French Ecology Ministry Enrages Farmers with Proposal for Sweeping Subsidy Reform
Days after calling for a dramatic reorientation of European farm subsidies towards environmental protection, the French ministry for ecology and sustainable development has taken the controversial proposal off its website, following a firestorm of protest from the country's farm lobby.
Environmentalists and others, however, have praised the ideas in document. They want it to be reinstated online, and are seeking the launch of an inter-ministerial consultation process on the subject.
The 20-page proposal, entitled "Pour une politique agricole durable en 2013" ("For a sustainable agriculture policy in 2013") was published by the French Ministry for Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea in late October. However, the news portal Euractiv.fr reported that the text was no longer available online on 4 November, two days after a farm group voiced objections.
The document was released in the midst of debate over the appropriate aims and policies for the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the seven-year post-2013 budgetary cycle. France has traditionally played a central role in shaping European farm policy.
The ecology ministry's text argues that a strong CAP could be justified only insofar as it would contribute to the implementation of sustainable agriculture at the European level. It argues that the CAP must achieve three goals: fairness, by providing a decent income to farm workers; coherence, by compensating producers for environmental services that they provide, and limiting ecological damage; and dynamism, by supporting a transition towards ecologically productive agriculture.
The ministry proposes abolishing the existing two-pillar structure for farm payments, and replacing this with a series of separate policy instruments that would achieve these three goals. Income payments - determined by farm workers rather than by the number of hectares - would guarantee a minimal income. Environmental payments, linked to compliance with standards, would be covered by a second category of support. A third category, based on contracts, would help farmers move toward more ecological methods of production.
Unlike other contributions to the debate so far, the ministry's document does not shy away from suggesting a budget for the proposed plans: income payments could cost 3 billion euros, says the document, to be supported by additional national level financing; 4 billion euros would cover the cost of environmental payments; and 2 billion euros would cover the cost of transition towards more environmentally-beneficial farming, to be co-financed by various actors. Another 1 billion euros would be available to cover other costs such as market intervention.
The new proposals should not adversely affect the EU's trading partners, the document argues. "Greater global food demand essentially requires developing agriculture in countries where population is growing quickly, by a carefully thought through intensification of production in these countries", it suggests. "The European Union does not intend to feed the world, and is aware that seeking to do so would have a disruptive effect on agriculture in other countries".
The French farmer group FNSEA (Federation Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles) issued a press statement ironically pointing out that the minister for ecology and sustainable development "has not yet brought agriculture into his portfolio", and criticising what they saw as "a clear case of institutional misconduct". They claimed that farm representatives had not been consulted before the document was published, and called on Jean-Louis Borloo, the minister in charge of the department concerned, to "play fair, not alone".
According to Euractiv.fr, the French agriculture ministry was keen to downplay the significance of the environment ministry's proposals: unnamed associates of the agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, were reported as saying that the document "doesn't count", and represents "only the views of its authors".
However, the document was described as a "useful and legitimate contribution to the debate" by the environmentalist network France Nature Environnement, which issued a statement welcoming its proposals. The communication also "denounced" the removal of the document from the ministry's website in the wake of the FNSEA statement, "deeply regretting that this hinders the communication of a document that is needed to inform the public".
The reform group CAP 2013, which brings together environmentalists, development agencies and some farm groups, also broadly welcomed the ecology ministry's contribution, noting in a statement that its proposals on better targetting of direct payments and supporting a transition towards more ecological agricultural production were "innovative and brave".
"I think that it does a lot of good to the French debate, by bringing in new actors," Samuel Féret, the group's coordinator, told Bridges.
ICTSD reporting; Euractiv.fr, 5 Nov 2010; FNSEA communique de presse, 2 Nov 2010; France Nature Environnement press release, 5 Nov 2010; PAC 2013 press release, 29 Oct 2010.