Opinion: The future of the CAP – general Liberal Democrat aims for reform

Last week I wrote about reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the work of two Liberal Democrat MEPs, Phil Bennion and George Lyon, in successfully driving that reform.

At the moment the CAP is going through another round of reforms ahead of the EU’s next financial precept.

Phil Bennion explained to me what the priorities of George Lyon and himself and other Lib Dems were when approaching these negotiations.

In his 1987 paper on the CAP Phil Bennion looked at ways of cutting payments to the largest farms on the basis that they had considerable economies of scale. The proposals were for a tapered system of support “getting rid of price support, getting rid of intervention, and moving to direct support, like we have now, that could be adjusted as time progressed in the ways that it was required to be adjusted.”

Phil believes that the framework established at the last reforms “moved in our direction in a substantial way”. However, he also adds that “it does need continual tweaking.”

Phil also says that “we have to avoid a situation where we have an agricultural support system, or lack of it, that means that land gets abandoned in Europe, where farming is otherwise good, because we have the right sort of climate and soil to produce food for the world, and simply gets offshored.”

He explains that this would be devastating for the rural economy in Europe and would be devastating for the worldwide climate.

“Europe has about 30 to 35% of the world’s food producing capacity. And if we set up an economic system whereby we decide we’re not going to produce it then the demand’s not going to go away – and we can see that virgin areas of land elsewhere in the world will suffer as a result.”

Indeed, the only other areas that have got excess capacity to take up the food production are the rainforests of South America and central Africa.

And Phil says feels that this has to be done “without overly enriching those that are food producers – but to maintain a level of living for those producing food in Europe that is at least commensurate with the minimum standing of living”

He also emphasises the need to ensure changes need to be in the World Trade Agreement – “so it doesn’t impact on producers elsewhere.”

He goes on to explain that they also have priorities in terms of maintaining biodiversity and that this is difficult without public support.

“The farmer who is producing food will get no money for producing things like birdseed mixes, or pollen and nectar mixes, so that the birds and the insects have got sufficient habitat. The marketplace is not going to provide that… these are public goods so it’s also part of our approach that public goods provided from farming should be compensated realistically through the public purse.”

“And finally, we also have a view that the public have to get value for money. Therefore we also want to see a CAP which has within it drivers towards a more efficient agriculture… If those drivers are market led, and if the policy itself is market led, and leads to more efficiency, then… we can hopefully reduce the budget for agriculture.

“We can’t reduce the budget for agriculture if at the same time we’re forcing farmers to become less efficient through perverse incentives through the CAP. So we also have that economic imperative that we’re trying to bring into the scheme.

That’s sort of the summation of our approach.”

The specific reforms Lib Dems are pushing for in this round of reforms will be covered in the next article in this series.

* George Potter is a Vice-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum and a campaigner for Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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One Comment

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th May '12 - 2:18pm


    In his 1987 paper on the CAP Phil Bennion looked at ways of cutting payments to the largest farms on the basis that they had considerable economies of scale

    “And finally, we also have a view that the public have to get value for money. Therefore we also want to see a CAP which has within it drivers towards a more efficient agriculture… If those drivers are market led, and if the policy itself is market led, and leads to more efficiency, then… we can hopefully reduce the budget for agriculture.”

    Does this mean he has reversed his position since 1987?

    If it’s “market led”, doesn’t that mean we have big mechanised agriculture in Europe where where we can, otherwise it’s cheaper to have foreign workers putting in the effort in “no question asked” places, rather than have expensive European agricultural labourers pussy-footing around environmental protection laws, health and safety laws and the like?

    I agree with the idea we should safeguard food diversity in production in Europe. We should ensure we don’t casually throw away skills and agricultural technologies that at the moment the market deems “redundant” as the need for what they deliver can be met more cheaply from elsewhere. Though the CAP has plenty of faults, we should recall its origin after WWII when many people in Europe DID experience hunger due to food shortages, sometimes severely. The world economy is rebalancing (for the past few weeks I have been working in Beijing – so I am seeing it happening), the rest of the world may not be so indulgent to Europe in the future.

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