countries confronted with these problems, depends a lot on their ability to develop a sustainable productivity. Yes, we have to use new technologies but new technologies cannot and will not replace our responsibilities regarding the life of people working in agriculture. New technologies will have to respect the free access of today's and tomorrow's farmers to healthy, renewable natural resources.

Global food security is more likely to come from increasing production and improving infrastructures in Africa and the developing world rather than pushing production up where farming is already efficient.

Increasing agricultural productivity in these countries cannot be done through a quick fix solution. It needs long term, consistent action plans and commitments followed steadily by national governments, private sector as well as international donors.

A good example is the 2003 Maputo target where African Heads of State and Government have committed to 10% government spending on the agriculture to achieve 6% growth in the sector per annum. But further efforts are needed to achieve these targets.

This means we need a new generation of agricultural policies to support local production and sustainable agricultural practices. I am sure Commissioner Piebalgs will talk more about this, but this is the spirit that drives us in our development projects.

I refer in particular to the African Union – we need to encourage the emergence of local agriculture, structured around producers' organisations, valuing the quality and the specificity of the products of developing countries.

This means increased public and private investment that better addresses the needs of rural communities, increased access by agricultural producers, in particular small holder farmers and women, to credit, markets, secure land tenure, social services, education and training.

This means sharing of knowledge and innovation, affordable technologies, including for efficient irrigation, reuse of treated waste water, water harvesting and storage.

There are other factors as well: we should not forget food waste. If in Europe most of it comes from post production – either at retail level or consumer level, and we try to address this – in the developing world, it frequently happens before it reaches the processor, in the fields, on the roads, in the ports.

The EU is closely working to support its partners in these efforts.

Sustainable agriculture is not a luxury but a necessity. It concerns us all, whether we live in Europe, or on any other place on Earth.

Thank you for your attention!


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