Dacian Ciolos talks to Farmers Weekly

Just under a year into his job, and with work on his reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) underway, EU agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos talks to Farmers Weekly. Ian Ashbridge reports

Dacian Ciolos wasn’t the only politician to take to the Oxford Farming Conference podium. The previous day, DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman branded Mr Ciolos’ early plans for CAP reform, unveiled in November, as “unambitious” and “not going far enough”. She advocated abandoning direct payments to farmers – a pretty drastic move that didn’t go down well with many conference-goers. So what did he make of Mrs Spelman’s thoughts?

“I’m confident we will find a good deal in the commission and in the parliament. Caroline is a member of the commission and also a government minister in a member state. I understand she has a specific position but I have no doubt we will reach a good agreement.”

If that sounds like a professional politician’s answer, then, to Mr Ciolos’ credit, it’s the only time in our interview that he gives one. Small and dapper, he appears well-briefed and very comfortable with all the arguments surrounding the CAP. He earned long applause from the floor at Oxford for, as chairman Christine Tacon put it, answering every question he was asked – unlike a politician. He doesn’t try to dodge any of our questions.

CAPPING SINGLE PAYMENTS

When we start to discuss capping payments to the largest farmers, there is a noticeable change in tone. He’s not exasperated, exactly, but I sense a degree of frustration. It’s clear he wants the CAP to be defensible, and his tone suggests that an upper limit on single payments is something farmers in the UK might well have to come to accept.

But the largest farmers and farming businesses will make the case that this is manifestly unfair. After all, they employ many people in rural communities and bring capital into the rural economy. They farm to a high standard, they’re among the most efficient food producers and the carry out agri-environment work on many thousands of hectares – the so-called “public good” that Brussels wants farm payments to deliver. Why should they be denied support? Why should the CAP continue to prop up the smallest and least efficient farmers?

“In some regions, the choice is to have small farms or not have agricultural activity at all. A lot of non-agricultural organisations say they are ready to accept support for farming activity with public money, but with some conditions. And capping of payments is one of them.

“It’s very difficult to explain how, say, €2m to one individual or company is in any way ‘income support’.

“Let me give you an example from Romania. A man has a farm of 10,000ha. He also owns businesses in oil, transport and textiles. He can use the surplus income he receives from subsidies – because he makes a significant return on capital on his 10,000ha farm – to go off and start another business. And people know he’s doing this – no-one can stop him. It makes it a little difficult to justify to them that this is essential income support.”

Maintaining rural communities in many parts of the EU is socially and economically important, Mr Ciolos argues. “If we do not support rural communities and smaller farmers, we will see food production become regionally concentrated in the better areas only. Management of landscape becomes part of the argument. If we don’t continue to support some agricultural activities, it could lead to social and environmental problems.”

It’s easy to see the sense in this argument – poorer or even subsistence farmers in member states such as Romania being driven from the land because support is withdrawn, leading to pressure on other state support, more urban poverty, and the destruction of traditional landscapes and habitats that are no longer managed.

“Concentrating agriculture only in certain areas would bring with it great pressure on natural resources and lead to more intensive use of inputs.”

He makes a powerful argument – and it is true that in many parts of the EU, farmers are poorer and rely 100% on income support from the CAP. And Mr Ciolos’ assertion – that it is wrong for multi-million euro payments to be channelled by entrepreneurs for use away from farming – undoubtedly goes with the CAP grain.

But some argue this could be solved, less by capping payments, and more by targeting them at active farmers. This, incidentally, is something the EU Commission is evaluating.

“GREENING” PILLAR-ONE SUPPORT

Among other aspects the commission is pondering is the suggestion that direct support for farm incomes – pillar one – could be “greened” to include some agri-environment measures. But many have questioned where this would leave pillar-two support – the funds set aside for environmental and rural development.

The commission’s current proposals for CAP reform suggest including some “green” practices within existing cross-compliance rules, which have to be met to receive direct payments.

“These practices would be aimed at encouraging better management of natural resources, and could be quite simple things – maintaining permanent pasture, crop rotations, setting aside some land. There may be five or seven options and member states would need to choose, say, only two. There would be incentives and these practices would be open to all farmers – it would touch a large part of agriculture’s provision of public goods. It is then easier to justify to the EU taxpayer direct payments for farmers.”

Pillar two, he suggests, would be strictly voluntary and reward the “farmer who wants to do more”. But intriguingly, he suggested in his Oxford address that pillar two could now include funds for research and development.

“The intention is to make this a priority for pillar two. Farmers and farmer organisations could be incentivised to deal with research institutions, to demonstrate best practice, improve knowledge transfer and develop advisory services.”

BIOTECHNOLOGY

Speaker after speaker at Oxford appealed for British agriculture to have access to GM technology to address the challenge of feeding a growing world population using fewer resources.

One farming entrepreneur and Nuffield scholar, Jim McCarthy, told politicians at the conference they had “abdicated responsibility for the food security and GM debate, letting mistrust and misinformation reign, and the science to be ignored”.

Only recently, Greenpeace and international campaigning organisation Avaaz handed Brussels a petition signed by 1m EU citizens calling for a moratorium on GM crops in Europe. So where does Mr Ciolos stand on this? Can he see any relaxing of the current EU rules on GM technology?

“The proposal to give member states the opportunity to make their own choices on this policy is with the commission. The European Food Safety Authority gives its opinion and then the political decision is with ministers in the member states.

“And the perception of consumers is important. This is why politicians have difficulties with this – agriculture and food production has to be high quality, and if consumers do not have confidence in that, then we have a problem. We cannot avoid this.”

To be fair to Mr Ciolos, the political aspects of this debate aren’t within his remit – they rest with EU health and consumer policy commissioner John Dalli.

But Mr Ciolos is sceptical whether the average European citizen buys into the argument that farmers must seize all available technology to feed the world – agriculture has a vested interest, after all.

“As far as the CAP is concerned, the first objective of EU agriculture is to ensure supplies for the EU. At least 90% of its agricultural production is consumed in Europe. If we are to increase production and competitiveness, the demand is here. But that doesn’t mean we have to affect the long-term capacity to produce more in the next five years. And we have to protect the quality of soils and water to keep long-term productive capacity.”

His suggestion that the EU is a ring-fenced trade group will tempt some critics to observe that Brussels is said to favour a deal with Mercosur countries – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. So how could this possibly mean EU farmers, who produced food to far higher animal health and welfare standards, weren’t disadvantaged?

“We have the same rules for EU food and imported food. For example, we stopped importing meat from Brazil because some slaughterhouses were not compatible with EU rules. So we have the same rules for internal and external markets,” he insists.

What’s evident from our talk is that Mr Ciolos wants the CAP to be accountable to the EU citizen – not just agriculture itself. He knows this is an essential platform when negotiating the EU budget for agriculture. And it’s clear he takes a statesman-like view of a policy that must, somehow, appear a “common” agricultural policy across and EU of 27 very different member states.

His commitment to agricultural research under pillar two must surely be welcomed. Even if, like every other politician, he is forced to remain ambivalent about wholesale adoption of biotechnology.

Dacian Ciolos

• Born in Zalau, north-west Romania, 27 July 1969

• Horticultural agronomist by training

• Studied at agricultural university in Romania

• Degrees in agricultural economy and development from Ecole National Superieure Agronomique de Rennes, and University of Montpellier

• Formerly minister of agriculture and rural development in Romania

• Assumed EU Commissioner’s office 9 February 2010

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