ECONOMY

Greek agriculture may gain from CAP reform

The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is ripe for reform. It is impossible for the EU to move to its planned great expansion to the east, or deal with the new environment of food crises and ecosystem imbalances created by the prevalent model of agriculture, with the present CAP. Moreover, European agriculture faces demographic changes, with the Old Continent getting markedly older, as well as changes in international trade. Therefore, the issue is not whether the EU will reform its agricultural policy, but rather how far it will go in doing so and what the consequences will be for Europe’s, and more specifically Greece’s, economy and society. For answers to all these questions, Kathimerini had an exclusive interview with Franz Fischler, the EU commissioner responsible for agriculture, rural development and fisheries. Fischler was in Athens earlier this month, along with his colleague David Byrne, commissioner for health and consumer protection, to attend a round table on Food and Agriculture. Necessary reforms When should we expect the new CAP reform and what are the major problems it must face and solve? What measures must be taken in the face of enlargement? The BSE [mad cow] disaster has been a sharp reminder to us all that responsible agriculture can only flourish by working with nature, not against it. Responsible agriculture must be sustainable, that is, environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. This is our challenge. For me, reforming farm policy is an ongoing process which does not stop at the Agenda 2000 reform. Therefore, the midterm review of the CAP in 2002 will provide us with the opportunity to take stock of what we have achieved. The commission will table its proposals on how to review the CAP in the first half of next year, as decided by the heads of state. By review we mean that we have to look at whether the different sectors work properly. If they do not, like in the beef sector, the commission will have to table changes. The necessary development of the CAP is not driven by enlargement. It is driven by our striving to ensure the future of Europe’s farmers by adapting the policy to what society demands from them. How must Greek agriculture prepare for CAP reform? What are its strong and weak points? What will happen with important – but redundant – products like tobacco? In many ways, Greek agriculture is already well prepared to benefit from a further development of the CAP. Its warm climate naturally favors a diverse agricultural system, and its farming practices continue to promote the production of high-quality, specialized local goods, both of which are already advocated by Agenda 2000. Greece is also particularly well positioned for trade with countries beyond the EU, such as those of Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Low productivity However, despite these natural advantages, Greek agriculture also faces demographic, environmental and economic difficulties that it must overcome. Productivity is frequently low and a number of small and often fragmented holdings have developed. Similarly, its climate, whilst beneficial in some aspects, causes aridity, which in turn creates environmental problems in areas where there is a high concentration of farming activity. With a view to the future, Greek agriculture should incorporate the appropriate rural development programs to overcome the problem that fewer young people are entering into farming. The younger generation must be given the incentive to enter into agriculture, and older farmers managing smaller and less efficient farms must have the opportunity of being trained in other skills, or withdraw from farming. Other objectives that should be pursued include the promotion of organic farming and the exploitation of other niche markets. To this end, Greece needs to encourage investments, which are currently low, and improve the vertical integration of the production system from stable to table. Greece has many specialized products of which it should be proud. These should be labeled and marketed accordingly. In the case of tobacco, it is no secret that Greek regions hardly have alternatives. This is why there are already two measures in place to help producers who voluntarily wish to surrender their quota and leave the sector. Firstly a buyback scheme is in operation whereby producers can sell back their quota to the European Union for a buyback price for three years. Secondly, it was foreseen that member states would have the option of activating rural development programs which, among other things, are designed to help both tobacco- and cotton-producing regions in difficulty. It is an issue that the commission is currently following very closely, and it is our intention to support further measures to ease the transition away from tobacco production toward other crops or activities in a socially compatible way. According to the communication made by the commission at the Gothenburg summit [in June 2001] concerning the strategy for sustainable development, further action on this issue will be defined once the evaluation of the tobacco market organization, expected at the end of 2002, becomes available. What will the relationship between ecology and agriculture be in the framework of the new CAP and beyond? With the Agenda 2000 reforms, we have already introduced significant changes to make the CAP more sustainable in environmental terms. Yet member states do not make full use of the possibilities already provided for. At present, member states are authorized to penalize those who fail to comply with environmental requirements by reducing direct payments to farmers. In order to take account of the differences in cost structures between large and small farms, the member states are already entitled to reduce their support for big farms by up to 20 percent and to use this money for additional measures to promote the environment or organic farming. Here, we can and should go further. In general, I believe that the EU still spends too much on production support, while doing too little to preserve the environment and the farming landscape. Only 10 percent of the CAP budget goes to rural development, for example. Regarding food safety, what sort of developments should we expect in the EU following the recent crises? I earnestly hope that the wide-ranging public debate about agriculture, which was triggered by BSE and foot-and-mouth, was more than a flash in the media pan. This is why we have organized a round table discussion in Greece, in order to keep the momentum going. Under the responsibility of my colleague David Byrne, the responsible commissioner for food safety, the commission has drawn up a plan to introduce improvements, the White Paper on Food Safety. We are in the process of implementing this master plan item by item. And we want to see stricter rules and controls on animal feed production and trade. 80 measures The commission is proposing 80 concrete steps to improve food safety. Staying with the topical example of animal feed, even before the present BSE crisis we favored stricter controls on animal feed and tighter rules on ingredients. Also, over the past few years we have introduced a number of measures dealing with quality assurance and improved labeling for food. These are designed to ensure that consumers have a clearer picture of the origin and quality of the food they buy. Also Greek consumers increasingly want quality and are voting with their trolleys in the supermarket. In return, however, they must also be prepared to compensate producers, through the prices they pay, for higher animal welfare, environmental and hygiene standards. Low-price, high-volume and top-quality produce cannot go hand in hand. But one aspect is not negotiable: food safety and adherence to environmental and animal welfare standards. This is our guiding principle. What is the EU policy regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? As for GMOs, the commission has recently proposed that all genetically-modified foodstuffs and animal feed be clearly labeled. European consumers have called for this and we have to meet their request. But it should also be clear that according to our proposal, genetically modified food will only be put on the market if it has undergone scientific safety tests. Informative and easy-to-understand labeling is a cornerstone of European food policy.