Stephen Cadogan: Rural EU is big enough to need five support pillars

And now, the real work begins, said European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan, after he hosted last week’s two-day conference in the Rochestown Hotel Cork.

Over 350 agricultural, environmental and rural stakeholders from across the EU engaged in lively discussions which brought about a Declaration on European Rural Development for the 21st Century. 

This is a blueprint for EU policy priorities in the coming years.

Dealing with the climate challenge, and generally looking after the environment, feature prominently in the declaration.

Mr Hogan said rural development policy is a real challenge in the modern world, where young rural people increasingly migrate to cities in search of work or lifestyle expectations, making it imperative to find new, smarter ways to reverse this pattern of rural depopulation.

The discussions in Cork will affect the lives of more than half of the EU population and more than three quarters of its territory, as well as Europe’s natural and cultural landscapes and heritage.

It was also in Cork, 20 years ago, that rural stakeholders and policymakers met to draft the previous Declaration on European Rural Development, which became the cornerstone of the second pillar of CAP reform.

What has changed? Nearly everything, and not all for the worse. For example, the rural citizens of 20 years ago could not have imagined the possibilities arising from fibre broadband.

Extending the bio-economy beyond agriculture and food has also opened new doors.

Digitisation of the rural economy and rural businesses, with fibre broadband, can bring an army of “knowledge workers” to the countryside, to make the most of the digital transformation.

That alone could go a long way towards making rural areas and communities attractive places to live, backing up the existing agricultural and forestry sectors which provide jobs and livelihoods for tens of millions of Europeans — jobs that cannot be relocated. 

A commitment in the new Cork declaration to strengthen the bargaining position in the food chain will help farmers.

However, there was a hint of ‘same old, same old’ in the declaration, with no kind of breakthrough to give hope that its good intentions might be delivered any better than those of the previous declaration. 

A missing bit of ‘blue-sky thinking’ that could be worth incorporating into the Cork declaration also emerged last week, at Wageningen University and Research’s Mansholt Lecture in Brussels.

The entire EU Common Agriculture Policy was up for discussion here, and how it can cope with five major challenges of society — food and nutrition security and safety; climate change and water and energy use; ecological impacts; healthy diet for lifelong, healthy lifestyle, and inequality.

Wageningen University and Research sees solutions coming from five major innovation areas — genetics; digitalisation and big data; energy and bio-based transitions; chain redesign; and social innovation.

Currently the CAP consists of Pillar 1 to enhance farm income and foster market stability, and Pillar 2 for rural development, competitive position, and innovation.

As over 350 stakeholders discovered in Cork, it’s hard to cover even the Pillar 2 they were working on with a one- size-fits-all approach.

That’s why Wageningen University and Research suggests five new pillars for a successful Common Agriculture and Food Policy.

Three pillars would address the people-planet-profit concept of sustainability.

The three would be income support and risk management designed to guarantee food security; a pillar on public issues and eco-system services; and a pillar on rural development to support innovation and rural life quality.

A fourth pillar would deal with consumer food policy and address consumers, retail and food industry to make our diets healthier and more climate-smart. The fifth pillar should be devoted to monitoring, reflection and research.


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