More than just crops? The debate about European farming policy

The harvest is rich but the labourers are few?

Few would deny the importance of farming to Europe’s identity. The intricate patchworks that make up our rural landscapes result from centuries of careful interaction between humans and nature. Throughout the ages, the countryside has nourished bodies and souls alike. In recent years we have also become acutely aware that responsible stewardship of our farmland ensures water quality, reduces flood risk, and helps protects wildlife.

But the European farming sector is in crisis.

A rural exodus

Who can imagine Europe without countryside?

Who can imagine Europe without countryside?

Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from the land. This reality is borne out by a few statistics. In the 1960s a fifth of Europeans worked in agriculture. Today the figure is below 4%. Between 2000 and 2012, approximately 4.8 million jobs were lost in the European agricultural sector. And the hardest-hit group are those under the age of 35. This age group currently represents a mere 6% of farm workers. Put simply, the countryside is undergoing a population implosion.

This bleak situation has led to increased demands for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a scheme that hoovers up a hefty 40% of the EU’s annual budget. In spite of its immense expense, farmers throughout Europe are deeply unhappy with the CAP. It is significant that even though the average UK farm receives over half its income from CAP subsidies, farmers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of BREXIT.

Small is beautiful?

The main source of discontent is that smaller and more labour-intensive farms have suffered under the CAP’s focus on food production. It is estimated that between 2005 and 2010, over 2.5 million small farms were shut down. Given that 10% of the largest farms receive nearly 75% of CAP payments, critics argue that the EU is effectively subsiding large farms.

Éric Andrieu: subsidies should favour small farmers

Éric Andrieu MEP: subsidies should favour small farmers

This is where the French Socialist MEP Éric Andrieu enters the stage. Andrieu is responsible for a report entitled ‘How the CAP can improve job creation in rural areas’. A leading critic of the EU’s obsession with export competitiveness, Andrieu argues that the alarming haemorrhaging of young people from farming must be tackled. His report, which MEPs narrowly voted in favour of on 27 October 2016, sets out a raft of proposals, including measures to boost training for young famers, financial help for new entrants into the farming sector, and a fairer distribution of direct payments to farmers. Subsidies should be favourable to smaller farms and direct payments should be withdrawn from those who simply own (but do not farm) agricultural land. The MEPs also accepted measures to encourage shorter supply-chains and promote more organic food production.

The CAP: a behemoth to be slain?

Prof Dieter Helm: subsidies for 'public goods'

Prof Dieter Helm: subsidies for ‘public goods’

Whereas Andrieu’s proposals are premised on the basis that it is possible to readjust the CAP to make it more equitable to smaller farmers, others propose the abolition of what they regard to be an inherently flawed ‘behemoth’, incapable of reform. This is the view of Professor Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University. Helm believes that BREXIT provides an opportunity for the UK to ‘reset’ farming policy and learn from the mistakes of the CAP. Whilst belonging to a free-market economic tradition, Helm nevertheless accepts that rural activities will always need public funding. However he argues that public money should be used to incentivise what he calls ‘public goods’, rather than simply subsidise food production. For Helm, there needs to be a public debate about what should be considered a ‘public good’. This would certainly include the environmental and recreational value of non-urban contexts.

More than just crops

Despite their different methodological starting points, both Helm and Andrieu agree that the ‘capital’ of the countryside consists of much more than simply the financial value of the physical goods farmers produce. They are critical of European economic policy that characterises the countryside’s value purely in commodity terms. The CAP has overlooked the role that small farms plays in providing employment, and as a means to protect the traditional character of rural landscapes. According to Andrieu and Helm, public funding, whether through subsidies or incentives to promote ‘public goods’, should be indexed to wider social benefits and environmental sustainability, and not simply used to reward production.

At this point it is worth pointing out that there is a third figure who has something to contribute to the debate. Pope Francis has often spoken of the dangers of economic systems that favour large-scale production models, especially in the agricultural sector. For this reason, Laudato Si’ affirms that civil authorities have a duty to ‘adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production’ (LS, 129). In the philosophical language of the encyclical, such measures are necessary to avoid destructive instrumental and technological uses of the natural world, but also to protect opportunities for work: ‘we were created with a vocation to work’ (LS, 128).

Francis: seeing the countryside as a multi-faceted common good

Francis: seeing the countryside as a multi-faceted common good

In each of these different voices advocating reform of agricultural policy, we can hear a desire to acknowledge the countryside as a multi-faceted common good. The ‘harvest’ consists not simply of crops, but also the intrinsic value of the land, and indeed the intrinsic value of its workers.

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Jesuits against conflict minerals


This week yielded a breakthrough for campaigners against the importation of conflict minerals into the European market.  The EU has finally agreed to introduce legal requirements on companies to check their supply-chains.  Whilst the EU’s proposed regulations are not all advocacy groups like the Jesuit European Social Centre had hoped for, they are at least a start.  Below is a Q&A on the subject.  A bit more background on the Jesuit involvement is available in an article on the Jesuits in Britain website.

EU Conflict Minerals Regulation Q&A

What is the latest?

On 22nd November 2016, the EU issued a text for a proposed law (“regulation”) designed to restrict the importation of so-called “conflict minerals”. This is the fruit of years of campaigning by faith and civil society groups, including JESC. We have joined others in calling for the introduction of legally-binding obligations requiring companies to ensure that imported minerals are not linked to conflict or human rights abuses.

Why is it significant?
For the first time in history, companies will need to carry out checks on the origin of “3TG” minerals, namely tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. 3TGs are vital for a range of everyday consumer items like laptops, mobile phones, engines, and jewellery. Many 3TGs are sourced from regions of the world, especially Central Africa, which are affected by deadly conflicts. A tragic reality is that the trade in minerals often helps finance human
rights violations. The proposed regulation attempts to remedy this situation.

eu-conflictIs it all good news?

Sadly no. The final version of proposed regulation is severely limited in scope and contains a number of loopholes which will blunt its effectiveness. For example, in contrast to the EU Parliament¹s more rigorous draft of 2015 that reflected relevant OECD Guidance, the proposed regulation applies only to imports of raw minerals. Thus companies do not have to carry out checks for components or finished products containing 3TGs. Another weakness is that the regulation¹s provisions only “bite” when certain volume import threshold are reached, meaning that a great number of companies will escape having to comply with the legislation. Further problems arise from the ability for companies to outsource their obligations to certain private industry bodies. Worryingly, inadequate mechanisms exist to scrutinise these industry bodies.boy-digging_400

When happens next?

The proposed regulation will be voted on by the EU Council and Parliament. Once passed, there will be a lengthy “phase in” period before the legislation must be complied with by companies. Early indications suggest the regulations won¹t come into full effect before 2021. So in the meantime, faith and civil society groups will continue to apply pressure on political leaders and business leaders to support further strengthening of measures to combat the trade of conflict minerals regulation.

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