The 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.
Olivier de Schutter is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.