foodThe Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is an important topic we haven’t really touched on yet in Debating Europe. This year sees the culmination of a process of lengthy negotiations on how to reform the CAP (particularly in terms of making it more environmentally sustainable), so it’s a timely debate. The comments you’ve made on the topic have been overwhelmingly negative: David, for example, recently left a comment arguing the CAP was “[subsidising] the destruction of countries’ agriculture systems“; Henry believes it is “strangling” agriculture in Poland, whilst Protesilaos calls it a “wasteful anachronism“. Are these criticisms fair, or have successive attempts at reform paid off?

We recently spoke to  Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and a specialist in European Union law, and asked him to respond.

The impacts of the EU common agricultural policy on developing countries’ markets has been tremendously negative. They struggle to remain competitive against heavily-subsidised food products being dumped on their markets. A number of poor countries have increased their imports of agricultural products, and these countries are therefore not investing in their own agricultural sectors. These countries, then, have become addicted to food subsidies from the OECD countries. They have developd a dependency that is not easy to get rid of. Were we to decide tomorrow not to export subsidised foodstuffs to the developing world, the result would be very severe food shortages in the short-term. That is what addiction leads to.

Now what these developing countries need to do is transition to being able to support themselves. Gradually they need to build up their agricultural sectors. We can’t pretend that these countries would be able to immediately take care of their own production; they need to build roads and storage facilities, they need to subsidise access to inputs, provide access to credit, etc. All this takes time and requires money.

What about food policy in Europe? We also had a comment from Enrique arguing that, in the “face of growing scarcity of cheap resources… we must [increase] the health level of people through better regulation of the agri-food sector to produce food that maintains long-term health, instead of food 80% depleted in vitamins“. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely. These are very important points and widely underestimated by governments, who tend to focus too much on the short-term and not enough on the long-term implications of food policy. Governments should look at how we can reduce demand by focusing on increasing food protein.

Let me back-up these statements: first, about one-third of all the food we produce each year is not consumed; about 1.3 billion tons of cereals are being lost or wasted. These are either losses in developing countries, resulting from poor storage facilities or crops rotting before they can be sold and passed onto consumers; or, in developed countries, supermarkets discard food before it is consumed. A quantity of food equivilant to the entire food production of Sub-Saharan Africa is just thrown away each year.

So, you’re saying the global “market” for food production and consumption is not operating efficiently?

That’s an understatement. The prices you see in supermakets lie to the consumer about the real cost of food. There are many externalities - environmental and social externalities – that are not incorporated into that price. Evicting poor farmers and pushing them away into the city, for example, is a hidden social cost.

The true price is not being properly accounted for, and the role of governments should be to ensure that people don’t just eat well, but they also eat sustainably as well. I believe price signals can have a positive impact: governments should subsiside the production of fruits and vegetables and tax and penalise agricultural production that negatively impacts the environment. We can produce food in very different ways with, for example, a greater emphasis on agroecological techniques that make the best use of natural resources.

The industrialised food system is being heavily supported, for example by subsidising fuel in farming; subsiding inputs – especially chemical fertalisers - that have a negative impact on soil. It’s not that governments have taken a laissez-faire approach to agriculture and need to start regulating, it’s that they’ve been too active in interventionist agricultural policy in the wrong ways!

What do YOU think? Does the CAP do more harm than good? Do we need to start subsidising fruit and vegetables and raising taxes on food produced through environmentally unsustainable methods? Or do CAP subsidies help to preserve a rural “way of life” and ensure food security? At a time when Europe is facing high unemployment and struggling economies, is now really the right time to scrap the CAP? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts to hear their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Jonny Boy

16 comments Post a commentComment


  1. Karel Van Isacker

    Well, explain me this: we subsidise food all over Europe, much of which is destroyed, while some member states have citizens that hardly succeed in buying food (Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal, France, Belgium, etc.). Why does the EU/EC not address this, and instead continuous to spend over 60% of its subsidies in agriculture to one and the same food conglomerate? I think the debate should be widened to: who deserves to receive subsidies, the small farmers who are asked to stay on their desolate islands, or the food multinational conglomerates that control food prices and on top of that get rich on tax payer’s money?The largest part of the sum given flow to multinational companies like food conglomerates, sugar manufacturers and liquor distillers. For example in France, the single largest beneficiary is the chicken processor Groupe Doux, followed by about a dozen sugar manufacturers which together reap hundreds of millions of euros. Is that why people pay taxes for?

    • Guillem Menxeta

      Exactly. How can EU help rural development subsiding a big company? Take the population of EU countryside, and look what % is working in this big companies. Maybe 0,01%? Maybe 5? That is not helping the developing of countryside.

  2. Linda Knox

    I really hope that by the phrase ”increase food proteins” you are not referring to genetically modified food? This GM food is ruining agriculture and causing huge health problems in both people and animals. Plants are not meant to carry huge amounts of protein…the ones that do contain protein, such as peas..supply incomplete proteins.

    Europe has been hit by a horrific winter this year. Those people will need help in getting crops in the fields to replace the ones destroyed by frost and snow . Over 700 lives lost already and hundreds of thousands of animals have perished in the deep freeze. The animals will need replacing as well as the crops other wise there are going to be huge shortages of food in the future.

    Thank you for listening.

  3. Christos Mouzeviris

    scarp it totally no..but reform it absolutely..!! it is outdated, we spend way too much on it and we should distribute it differently..the new EU states should start receiving more CAP funds, while other ones with established farming industry should start exploiting other industries and financial sectors..the money that we must cut from CAP should go to investments, research and innovation! explore and fund new industries and scientific projects…but scrap CAP totally would be a bad idea…some countries like Ireland rely on CAP to make their products more competitive against products from much larger countries like Brazil..Irish farm (beef) industry has not a chance against imports from Brazil, withour CAP rules and restrictions..it has been very succesful, but it has been misused..but that is not a reason to scrap it…it is like fire..it is the way you use it..it can burn you, but it can warm you as well and cook your food…if we keep reforming EU laws like CAP, CFP and so on, they can not be bad..if we allow those groups that misuse and exploit them to keep them in ransom for their own benefit then of course CAP and CFP can become more of a curse and a hurdle for true development…but i would not listen to the advocates of scraping CAP altogether..they have their agenda too, and they usually come from countries with little agriculture due to their climate, USA and other regions that have interests in scraping CAP and penetrating the European market and economy, monopolizing it to the detriment of our farmers..will we allow them to do that? no..!! those states that have doubts and want more money used in research are partly right, but they have got to understand the needs of those countries with a farming industry..it is a give and take situation..if we reform CAP and cut the funds to it, then they win something and the farming nations win something….me thinks… http://eblanademocraticmove.blogspot.com/2010/10/about-cap.html that is a blog post of mine that i wrote 1-2 years ago about the issue…it is a bit old and outdated, but the main points are reflecting my view on it….. ;o)

  4. Jp Hazelhoff

    A thorough overhaul of CAP is long overdue. In its time it was a good solution and helped fortify the foundations of the EU as we know it today. But the tool needs to be put to differnt use and into different areas. Currently CAP money appears to flow in the wrong directions. There are areas in Europe which are better suited for producing than others – from a natural resources point of view – the money is better spent in those areas to allow for a sustainable, social and efficient agricultural industry for Europe.

  5. Christos Mouzeviris

    …I am implying America’s obsession on getting rid off CAP, so that they can penetrate our market with their GMO products, and even worse, we start producing and consuming GMOs too…!! that is a no-no for me!! if they care so much about over productivity, then perhaps we should start closing a lot of the fast food chains they created and spread all over the world..!! who needs to eat beef burgers on a daily basis anyway..?? cut down beef production, and there you have it..a greener world!! the amount of land we use for the production of beef, tomatoes, grains, and oil (palm oils, soya oils or whatever oils, many with debatable consequences on the environment) so that the Americans can fatten themselves with extra large burgers can not be less accountable for any damage on the environment than CAP…!! yes?

    • Linda Knox

      I could not agree more. well said!

  6. Patrick Leneghan

    I would say that The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has become a nightmare issue for the globalists. This situation wouldn’t be a problem had the EU maintained its original European course, ie a market co-op(eration) within the EU. Instead, the EU has been, in my opinion, sabotaged and drawn into the globalization trap, has involved itself in matters that it should not have done and have become an imperialist organization in junior partnership to a nation with a totally incompatible alien (to Europe) system. (referring to the US).

    Consequently, services like employment, education, healthcare, old aged pensions, social security etc are all in danger of being lost in a Fait accompli manoeuvre by the globalists.

    I would say that CAP is facing similar pressures as CAP has, in my opinion, evolved to something more like a welfare system for smallholders and I perceive, a rort for large agricultural players.

    The argument that CAP subsides food for the consumer will need to be proven, just stating that that is so, is not good enough. In fact, if fair trading was practised/allowed, I would say that more of us would be able to actually afford beef and lamb (for example), probably from nations such as Australia, NZ and Sth America. It would appear who we are actually subsidising are producers (and those paid not to produce) and protecting them from international markets.

    As I mention above, all of this would have probably been fine, Europeans looking after Europeans but in my opinion, the EU itself has been disastrously mismanaged and worse, allowed those that the co-op was meant to defend itself against, non (and anti)-European/EU international forces.

    The EU needs to get back on track, to that of a co-op and nothing more than a co-op. If it does not do that, then there is no need for any nation to be in the EU, other than those that have been made dependent on CAP but how long can that last.

    And of course, if favouring one kind of primary product over another, logically, that favour (subsidy) should lean heavily towards health.

  7. Nikolai Holmov

    I would imagine that when it comes to corruption and mismanagement of funds, CAP must certainly be abused on a fairly frequent basis.
    I do not suppose for one minute any CAP negotiations will change that and in fact I suspect that CAP may well be redirected from mass production towards “environmentally friendly farming”.

    By that I don’t mean environmentally friendly by way of pesticides, emissions or fuel storage. Nor do I mean the payment of farmers to give their waste to CHP plants.

    I expect rather cynically that as overproduction is a problem, the CAP will be related to hedgerow management, flora, fauna and wildlife management. In general a redirection towards payment for ecological system maintenance.

    Why do I cynically expect that? Because so far EU farmers haven’t been paid for it. Having been paid to overproduce and then paid to have fields left fallow.

    On the assumption that the farmers will not be allowed to lose out on the subsidies they have grown accustomed to and will have lobbied extremely hard to keep them, ecological issues is one of the few areas left to pay them money for which could possibly be sold to the public as remotely credible.

    Personally I see no justification for CAP however politically it probably doesn’t pay to annoy the entire food producing, agricultural land owning population of the EU who have looked forward to their CAP payments for the past few decades.

    I am semi-joking with this post but really I would not be at all surprised to see EU farmers get subsidies for ecological land management (rather than farming and producing/not producing) in any reform such it the current apparent lunacy within the EU. Let us hope that is a phase it is going through.

  8. George A Doudos

    I write in Greek language, an EU official language. Έχουμε ανάγκη την παραγωγή αγροτικών προϊόντων. Πρόκειται για μια ανθρώπινη ανάγκη βασικής διατροφής μας. Οι αγρότες κατά την παραγωγική δραστηριότητά τους είναι εκτεθειμένοι σε πολλούς απρόβλεπτους και αστάθμητους παράγοντες. Η Ευρωπαϊκή Ένωση, που οφείλει να επιστρέψει με συνέπεια στην εφαρμογή της ΑΛΛΗΛΕΓΓΥΗΣ των λαών, ως βασικής αρχής της Ένωσης, πρέπει να διατηρήσει την CAP με τις αναγκαίες βελτιώσεις και προσαρμογές….

  9. Galina Deneva

    Yup, also it should stop traing to regulate everything they get their hand on and most of all STOP TELLING PPL how to live their lives on any level possible. Well.. maybe you should shut EU politic structure down, it’s nothing but money spending crap.

  10. Alessia Covassin

    it is useless to have CAP and many tight rules over EU’s farmer, whereas products from China, Africa…. have not restriction to come in Europe and therefore are sold at a lower price!!!

  11. Pablo

    Could someone explain me how European governments can justify spending such a large proportion of EU budget on agricultural subsidies, when the issue that really needs to be addressed in Europe is the lack of competitiveness of the majority of peripheral Eurozone states, and some core states like France? And the simplest way to do this (without heavily slashing wages and shrinking public services) is by producing more innovative technologies? Shouldn’t the majority of EU funds be spent on grants for research & innovation? Also, wouldn’t we achieve a politically united EU much faster by increasing the number of programmes that promote the movement of people inside the union (such as the Erasmus programme?). For example, programmes which would make it easier for job seekers in one nation move to another, so that we wouldn’t have such disparities in unemployment rate (25% in Spain, vs 5% in Germany)?

    If the concern is that food wouldn’t be produced in a healthy way without the CAP, couldn’t the EU just impose strict rules on imported food, and keep a watchful eye on how food is produced in countries from where it is imported (I am sure LATAM/African countries would have sufficient incentive to produce healthy food, if they can then sell it to 500 Million Europeans)? Also, isn’t specifically the CAP one of the main barriers to free trade agreements with LATAM countries, which could be hugely beneficial for the EU, as European goods (especially cars and electronic devices) are very popular in South America?

    In my opinion, unless the EU is totally reinvented, it will not survive much longer.

  12. white supremacy

    i belive that the cap should be so that no more get in this country is full as it is

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