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'EU doesn't consider effects of farming policies'

The European Union pumps billions of euros into the agriculture industry, especially into large operations. But a shift in priorities could save the livelihood of African farmers, says the head of the NGO group VENRO.

Women looking crops in Burundi Copyright: picture-alliance/Ton Koene

Women looking crops in Burundi

Deutsche Welle: The EU is one of the world's largest exporters of food products, with many agricultural crops sent to developing countries at subsidized prices. What consequences does that have for the local markets?

Ulrich Post: The EU is the largest importer and exporter of food products, and started subsidizing its exports in the 1960s and '70s, and, even later, in the '80s. It is finally moving away from that. The infamous agricultural export subsidies are no longer as high as they once were. They now stand at around 650 million euros ($848 million) annually. But what is equally significant are the direct payments to food product manufacturers, which generally go to farmers in Europe. That adds up to nearly 39 billion euros ($51 billion). In Germany alone, they receive 5.5 billion euros. That means that our farmers can produce at cheaper prices than farmers in developing countries. When they export their goods, which they do on a large scale, they then crowd out local producers from the market. The latter do not have the possibility to produce at these lower prices.

Venro chairman Ulrich Post Copyright: VENRO

Venro chairman Ulrich Post

Could you give a concrete example?

There are two which are particularly well-known. One of them is the poultry exports to West Africa. There are certain parts of poultry which are unpopular in Europe, namely, the wings. Exports of these parts have been subsidized for years - with the consequence that in West Africa, local, small-scale, poultry farmers' livelihoods are threatened. The prices have simply been unrivaled. There have also been cases of subsidized milk powder exported to Bangladesh. Producers cannot manufacture their own milk there at such low prices.

You have said it already: the agricultural export subsidies are not as high as they used to be. On the EU level, German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Dirk Niebel has advocated their abolition. What role does Germany play in all of this?

In my opinion, Germany is not at the forefront in this regard. On the contrary, it is a tough representative for the interests of conventional agriculture and its farmers. Of course, there are governments in Europe that are even less flexible, such as France. The EU's agriculture budget stands at 58 billion euros. That is the largest single budget within the EU. That means there is quite a bit to be divided up there, and all 27 governments want to benefit from it.

How can the EU's agricultural subsidy policy even be compatible with the human right to food?

In our estimation, the European Union does not consider the consequences of its agriculture policies - that small-scale farmers are robbed of the possibility of producing themselves. In that sense, it is an infringement on the right to food, which the EU accepts. That's why it's even more important that in reforming our common agriculture policy, which begins in 2014, the consequences for hunger and poverty are considered. That has not been planned up to now.

But could it really be that the EU ignores such grave consequences for the farmers in other countries?

I would not allege that the EU wants that or promotes it, but I do think that the interests of lobbyists in the agricultural sector are so intense, they have managed to prevail over those of NGOs, for instance.

The European Union is the recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Can the award really be justified, in this context?

On the one hand, I think the European Union is still a great example of how a region can peacefully cooperate and treat each other. I would like to see a similar development in many other parts of the world.

Nonetheless, we have to continue to criticize the negative aspects of EU policies. At least we have the possibility of taking to the streets here and speaking our minds. In other parts of the world, not even that is possible. 

How can one fight such a powerful lobby?

When I consider how many lobbyists the German and European fertilizer industry has in Brussels, compared to the representatives of NGOs we have there, then I can only despair. But I'm also placing my hopes both in the power of logical reasoning, and in people's feelings. I think that if we can manage to make the consequences of the EU's agricultural policies an emotional issue, we could convince a lot of people to work with us.

VENRO is a voluntary federation of some 120 German NGOs active across the country. Ulrich Post is VENRO's chairman.

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