The outlines of a major EU farm reform have been agreed in Brussels, focused on environment friendly methods and more support for small farms. Critics say the EU is ignoring prospects in large-scale efficient farming.
EU negotiators finalized a rewrite of the EU agriculture policy on Wednesday. It would cut subsidies to large farms and maintain farms in terrain with wildlife. But environmental groups said it does not go far enough, while critics argue that the draft policy defied trends toward large-scale production.
The deal reached late Wednesday in Brussels and due to take effect in 2014 still needs the approval from the bloc's 27 member nations and the European Parliament, as well as matching budgetary allocations.
A key requirement would be that 30 percent of future budgets for direct payments will depend on farmers taking new steps to protect the environment. From 2015, farmers will be required to leave 5 percent of arable land as a haven for wildlife. Arable farms over 30 hectares would have to grow at least three different crops.
EU sugar production quotas and minimum prices are to be removed by late 2017.
The EU's focus on subsidies or direct payments to farmers would shift from large farms to struggling smaller producers.
France welcomes shift
French farm minister Stephane Le Foll welcomed this shift in support towards Europe's traditional farming communities, such as dairy farms in mountainous central France.
"The logic of liberalism did not win," Le Foll said. "On the contrary, we managed to turn the situation around … we didn't let things slide. We changed what has been the prevailing trend in agriculture."
European Commission agriculture spokesman Roger Waite said the new rules were designed to "maintain existing production in areas where it would otherwise disappear."
Farm Minister Simon Coveney of Ireland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the rearrangement of the bloc's 50-billion-euro ($65 billion) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would "secure the sustainable development of the sector up to 2020 and beyond."
Its original policy - created last century to ensure post-war food supplies across the continent – became mired in runaway subsidies and overproduction, with foodstuffs piled in warehouses. This led in turn to trade conflicts with the United States and agricultural suppliers such as Australia and New Zealand.
On Wednesday, EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard welcomed the new policy's environmental focus: "Most farmers will now have to make extra efforts in order to receive 'green' funding," she said.
Soils still endangered
A spokesman for the WWF environment group, Tony Long, said the EU negotiators had ignored the best green proposals in their final sessions.
"It will only worsen the problems of soil erosion, water scarcity and pollution," Long said.
Criticism came from the former chief economist for Britain's National Farmers' Union, Sean Rickard, who said: "The future lies with large-scale efficient farms."
"Moving from payouts based on production to flat payments turns farmers into welfare recipients with tractors," said Simon Evenett, economics development professor at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.
Philippe Chalmin, economist at Paris' Dauphine University said: "Imagine the [European] countryside without farmers. The diversity of landscapes is precisely part of Europe's charm."
ipj/slk (AP, Reuters)