Has the family farm model had its day?


Life was going very well for most Europeans. Covid was the first big warning that all was not well with the EU business model.

Difficulties in the supply of vaccines and PPE have made the EU vulnerable in times of crisis. A heavy reliance on non-European products is risky.

Yet we are back to a recession created by the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that followed.

Leaders and decision-makers should have learned from the past.

An aging and declining European farming population, struggling financially to continue producing food while competing with cheap non-European products, leaves us heavily dependent on those same non-European foods that have harmed our production.

The founding members of the European Community sought to prevent widespread starvation in Europe by promoting self-sufficiency within the trading bloc. This meant supporting production-agriculture.

In Ireland, during the 2000s, agriculture was seen as a declining industry. We were told that we had a well-educated and highly sought-after workforce, so national policy was to target more high-end jobs.

But when the construction and banking sectors collapsed, agriculture continued to contribute to national finances.

This time it’s different. Agriculture is one of the first sectors to feel the pain of changing political, economic and business models around the world.

Sanctions like those imposed on Russia always affect productive farmers the most. They will eventually affect all households as inflation sets in and interest rates rise.

The turmoil of supply chains and the threat of food and fuel shortages are exactly what the CAP was put in place to avoid. The CAP was essentially an insurance policy for European consumers.

So where did it go wrong from a food safety perspective in Europe?

Modern Europe has been a secure and stable environment in which to live and work, and food and agriculture have been taken for granted.

Whenever there was a major trade deal to be struck, the interests of car manufacturing, big finance and big business had to be taken into account, with EU market access granted in return to producers non-European food.

Concerns were raised about the production standards and working conditions used to produce some of the imported foods, but the agreements were signed anyway.

As the EU seeks to become carbon neutral, one of the easiest ways for policy makers and politicians to achieve carbon neutrality is to import food rather than produce it here in Europe. The flaws in this approach have been laid bare over the past month.

Political leaders failed to recognize the risks of outsourcing food production by not fully supporting agricultural production in the last two CAP reforms.

Taking money that originally supported the productive sector and scattering it around to appease the electorate has destroyed the viability of many farms.

It is difficult to encourage young people to take up farming when they can earn much more elsewhere.

Has the family farm model that made us famous had its day?

CAP reform has hit the most productive sector the hardest, and the war in Ukraine is having the greatest impact on farms trying to maximize their production.

Soaring farm input costs are putting a strain on farm cash flow. Those operating at lower storage rates are less impacted.

MEPs have put forward a program to cut and flatten farm payments, while shifting money meant for production to environmental payments, rather than providing new funds for environmental demands.

The short-term aim seems to be to adopt a policy that will return the money to individual electoral regions, rather than having a real long-term plan for the future of Irish and European agriculture.

When the formulation was changed in the Ciolos CAP reform, from “production support” to “income support”, certain flexibilities were there to take account of household income, which were never used, because they were deemed too politically sensitive and difficult to enforce.

Many households will benefit from CAP reforms such as convergence and frontloading while having substantial off-farm incomes and minimal production.

A 2015 Teagasc study found that 52,000 farms in Ireland are defined as small (total production less than €8,000 per year). They contribute less than 5% of agricultural production.

Around 130,000 farmers claim CAP payments in Ireland each year.

Unless long-term corrective policies are taken, we will end up with only three types of farms: hobby farms, part-time farms and large-scale intensive farms.

This is how agriculture evolved, but the war in Ukraine and the current political orientation could accelerate this evolution.

If EU governments and consumers are not prepared to properly fund agriculture and food production with a long-term plan for the future of EU agriculture and food supply, a A more rigid description of what constitutes a family farm will be required, regardless of how many votes are in each house.

A family farm is not a plot of land with a house claiming environmental payments.

Political difficulties are no excuse to avoid tackling the structural problems of agriculture.

Angus Woods is a dry cattle farmer in Co Wicklow


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