FORMER ITALIAN agriculture minister, Paolo de Castro, has called for international labelling rules for food to allow Europe‘s farmers to compete in an increasingly global market place.

But agreeing a way forward for food policy among an expanded EU would not be easy, he claimed.

Speaking at the English Crops Conference at Chilford Halls, near Cambridge (Nov 16), Prof de Castro said it was important for countries with increasing access to European markets – such as the 50 poorest countries of the world under the ‘Everything But Arms‘ agreement – to be subject to the same rules as producers in the EU.

Those rules would need clear identification through labelling, he suggested.

“We have to change the way we compete in the market,” he told delegates.

“We have to show consumers a difference with our products. We need to emphasise the distinctiveness of our products. We need to use labelling to protect our products.”

European farmers were being squeezed by low cost producers on the one hand, and by rich countries with a lot of emphasis on organisation and getting a very low price, he said.

“How can we compete with Australian or South African wine? How do we compete with Chinese tomatoes?”

Farmers in Europe will only be able to compete if the market overcomes the low cost of production, he explained. That meant a change in mentality.

“You may pay more, but EU product is different – we need to use labelling to protect our products.”

There were good examples in Italy with wine and olive oil, Prof de Castro said.

“Quality is the bedrock of competitiveness. Italy now exports more wine than France. We‘ve increased exports on high quality.”

But with no labelling protection outside Europe, and “problems within Europe”, to preserve product identity, Prof de Castro said the issue needed to be central to World Trade Organisation negotiations.

“This is the important question. If there are to be more imports into the EU, the rules EU farmers follow should be followed by exporting countries otherwise, we will get market distortions.”

“The CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] does not address this. We have to work hard on WTO.”

But reaching consensus among the EU‘s 25 member states on the future direction for agriculture would not be easy, he conceded.

“How will we be able to keep only one CAP when there are four different visions around Europe?”

Germany wants an environmental focus, he said. France prefers to keep social issues at the centre of policy.

Northern countries (including the UK) want rules to allow fair competition. And the 10 new member states want support for infrastructure of the sort Europe‘s farmers have had for the past 40 years.

“We do need a CAP,” he concluded. “But can we only have one CAP?”