More than 25,000 respondents have already taken the time to have their say on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy since Commissioner Phil Hogan launched a wide-ranging consultation seven weeks ago.
The consultation is open until May 2, and then the work of analysing and assessing the responses will begin ahead of a July 7 conference in Brussels.
In parallel, the European Commission is gathering evidence about the performance of the current EU farm policy on the ground, focusing on many of the same issues covered in the questionnaire.
These issues include coherence with the commission’s key priorities, effectiveness in helping to manage risk, environmental impact and wider compatibility with Europe’s commitment to tackle climate change and meet sustainable development goals.
All the information gathered will be used to shape proposals on the future of food and farming in the EU and how the current policy can be made simpler and more modern in approach.
A communication from the commission, together with an impact assessment, is due to be published by year end. New legislative proposals will come later.
Mr Hogan said the CAP is one of the EU’s real successes. This year it marks 55 years of existence and support for European farmers and food production.
It provides food security to millions of people way beyond the EU and, despite all the laudable objectives of helping people to feed themselves, that will continue to be the case, at least for decades to come.
“If we are to maintain food security and the highest food standards in the world, we must continue to support European farmers through the CAP.
“In addition, the CAP is a policy that reaches out to all parts of Europe, even to the most marginal rural areas.
“And this is where we need to act. The highest rate of poverty in the EU nowadays is to be found in rural areas,” he said.
Mr Hogan said the CAP is at the root of a vibrant agri-food sector, which provides for 44 million jobs in the EU. But it clearly needs to adapt and modernise for the 21st century. Food has to be put at the centre of the debate and farmers actions have to be directed accordingly.
“We must remember that the CAP is an economic, environmental and social policy and each one of these objectives is as important as the other.
“The choice is not a binary choice between one objective and another. It is a choice between a policy that delivers effectively for its stakeholders, including taxpayers, and one that doesn’t”, he said.
Mr Hogan said the last reform of the CAP in 2013 moved it in a direction from which there is no turning back. The introduction of ‘greening’ and increased emphasis on environmental performance was a central element.
But more needs to be done regarding the environmental performance and in addressing the frustrations of those who believe greening has not gone far enough and those who believe it places a disproportionate burden on farmers and agricultural production.
Mr Hogan said the economic viability of farming is a pre-condition not only for production of quality and safe food, but also for the sustainable management of resources (including water) and the provision of environmental public goods.
“Indeed, we are fortunate that we have a whole category of economic operators who looks after the environment for us — farmers, who are our ‘boots on the ground’ to deliver on these goals,” he said.
Mr Hogan said the EU, in supporting farmers, can and must ask them to do more in terms of their contribution to the commission’s priorities. Crucially, those farmers deserve to be rewarded, in the same way that other providers of public goods are. Mr Hogan accepted that agriculture is a source of emissions, but said it also has the potential to provide solutions, notably in relation to the storage of carbon.
“As an environmental policy, the CAP is already making a significant contribution but, in the words of the school report, ‘it can do better’. We need to invest more and better in knowledge transfer and innovation in order to produce more from less and to produce better.
“This may include more use of new technologies like precision farming but it can also include the reintroduction of traditional farming techniques in certain areas,” he said.
Mr Hogan said the bioeconomy offers incredible potential for new jobs — especially at local and regional level and in rural areas.
It could be a new driver for climate-smart development in rural areas which could also provide new and reliable income streams for farmers.
Sustainable use of scarce natural resources and economic activity are not mutually exclusive. There are many ways in which this development can be combined.
Farmers must be placed at the centre of the solutions and ensure that agricultural activity and environment performance meet.
Mr Hogan, speaking at a conference in Brussels, said a balance needs to be struck in modernising the CAP.
He defined that balance as maintaining the policy’s core objectives such as food security, first enunciated in the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago, and the need to adapt the policy even further to the goals of the sustainable development age.
“Striking that balance means that our system of food production has to be much more sustainable than it has been.
“Quite apart from the interests of anybody else, it is in the interests of our own farmers and citizens in terms of soil, water and air quality.
“Sustainability has been something of a buzzword for some time and is included in speeches as some kind of rhetoric and platitude.
“Well, the days of rhetoric and platitudes should stop. It is now time for reality and action,” he said.