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Europe and Central Asia
13 Feb 2017

€U Are What You Eat

(c) BirdLife Europe & Central Asia
By Ariel Brunner

The European Commission has launched a Public Consultation on the future of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Ariel Brunner explains why this is the chance of a lifetime to fix a broken food & farming system that is failing people and destroying nature.

If there is any truth to the age-old adage that ‘You are what you eat’, then one of the biggest questions facing the European Union today is what does ‘what we eat’ say about Europeans? I would like to say that it says that we are living healthy lives, that we’re globally responsible with regards to the climate and the environment, or that we’re doing our best to ensure all farmers get an honest wage for their work and that rural communities are not forgotten. But I can’t say that, because our food and farming system is broken.

The current farming system – and consequently, the food it produces – is bad for the planet, bad for citizens and bad for farmers. And it is driven by the Common Agricultural Policy – one of the EU’s oldest, most influential, most debated and most costly policies (monopolising 40% of the total EU budget). When it was first introduced back in 1962, it played a pivotal role in ensuring food security for post-war Europe. But as the old Bob Dylan song goes ‘the times, they are a changin’” and despite many rounds of reform over the years, the current CAP fails to reflect the uncertain times we live in. 

"The current farming system – and consequently, the food it produces – is bad for the planet, bad for citizens and bad for farmers."

The Commission has just launched a Public Consultation on the CAP (open until 2 May) in the form of an online questionnaire that is open to citizens and diverse stakeholders (i.e. interested organisations and individuals across our communities) alike. Europe’s leaders have pledged that the responses it collects will strongly influence their plans to modernise and simplify the EU’s agricultural policies.

At this critical moment in European history, we have a desperate need to reinvent the EU project as more responsive and engaged with our citizens' lives. This is, then, the best opportunity we have ever had to reform the CAP in its 55 year history; this is our chance to ensure that future policies work for farmers, for citizens and for nature. It is essential that as many individuals and organisations, from as wide a variety of sectors as possible, take part in this consultation. That is why BirdLife and its national partners, are joining a wide coalition of progressive forces to campaign for a smarter and fairer CAP.

"This is the best opportunity we have ever had to reform the CAP in its 55 year historyit is essential that as many individuals and organisations, from as wide a variety of sectors as possible, take part in this consultation."

The stakes are high, so permit me now to move straight on to the facts. Most of our farming is environmentally unsustainable: we are polluting waterways with fertilisers, severely eroding our soil, and destroying wildlife habitats by digging up hedgerows and ploughing meadows. As a result, biodiversity on our farmland is in free fall – in only the last few decades, we have lost half of our farmland birds and over two thirds of grassland butterflies. Most people consider air pollution to be an urban problem, but much of it stems from the massive dumping of waste from factory farming. And that is before we even consider the game of Russian roulette being played by the intensive livestock sector that is breeding vicious strains of super-bugs by pumping farm animals with antibiotics. To rub salt in the wound, intensive farming is also a key driver of the greatest long term threat to farmers’ livelihoods and our food security: climate change. And, to top it all off, these practices are quite literally killing us: farmers are the first victims of chronic pesticide poisoning and poor nutrition is quickly becoming the number one source of illness and mortality in our society.

"The CAP’s highly flawed system of subsidies is holding well-intentioned farmers hostage – you simply cannot win when the game is rigged."

All this devastation is not actually needed to feed us. We waste over a third of the food we produce and tens of millions of hectares of crops are being used to feed cars and power plants rather than people. Of course, most farmers do not want to harm the land they love and most are not benefitting from the current system – a mere 5% of land owners mop up about half of the CAP’s €59 million budget. But they are locked into a race to the bottom: over production leads to low prices, forcing farmers to produce more and more for less and less. The CAP’s highly flawed system of subsidies is holding well-intentioned farmers hostage – you simply cannot win when the game is rigged.

The good news is that we largely understand the problem and that thousands of farmers are already experimenting with better ways of farming. But hope must become reality, innovative experiments must become mainstream, and farmers must be helped to bring about this change. To do that, we need a radically new CAP. The time to speak up is now, during this public consultation. BirdLife will certainly be very vocal in the coming months. So, if we are what we eat, let’s all try to embrace a new food and farming system that ensures a better future for the farmers growing our food, for the citizens eating it, and for the birds filling the life of both with song and beauty.

Ariel Brunner is Head of Policy for BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.