The agriculture ministers and policy-makers for the meat-producing side of the sheep industry from five EU members (France, Ireland, Romania, Spain and the UK) met in Limoges, France, on September 4 and 5, 2008 to discuss “The Challenges and Future of the European Sheep Sector”. What can you tell us on the conference outcome? Can we assume that sheep farming will still exist in Europe fifteen years from now?
The meeting demonstrated that most European political leaders and policy-makers for the sheep industry agree on the gravity of the crisis and the need to rescue the sheep sector.
I also noted that the concept of agriculture as a regular trade business has gradually been replaced by an understanding of its strategic function for each nation, for land use, for the environment as well as for the transmission of traditions and for healthcare…
There remain, however, differences of opinions among EU members regarding possible solutions to resolve the crisis! For instance––to quote Prime Minister François Fillon in his address at the 2008 SPACE Show (International Trade Fair for Livestock) held in Rennes, France––what is the role of the “DPU” (CAP’s Right to Single Payment) in the up-coming European agricultural policy? Indeed, implications regarding this type of aid are not gathering unanimous support, since, by granting them financial aid that is not indexed to actual production, it frees farmers from responsibilities. Of course, several member States have already unbound their incentives, but must we encourage a system that disconnects farmers from their production? Let’s debate this topic in the framework of current food crises throughout the world!
And let’s never forget that a farmer’s justification of existence is to feed the world, even if some of them still keep the “romantic” image of agriculture as a pursuit “to garden larger spaces”. We have a long way to go before “the act of producing” comes back to the core of the discussions leading to a draft of the CAP reform.
To answer your question on the survival of the sheep industry in Europe, I do believe that we will still have sheep farming fifteen years from now, if the EU implements mechanisms of crisis management that go beyond the creation of financial resources or insurance devices. Among the various approaches considered, one proposes a more active role for the industry. Consequently, we are working to provide public authorities with precise indicators on our cost variations (various commodity prices, payroll costs, etc…) to better heighten awareness to the risk inherent to competing with hyper-competitive productions that are based on either salary/environmental dumping or competitive geographical benefits (New Zealand for instance). We would, in exchange, be responsible for updating our farming structures: we must indeed encourage regrouping the production process from upstream to downstream, so that we can raise our competitiveness.
Let’s be careful however, as we do not have a multitude of options to face up to the current crisis. The initiatives considered at this time are heading in the good direction but we must advance even further…. That is the reason why I am one of the founding members of the momagri (world organization for agriculture), a think tank that introduced proposals for new governance standards for agriculture worldwide. The CAP reform must not solely be guided by budgetary or commercial considerations. The challenges concerning food security, economic growth and the environment are so important that revising our way of thinking has now become a must. Europe could initiate a project that would offer an alternative to the only neo-liberal policies that are put forward today. On this matter, momagri defends regulating policies that would in particular be based on stable prices matching fair compensation levels for producers. Such prices would be singled out by large homogenous geographic zones, each zone grouping countries with identical development levels as well as matching demographic, social and growth concerns. This method would thus make certain that selected price levels would provide minimum compensations according to national growth factors.
This debate is far from over but we are moving in the right direction!
Do you agree that conditions are close to being met so that the European Union finally acknowledges its ideological blunder in deregulating the agricultural sector?
Our industry has served as “testing grounds” to experiment with the “so-called beneficial effects” of the liberalization of international trade.
As a result, the 1994 decision to liberalize the sheep-meat international trade––while trying to increase international trade––has destroyed our industry by also setting up favorable conditions for the long-lasting emergence of the New Zealand monopoly!
At that time, the withdrawal of customs tariffs for products from Oceania and South America––enacted without any consideration of the basic competitive differences between regions––was fatal to many European sheep farmers and for ovine production in general. And the situation has since continued to deteriorate.
In spite of this, Mariann Fisher Boel, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, persistently perseveres by trying, with great public relations efforts, to “sell” member States on her Health Check, which totally disregards the actual performance of the agricultural markets.
Consequently, the main theory that guides her “policy proposals” is that of a linear upward trend of agricultural prices for the coming years. Yet, agriculture’s past and the momagri economic model demonstrate that this theory is erroneous and dangerous.
Accordingly, the first simulations of the momagri model prove that agricultural trade liberalization increases agricultural price volatility. Even worse, the agricultural market speculation that has occurred for the past few years has intensified this trend. One of the momagri model indicators estimates the effect of speculation translates into a 100% increase of the already significant normal price volatility. As early as last spring, the momagri model first simulations were showing a significant decline in grain and beef prices, a situation which we are now observing. We are really at the threshold of a dangerous unstable time for producers as well as for consumers, a situation that demands a return to political engagement.
The belief in an international demand that would durably support high agricultural prices is starting to lose support, even among large international organizations. Let’s hope that the European Commissioner for Agriculture and spokesperson for “a naïve liberal vision” will hear the opposing debates currently taking place not only in Europe but also throughout the world.
Coming back to ovine production, it is now urgent to change direction since more than half of European sheep farmers are over 50. If a strong signal is not given to the profession, we will see an authentic silent revolution: the irreversible extinction of a whole industry. And when a farmer exits the profession, an entire know-how and culture are lost forever for the community.