New EU commissioner puts focus on quality

FOCUSING ON quality food production and persuading consumers to pay more for it are the keys to farmer survival as the EU”s protective barriers are dismantled, according to new farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.

“I still see a future for EU agriculture, but it is important that farmers deliver added value products,” she told farmers weekly in an exclusive interview. “On bulk commodities, we cannot compete with Brazil, which has said it wants to feed the world. So in the EU we must compete on quality.”

Mrs Fischer Boel said she was confident consumers could be persuaded to pay more for home-produced food, pointing to the increasing number of shoppers in her home country, Denmark, who were buying direct from farmers. “We can”t do it overnight. But the trend is in that direction.”

The commissioner said it was important farmers sold their story to their customers. Funds were available under the EU”s rural development package to help them promote and market their wares.

On sugar reform, Mrs Fischer Boel predicted tough negotiations ahead on the commission”s proposals for steep price and quota cuts. “The discussions on sugar will not be sweet,” she said.

But she was encouraged that there was a realisation among farm ministers that doing nothing was not an option, given the large volume of sugar that was about to enter the EU free of duty under the “everything but arms” deal.

“I hope that the UK presidency [of the EU] will reach political conclusions next November, in time for the world trade organisation meeting in Hong Kong in December,” she said. “The EU will be in a stronger position in these talks if we have reformed the sugar sector by then.”

The same arguments were used as a spur for getting member states to sign up to last year”s Luxembourg agreement on CAP reform.

About this, Mrs Fischer Boel indicated she would be watching closely for any distortions of competition that might arise from the wide variety of ways in which member states were implementing the new policy.

But, while some of the systems developed were “rather complicated”, she was satisfied they did not amount to a re-nationalisation of the CAP, especially because the single farm payment was still funded from Brussels. If any fine-tuning was needed, the 2008 review would provide the opportunity.

Most of Mrs Fischer Boel”s comments mirrored the well-established views of her predecessor, Franz Fischler. On GMOs, however, she hinted at a change of style in the area of coexistence with non-GM crops.

Until now, the commission has adopted a hands-off approach, leaving it to national governments to devise their own controls.

But Mrs Fischer Boel said she hoped to come up with an EU “framework”, based on Danish coexistence legislation, to give member states clearer guidance on what is expected of them in terms of crop separation and public information. “It is important that this is fixed before farmers start growing GM crops.”

The commissioner also said that, although it was essential to strike a balance between what was desirable and what was economic, the maximum threshold for the adventitious presence of GM seeds in conventional seed should be “as low as possible”.

Overall, Mrs Fischer Boel said she wanted to use her five years as EU agriculture commissioner to make European farming more competitive, while helping to deliver higher quality for consumers.

But she insisted this would be done with farmers” best interests at heart. “As a farmer”s wife, I know how farmers feel when it rains, or when prices come down,” she said. “I may not be able to fulfil all the farmers” wishes, but I do understand their problems.”