CAP revision: integrate the biobased economy

In Brussels, civil servants are in the middle of a major project: the revision of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. The future of the biobased economy is heavily dependent on the smart design of this policy. It is of major importance that we take the view of ‘functionals’ being one of the main products of agriculture, next to ‘food’ and ‘feed’. Rural development, extended to new forms of regional cooperation and SMEs, should remain policy’s cornerstone.

Field with corn sheaves, August Haake (1911-1914)
Field with wheat sheaves, August Haake (1911-1914)

Without agricultural policy, the rural area would spiral downwards. We do not make up that story, it happened in Japan. As a result of the economic success of the ’60s and ‘70s, the yen had become so strong that Japanese farmers could no longer compete with foreign suppliers. National rice production decreased, people moved away from rural areas. We should not let that happen in Europe. We do not either, in view of our potential.

Legislation becomes complex, goals disappear out of sight
From time to time, policy needs to be reviewed comprehensively, because old rules acquire a life of their own. Again and again, legislators add new rules to the existing ones, because the world changes, or in order to please powerful lobbies. Legislation tends to become more complex, the goals of policy get out of sight. Policy needs to be reviewed in order to get it in line again with policy goals (which no doubt have changed in the meantime).

Common Agricultural Policy clearly shows this mechanism. The original CAP goal, directly after World War II, was that Europe would have to become self-sufficient in its food supply. A second major goal was to eradicate rural poverty. In order to achieve this, imports of food and feed were strictly regulated. The results have been astonishing. The variety of food on the market has never been as large, and rural areas thrive. These results now also start to show clearly in the new member states in Central Europe.

The corn siftresses, Gustave Corbet (1855)Corbet (1855)
The wheat siftresses, Gustave Corbet (1855)

Over the years, many measures have been taken to harmonise world agriculture and trade on a global scale. Among these was the 1992 decision to open the European market for proteins, whereas it remained closed for cereals. This opened up the possibility of importing animal feed. Now, the EU imports 30 million tons of soybean meal yearly, which requires a area twice that of the Netherlands for its production. Does CAP still meet its original purpose of self-sufficiency then? Cleary not. That might not even be a problem if these imports fit into a framework of a successful world trade agreement, and do not result in environmental degradation, or loss of biodiversity or rich natural areas outside Europe. But that clearly is not the case.

Make much better use of EU agricultural potential
Now, the Commission is on its way to formulate a new CAP. We do not need more food in Europe, population remaining almost constant. Meanwhile, productivity figures continue to rise, as a result of which we could produce much more on our land. But Europe does not do this. The old idea ‘realisation to the maximum of our agricultural potential’ fades away. For many crops, Europe has set limits to production, having learned from butter mountains and milk lakes. Therefore, the productive European acreage shrinks, a conscious policy. Which partly causes uncontrollable consequences outside Europe, while at the same time it does not realize a major economic potential.

Wheat field with crows, Vincent van Gogh (1890)
Wheat field with crows, Vincent van Gogh (1890)

Our European agricultural knowledge is still unsurpassed. On the basis of that, we have a huge potential within our own boundaries. We could export a certain share of our production, and supply food shortages elsewhere with it. Moreover, we can grow European fodder ourselves, and drastically reduce soy imports in so doing. Modern biotechnology and the results of the biobased economy show that we will not need any fodder imports any more if we recover from our existing crops the proteins, sugars and fibres that now go to waste. Recycling will help us to supply any shortages in minerals within the EU. If we should not those potentials, that food will be produced on other land, e.g. on reclaimed rain forest. In the end, that will not be beneficial to Europe.

A third dimension for European agriculture
If Europe should set as a policy goal to keep all of its existing agricultural land in use, the agro sector would be able to serve new customers. These already knock at the door. One could be tempted to think of biofuels. But for the energy problem, far better solutions are at hand than biomass: solar, wind, and hydropower (not to mention shale gas that is gaining in importance). The chemical and materials sectors on the other hand have just one alternative to fossil feedstock: biomass. With biofuels moving into the background, agriculture will be able to develop into the primary supplier for ‘food, feed & functionals’. Functionals meaning: feedstock for chemistry, the building trade, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, etc., in short as the motor for the biobased economy.

Farmers will have the opportunity to add a new dimension to the spectrum of their products. They might feel the need for new cooperatives; the traditional family farm might need to cooperate in a somewhat larger unit, including SMEs. There is an ample supply of knowledge and technologies, and the amount of land needed is in place; strong customers in the new sector are right at hand in Europe. Moreover, these new customers (producers of chemicals and materials) often pay better margins than the agro/food producers. A responsible new European agriculture uses these European strengths and the European agricultural land for an efficient world food supply, and for an economically strong Europe. Putting agriculture in the economy’s driver seat, through which chemicals and materials producers will be able to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources as their feedstock.

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