Voices 04/05/2009

EU view on food and environmental security

Historically, when faced with worries about food security, Europeans in positions of power have not always come up with great solutions.

At the time of the French Revolution, when Marie Antoinette was told that her people had no bread, she of course replied: "Let them eat cake!"

As policy responses go, this was not very sophisticated. And we know what happened to her afterwards. So perhaps I need to think up some better ideas this afternoon....

I shan't go into detail today about the extent of the current crisis.

It's clear that the impact on a number of agricultural sectors in the European Union is very negative; the dairy sector is experiencing particular problems.

It's also clear that the crisis is putting pressure on incomes. Overall, farm income per worker fell by nearly 5 per cent in real terms in 2008 – though that followed growth of 12 per cent in 2007. In any case, whatever the average figures, we know that some farmers are being hit especially hard.

Let's be a little more upbeat: in the European Union, the farm sector benefits from various kinds of support which are not available for other sectors. Thanks to these, the current economic crisis is less likely to threaten our food supply or our environment.

To support farmers' income, there's a safety net – mainly in the form of direct payments and market instruments.
At the same time, rural development policy supports farmers' efforts to care for the environment.
Rural development policy also helps to provide alternative streams of income.

These forms of support for agriculture are valid and they are important.

We certainly don’t want to insulate farmers completely against the rigours of the market. The sector must continue to restructure to keep up with a changing marketplace.

On the other hand, if we leave agriculture too exposed, we're gambling with the security of our food supply and our environment.

It's quite possible that serious crises would wipe out large parts of our production base that are profitable under normal conditions. This would leave us with a narrower range of food suppliers and would also lead to environmental damage in many areas.

Also, without support to deliver certain environmental benefits, farmers simply will not be able to afford to do so.

With all of this in mind, I'll try to be brief, but I have a practical "recipe" for action to suggest to you (this is not simply a "cake recipe"!):

First, we need to make sure that the CAP provides the right kind of safety net for farmers. This safety net should protect them against real crises but still give them freedom to respond to the market.

The changes agreed in the Health Check will bring us closer to this goal.

Secondly, we need to give farmers the right incentives to care for the environment and to prepare for environmental threats – especially climate change and water shortages.

Once again, the Health Check will be helpful in this respect, by putting extra funding on the table to be spent on climate change, water management, renewable energy and biodiversity – as well as restructuring in the dairy sector.

I also look forward to an agreement on freeing up further money as part of the planned "stimulus package" worth € 5 billion.

As I've just mentioned renewable energy, I'll mention my third ingredient in the recipe – which is making the right use of all renewable energies.

Various forms of renewable energy – including biofuels! – can be extremely helpful to us. In the case of biofuels, one of the keys to success is having the right sustainability criteria. The criteria which have now been agreed are rigorous, so I'm convinced that we can now move ahead confidently in this field.

Fourthly, we need to be confident in a science-based approach to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It's beyond question that we must authorise only GMOs which are safe for people, animals and the environment. But within this framework, let's be open to what GM technology can do for us – for example, GM crops which are more resistant to heat or drought.

I've already stated a healthy number of ingredients for my "recipe". But we need a few more.... And we need to use them internationally – because the European Union can't solve challenges of food and environmental security on a unilateral basis.

So, we also need an open approach to trade. As we saw when the food price crisis was at its height, trade restrictions made the markets nervous and so added to our problems.

Of course, trade must take place in the right framework. But if we get this right, trade can iron out supply problems and also encourage many developing countries to raise agricultural production.

However, some developing countries also need other kinds of help to raise output. This is the motivation behind our so-called "food facility" which will provide an extra € 1 billion to help developing-country farmers get access to fertiliser and seed, among other things. More generally, the EU is very keen to see "green revolutions" in those parts of the world that need them – for example, some African countries.

Then there's the importance of agricultural research. This must quickly move up the international research agenda: it's been a low priority for far too long.

Finally, and very obviously, international talks on climate change must make progress on tackling global warming instead of adding to it by producing hot air.

Given that the European Union accounts for only 14 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, our own plans for combating climate change are important but they won't solve the problem by themselves. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, which of course will take place in Copenhagen in December, must lead to global commitments.

These, then, are the key ingredients in my "recipe" for safeguarding food and environmental security in the years ahead.

I admit: the ingredients are expensive! But if we invest the effort and the money which are necessary to acquire them, what comes out of the oven should be rather more helpful than Marie Antoinette's cake.

di Mariann Fischer Boel