The European Union is facing new challenges and so we need to look at agriculture in a new context. We need to make sure that we have enough food, but we need to do this in a Europe where people are getting older and older - especially in our farming communities - and in a world confronting the prospect of climate change; a population heading towards nine billion by 2050 and increasing pressure on our natural resources. Finally, we need to recognise that we live in a world in which globalisation has changed the way our markets work.
The EU’s policies are constantly developing in order to meet the needs of farmers, who are responsible for not only producing enough safe and affordable food, but also for preserving the countryside. If there is one thing to remember about agriculture in the European Union, it is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Why do we need an agricultural policy?
Get paid for what you do
Nine to five? Five days a week? Long holidays? That’s not the case for most farmers. However, when European consumers are buying their food, they are not paying enough to guarantee a fair income to farmers.
In agriculture, everything depends on the weather. Heavy rain in harvest, severe drought in the growing season or flooding can ruin a farmer's finances. There are many other factors, of course, such as the price of energy and the level of production in other parts of the world.
The CAP provides farmers with income support so that they can continue to make a decent living from producing our food and taking care of our countryside.
The EU spends around €60 billion a year to support its farmers and rural areas, which means that each of us contributes around €0.30 a day. Do you think it's money well spent?
One size doesn’t fit all
So who benefits from what? Different types of farms have different benefits. Mountain farmers keep the hillside alive and organic farms help to maintain our environment. Quite a lot of rural areas revolve around small farms. These small farms form part of our social fabric. Have a look at your local markets and you will be astonished at what small farmers are capable of delivering.
Larger farms are also important. They often produce at competitive prices, making their products more affordable, whilst creating rural employment in the processing chain in dairies, mills and the like.
Studies show, that without public support, our landscape would change. Small farms would struggle to survive, and we would see very intensive farming in some regions and land abandonment in others. Clean air, groundwater, biodiversity and the recreational value of the countryside would be threatened.
The average farm size in Europe is 12 hectares or roughly 24 football fields. By way of comparison, an average farm in the United States is 180ha or 360 football fields.
No region left behind
The goal of the EU is to create smart and sustainable growth across the board. No region should be left behind. To this end, the CAP gives active support to projects that make the countryside a better place to live – like rolling out broadband internet access, producing renewable energy, protecting bird species or helping people to set up new and innovative businesses.
Can you imagine life without the internet? No e-mails, no chats, no blogs? That’s exactly how it is in some rural areas of Europe. Nowadays, internet access is a ‘must’, not only to socialise with friends online, but also for distance working, economic development and the exchange of information. That’s why the EU is promoting free public internet centres and broadband access in many rural regions of Europe. For example, in remote areas of Bulgaria you can find more than 100 iCentres with free public internet access and multimedia devices (using satellite internet technologies!). A Rural Internet Network is being installed in Lithuania, connecting villages, schools, libraries and public access points. In Cumbria the public institutional promotion of broadband access has been a priority for several years and now reaches more than 99% of the population and businesses.
The global challenge
Check the labels of the clothes you are wearing, the products you are using and the food you are eating. They come from all over the world. This is a result of what we call globalisation. We generally see the fast exchange of information and goods as a benefit. But stop and think again: how does that impact on our farmers?
They are now competing with farmers from all over the world, including countries where it is cheaper to produce food because salaries for the workers are lower, the cost of farm land is cheaper and the animal welfare standards are, perhaps, not as stringent as those in Europe. The CAP helps our farmers become more competitive and improve the value of their production whether it's destined for the local, regional or global market.
Why is it vital for Europe to keep a strong agricultural sector?
Feeding the world
The world’s population is forecast by the United Nations to grow from 6.7 billion in 2009 to nine billion in 2050. At the same time, countries like India and China are eating more meat, which increases pressure on production of cereals for animal feed. In fact, more food will have to be produced over the next few decades than has been produced during the past 10,000 years. That alone is a challenge.
Doing it sustainably and with minimal impact on the environment is yet another challenge. Not only our farmers, but also our researchers and experts, play an important role in developing new ways of protecting our farmland and making better use of our natural resources.
The climate challenge is double-sided. Farming produces two major greenhouse gases: nitrous oxide from the use of fertilisers and methane from cattle burping and farting! Currently, about 10% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to agriculture, but since 1990 farmers have managed to cut their emissions by more than 22%.
What is more, some agricultural products can be put to use in the fight against climate change – for example, biomass (plant-derived organic matter) is used to produce clean and renewable energy. However, farmers suffer from the effects of climate change more directly than any of us. Droughts, floods and extreme weather conditions affect agriculture negatively, and this is likely to become worse.
That is why a part of the CAP budget is devoted to helping farmers not only to adapt to climate change but also to develop ways of combating climate change for the benefit of us all.