Earlier this week, European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski addressed the IFA national council. Often criticised for portraying a level of disconnect from the sector, the Polish commissioner gave a sure-footed performance.
He not only showed a solid understanding of the sector but also expressed an uncharacteristic level of empathy in relation to the challenges facing farmers – not just from an economic perspective but also in the context of the industry being properly represented within the environmental and animal welfare debate.
But perhaps the most uncharacteristic element of his address was the extent to which he centred on farmers as food producers and their role in protecting food security. He told the IFA that food security now needs to be treated like defence and energy security, stating that: “Without food, nothing is possible.”
CAP budget not adequate
According to the commissioner, the existing CAP budget at just 0.3% of EU GDP is not adequate to protect food security. The calls to increase the CAP budget to support food production mark a dramatic U-turn by a commissioner who, to date, has championed a policy agenda to reduce the level of supports to farmers linked to food production – the most notable example being the decision within CAP reform to divert funding away from direct income supports towards environmental schemes.
Since taking office, Commissioner Wojciechowski, along with fellow commissioners, has pushed an agenda that has shown a total lack of regard for food security and has completely failed to acknowledge the role EU farmers can play in producing enough food to feed a rising world population, while reducing the environmental footprint of global food production.
Farm to Fork
It is this agenda that shaped the Commission’s flagship Farm to Fork strategy, which both the USDA and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre showed would significantly reduce food production within the EU and increase member states’ reliance on food imports. Until this point, Commissioner Wojciechowski had chosen to ignore these findings. But in his address this week he accepted the need to verify targets within the strategy in the context of protecting food security. He acknowledged that, despite being just months away from implementation, the opportunity still exists for farmers to lobby for changes to CAP reform.
The commissioner’s comments are the clearest indication yet that the war in Ukraine has awakened Brussels to the flaws in its policy approach towards agriculture and food production – in the same way it exposed serious flaws within energy and defence policies. It is now evident that the policy direction in relation to agriculture no longer reflects the stated political objectives.
Opportunity for farmers
This presents a unique opportunity for effective lobbying to secure meaningful change quickly. It is critical that farmers do not waste this opportunity to secure a more balanced CAP outcome – one that recognises the need for the next CAP to have an adequate budget and policy focus capable of supporting farmers to optimise the food production capacity of their farms while maximising the environmental dividend.
In normal circumstances, trying to secure any level of meaningful change in the last legs of a CAP reform would have been seen as impossible. But we are not in normal times – as evidenced by the fact that we have seen both the EU policy approach and budgetary allocations for energy and defence completely rewritten over the past number of weeks.
United voice required
But to get change will require farm organisations coming forward with clear, coherent and united policy demands that can be implemented quickly and shown to have impact. One such approach would be to build political momentum across the EU for the Commission to reverse the decision to fund eco-schemes by diverting funding away from directly supporting food production. Instead, these schemes could either be funded through a commitment to increase the CAP budget or by granting agriculture access to other EU funding streams – allowing for direct income supports linked to food production to be maintained. If the Commission is genuinely committed to tackling global food security and addressing food price inflation, there is no reason why changes to a flawed CAP budget and policy direction cannot happen at the same pace we have seen in energy and defence.
Vegetable area decline a cause for concern
Earlier this year we heard vegetable farmers say they had no option but to shut down their enterprises as prices from retailers were not covering their costs. As we report this week, it is clear to see that many of these farmers have left the sector as the vegetable area has decreased by 880ha – or 12%.
Action is needed quickly to prevent a further decline in this area, which not only produces safe, local vegetables, but also employs a lot of people.
We are quickly becoming a nation which cannot provide the staples of the human diet for its population. We no longer produce flour and we are only about 60% self-sufficient in potatoes. The potato area declined by 370ha since 2021 and the number of vegetable growers, which was at 400 in 1998, is now somewhere around 100. Ensuring a fair price for these farmers is a must and the appointment of a food ombudsman needs to have an impact if the current trend is to be reversed.