Monday, October 18, 2010

Farm policy will still cause hunger after EU 'reform'

Are you ready for a travesty?

In less than one month’s time the European Commission will publish a new paper on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Like dutiful stenographers, most of us journalists will present this document as being part of a reform process, when in truth it is nothing of the sort. Rather than advocating a “reform”, the Commission will suggest a few tweaks to an unjust and unsustainable system, otherwise leaving it unchanged.

How do I know this? Thanks to the internet, a leaked draft of the paper can be read by anyone who wishes to. I have studied the document carefully and I desperately need a hug to cheer me up.

There is no recognition in its 12 miserable pages that the way much of the food in our supermarkets has been produced is depraved. Last week the environmental campaigner Tracy Worcester was in Brussels for a screening of her film Pig Business. It explains the disintegration of traditional farming in Poland better than a thousand articles in academic journals could. In 1999, the rapacious US meat company Smithfield snapped up Poland’s state-owned network of slaughterhouses. Ever since, the small farms that were once an integral part of Polish life have been going out of business as giant pig factories, where abuse of animals and toxic pollution are widespread, take over. Jerzy Buzek, then prime minister (now the European Parliament’s president), enabled the conquest by agreeing to close down hundreds of small abattoirs so that the guests of his nation would have no competitors. “Natural progression” is the repugnant term Smithfield uses to justify the suffering it has imposed on rural communities.

The Commission’s new paper might as well have been penned in Smithfield’s Virginia headquarters. The CAP, it says, must continue to promote “greater competitiveness”. Perhaps not even George Orwell himself could have dreamed up a concept so Orwellian. In the name of competition, small landowners will continue to be crushed by firms with whom they have no hope of competing, if everything goes according to the EU executive’s plan.

The paper does not accept any responsibility for how the CAP has led employment levels in many parts of the European countryside to plummet. Regardless of who occupies the Elysée, the French government has long been the single biggest impediment to CAP reform. Yet the proportion of the French workforce living off agriculture has shrunk from 30% in 1945 to around 3% today. The more recent entrants to the EU have seen a comparably calamitous drop; in Hungary the share of the population working on farms was halved between 1988 and 2008.

True, the Commission appears to doff its cap to the green movement by stating that it wishes to address environmental challenges. There is no indication, though, that it has seriously analysed the rich body of research on the ecological consequences of intensive food production.

Two years ago the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation published a study estimating that 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, a new book by Simon Fairlie, queries the FAO’s methodology and suggests that the correct figure is closer to 10%, yet there is no serious dispute among climatologists that the agri-business industry is a major contributor to global warming. Jokes about how flatulent cows are imperilling our future by releasing methane, a highly flammable gas, into the earth’s atmosphere might appeal to schoolboys. The surrounding issues are no laughing matter.

I searched the Commission’s paper in vain for some ideas about how European agriculture might become less focused on meat. I wasn’t expecting EU officials to extol the virtues of vegetarianism (a creed I have followed for the past 20 years), yet hoped that they might have looked beyond the steaks they can devour in their subsidised canteens and seen at least a fragment of the bigger picture. Why can’t they recommend, say, a legally-binding target that 20% of all European food be produced organically by 2020?

Nor do these officials appear to have any sense of guilt about how European agri-business perpetuates hardship and hunger in the wider world. Instead of letting poorer countries feed their own people, Europe’s beef barons and chicken kings expect them to grow soy for cattle and poultry on this continent. Not only has this reduced the domestic supply of food to vulnerable communities in Latin America, it has fuelled deforestation. About 500 hectares of Paraguayan forests have been lost to soy plantations per day in recent years; Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are among the main importers of this feedstuff.

Narrow definitions, meanwhile, have allowed EU officials to brag that they are making good on their commitment to remove those export-related subsidies inimical to farmers in poor countries. The truth is that the EU is continuing to dump on the poor. In Ghana numerous tomato processing firms have gone out of business because of the pressure from cheaper Italian tomato paste.

Each year the CAP gobbles up over €55 billion or 40% of the EU’s annual budget. The Commission’s paper says that its payments need to be made more understandable to the taxpayer. From the modicum of transparency that has been introduced to farm spending in the past decade, the effects of the CAP are no longer a mystery to ordinary people. It is the mediocre mandarins in charge of this policy who don’t want to understand reality.

·First published by New Europe (, 17-23 October 2010

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