The new Common Agricultural Policy can deliver food security, but not alongside wider benefits says Gareth Edward-Jones.

Gareth Edward-Jones

Just after Easter I gave my first public talk about the forthcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that is due to be introduced in 2013. 

Predicting and pontificating on the ideal form of future policies is every economist’s dream. You get to show how clever you are in your analysis, how balanced you in are in your appreciation of all relevant factors, and how much better the world would be if only the government would take your ideas on board.

As part of my research for the talk I read the latest European Commission documents on ideas for CAP and discovered that the main strategic aim of the new CAP is to ‘to preserve the food production potential on a sustainable basis throughout the EU, so as to guarantee long-term food security for European citizens and to contribute to growing world food demand’. Further down the list of strategic aims are the need to ‘combat biodiversity loss’ and ‘to mitigate and to adapt to climate change’. These aims are laudable and desirable, and who would vote against any of them? 

The problem comes not in trying to achieve any of these alone, but rather achieving them in combination. This is a lot trickier today than in many of the reforms of the last 25 years because the desire to enhance food security is now so prominent. Many of the recent reforms have been able to give support to environmental and social aims, and these have gone hand in hand with policies aimed at reducing food mountains and encouraging less intensive methods of production.

But now we want to green the CAP and provide more food.

More, from less?

Devising a policy to give us more food is easy. We incentivise farmers to cultivate more land and to use resources in order to maximise production. This could be a good thing from the point of view of mitigating climate change, as generally products from intensive production systems have lower carbon footprints than do products from less intensive systems; as observed in systems as diverse as poultry, vegetables and beef

Unfortunately, such a policy goes totally against the philosophy of agri-environment schemes we have seen develop over the last 25 years, which have been built on the basis of extensification of production (i.e. fewer inputs and management, making production systems less intensive).

Given current knowledge and technology it is obvious to even the least sophisticated analyst that devising a policy to achieve more food, more biodiversity and fewer greenhouse gases is quite a challenge.

So what to do? First, governments should recognise the problems in trying to achieve all this in one policy. Second, conservationists need to consider this as an opportunity to totally rethink conservation policy within the CAP. 

Traditional agri-environment schemes have lots of support because they are cuddly and nice. They are familiar to farmers, good for lobby groups and seem like a good idea – but they may not work well. Indeed, the evidence supporting their effectiveness on the ground  is scarce. So lets be prepared to ditch them and try some new ideas. 

Third, clever people everywhere need to try and think of ways to mitigate climate change. Maybe an aspirational CAP can incentivise such a process – but maybe the practicalities of doing this within its seven-year expected life time are simply too great.

Finally, maybe its time for all of us to really examine some of the fundamental tenets of our lives, ranging from society’s opposition to new food production technologies (discussed recently by Les Firbank on this blog) through to issues of population control.  

If we fail to do this then we may discover the ultimate truth about food security – you can’t have your cake and eat it!

About Gareth Edwards-Jones

Gareth currently holds the positions of Professor of Agriculture and Land Use at Bangor University and the Waitrose Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at Aberystwyth University.  His current research interests focus around reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture and the food chain, and the economic aspects of conservation on land and in marine fisheries.

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