Kieran Coughlan: There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all CAP

Most of us are familiar with the language of clothing, and the term “once size cap fits all”, but in the context of farming a one size CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) does not fit all — in fact, it’s rather uncomfortable for many of its users.
Kieran Coughlan: There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all CAP

There are just two and a half weeks left for farmers, and other beneficiaries under CAP, and members of the public who indirectly fund the Common Agricultural Policy to make their viewpoints known by engaging in the current consultative phase.

The ambition for the next round of CAP is to have a better response to today’s social, political, environmental and economic challenges.

Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome, the very treaty founding what is today the EU, set out clearly the objectives of the CAP, these being:

(a) to boost agri productivity, promoting technical progress and ensuring the rational development of agri production and optimum utilisation of factors of production, notably labour;

(b) to ensure a fair standard of living for the agri community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture;

(c) to stabilise markets;

(d) to assure the availability of supplies;

(e) to ensure supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices.

In retrospect, these objectives are noble and have certainly withstood the test of time in that they are just as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.

However, as the Commission points out, additional current factors add another dimension, these including climate change, sustainable food production, and political factors such as the world trade agreement commitments and Kyoto carbon emission commitments.

Given the treaty objectives and outside factors, it’s no surprise CAP is a servant to many masters.

The consultation process is an online survey. With limited funds , the Commission must prioritise where the money goes. The survey asks what the most important challenge is for EU agriculture and rural areas, along with a series of other questions.

The survey offers six areas to choose from, these being:

(a) Fair standard of living for farmers;

(b) Adaptation to trends in consumer/societal demands;

(c) Pressures on the environment and on natural resources;

(d) Climate change (mitigation and adaptation);

(e) Lack of jobs and growth in rural areas; or

(f) Uneven territorial development throughout the EU.

As farmers, we can all look inwardly and immediately jump on the “fair standard of living for farmers” as being the ultimate priority.

As a farmer myself, I would agree this is possibly the highest priority. Let’s not pull our punches; since 1975, the number of farmers in Ireland has fallen from about 228,000 in 1975 to about 140,000 today.

Obviously if farm incomes were higher, such an exodus from farming may not have occurred.

Perhaps the elephant in the room is actually the greying of our farming population, with the average age of farmers having increased steadily over many decades.

Underlying connotations of this are insufficient income to enable those ageing farmers to retire, or insufficient income to allow room for a new entrant to join in.

Collectively we should ask ourselves has it got to a stage where a farmer must die off before his or her replacement can step in?

The falling population of farmers is not a phenomenon unique to Ireland. In 1975, the number of farmers in the US was about 2.7m. By 2012, it fell to 2.1m. Indeed, in practically all countries, EU and non-EU, farmers are in decline.

As farmers, we can blame poor prices for insufficient farm income, but advances in technology (machinery, automation, chemical, biological etc) have allowed fewer farmers produce more food at a cheaper cost to the end consumer than ever before.

To my mind, the solutions in the next CAP reform are not easy — a lot of market control measures have been tried and tested, with most having failed to some degree.

We cannot stop the advancement of technology, to inhibit production is to cripple our farmers with quotas which will preclude their ability to shift production according to consumer trends.

Bringing back support for commodity prices will lead to oversupply, and will in the long term have the effect of reducing prices.

We can encourage an exodus of elderly farmers, or even part-time farmers, to free up room for existing full-time farmers.

But if a retirement scheme results in replacing one for one, this will not help increase scale for existing farmers, which seems like the only plausible option for farmers to increase their farm profitability.

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