How do you make the best of a bad lot? In Europe, the Common Agriculture Policy defines how the continent produces food, and how its countryside looks. It’s the equivalent of the Farm Bill in the United States.
In some respects, it has served Europe well. Certainly, the number of farmers and the average farm size in Europe is favorable when compared to the U.S.: Europe has 13.7 million farmers and an average farm size of about 12 hectares, whereas the U.S. has 2 million farmers and an average size of 180 hectares. These are the kind of stats that led to Michael Pollan’s famous comment about Europeans “eating their view.”
There were great hopes for how CAP reform was going to shape up: Previous European Union Commissioner Dacian Ciolos made some great suggestions for making farming and food more apt for both the environment and citizens. Eaters in Europe expressed concerns about, for example, pesticides and loss of biodiversity: 400 million of all the farmland birds have disappeared from Europe since 1980.
However, from the 2011 announcement of the reform process to its recent completion, the agriculture lobbies and national agriculture ministers watered down the substance of the reform.
In fact, in many respects what happened was actually worse. The spending on rural development and agri-environmental schemes was reduced, even compared to the previous CAP. The idea of ecological focus areas (EFAs) – special areas for agri- and ecosystem services such as pollination, biodiversity, and soil building – was altered too. While still a compulsory part of the farming system, the area devoted to these vital services was reduced. And incredibly, protein crops and the synthetic pesticides and mineral fertilizers that accompany them were both included and made far more attractive as components of EFAs at the last minute.
The CAP reform process has not been what Arc2020 was hoping for. Nevertheless, we are making the most of it, finding the good bits and helping people around Europe use it to promote a more agroecological approach to farming and food.
At its simplest agroecology is a way to bring nature and people-friendly processes into farming. Recent events, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization International Symposium on Agroecology (which Food Tank was involved in), and this great publication by our sister organization in the U.S. – the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy - have highlighted the benefits of an agroecological approach.
Agroecology is about connective thinking; it is about soil, climate, human health, biodiversity, and many more elements being taken into account when deciding how to produce and distribute food. Two significant aspects of agroecology are making the farming inputs and practices more appropriate and less environmentally damaging, and making shorter supply chains.
By bringing these elements together, we in Arc2020 believe that agroecology is also about developing broad communities of practice. That means a range of individuals problem-solving and coming up with better approaches to food production. This is social learning, where farmers, farming extension services, local policy makers, food activists, rural networkers, scientists, conservation groups, local development companies and more work together.
So what are we doing about it?
With Friends of the Earth Europe, we are running a project to help this wide range of individuals and agencies make the most of CAP. We are helping develop agroecological communities around the continent using pre-existing support structures.
We help farmers in Poland learn about crop rotations and how to do ecological focus areas. In Bulgaria, we are helping introduce farmers’ markets. Likewise, we’re assisting the Czech Republic with the development of Community Supported Agriculture. In Spain, we promote climate change resilience. We are also highlighting participatory seed breeding, land access for young people, organic farmer cooperatives and more in a number of countries.
Through the use of travelling roadshows, online animations, a dedicated CAPwatch site, events at the local, national, and EU level, we work on developing a genuine agroecological community of practice. This will help when the next CAP reform process begins.
By bringing all these people together, and by showing what’s possible even with the CAP as it is, we will make the case for bringing agroecology front and center of future EU agri-food policy.