Our eighth day abroad found us in Brussels with a free morning. I spent my time at the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art, where I learned that one of my favorite childhood cartoons, the Smurfs, was actually a Belgian creation that we Americanized.
Our afternoon of meetings at the European Commission began with a great presentation by John McClintock learning about the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). Before starting his presentation he brought out a red bag and explained that the reason CAP existed was in that bag. From within the bag he pulled the plastic skeleton of Farmer Pete and told us the “Parable of Plenty”. Which goes “Here lies the skeleton of Farmer Pete, who starved to death from growing too much wheat”.
The line tells the story of why the CAP was created, and why they had changed the policy to its modern form. After the second World War, Europeans were determined to never go hungry again. In areas like Denmark, over 20,000 people starved to death after the war. In addition to these issues, farmers were having a hard time making ends meet, if they had a good year the price of their crops would drop and they’d have to sell all their crops to pay bills and have no food for themselves. On the flip side, if they had a bad year, they could charge higher prices and the consumers would be upset. To solve this issue the EU decided to regulate prices, which they’ve done since the 1960s.
At first this system worked really well and everyone prospered. The 70’s were the “Golden Age” of the policy and from there things went down-hill. Farmers became too productive and they started to have surplus and no market for the extra product. So in the 80s they assigned quotas to each farmer, which again righted the situation for awhile, but now they’re facing the opposite problem, with the current quota system they can’t make enough to be self sustainable. The EU is now one of the largest net importers in the world. Without some type of reform they won’t be able to keep up with their own needs.
Our second speaker was Jean-Marc Trarieux, the Deputy Head of the EU’s WTO Unit. This group works directly on trade issues and negotiations with the World Trade Organization. He discussed how the WTO works and the Doha Round of trade agreements that have been in the works since 2001.
The WTO was founded in 1995 and has 153 members accounting for 97 percent of world trade. The only large country not represented is Russia. The EU has been working on the Doha Round of policy to gain more market access for its member states. The progress of the Doha Round has been slow, but a framework was approved in 2004 and a draft is ready for review now. One of the main holdups is actually the U.S. change in administration.
The third speaker of the day was Pekka Pesonen the Secretary General of COPA, a European Farmers Organization. COPA serves as a lobbying group for their 50 members and represents both the farmers and the co-ops. The group lobbies on issues such as CAP, international trade, geographical indicators and labeling to best represent farmers.
The three biggest issues right now for COPA are budget cuts in the CAP, a liberalized market and added requirements for farmers without compensation. These problems are leading to a decline in farmers, though not as severe as the decline that exists in the U.S. The EU still has 14 million farmers compared to the roughly 500,000 in the states.
A hot topic of conversation was the recent announcement that the EU may allow member states to choose individually if they want to allow the planting of biotech crops. COPA is for biotech, but not for individual member states deciding because each one could have very different policies and it would distort trade and possibly ruin the entire CAP system.
Our final full day in Brussels is tomorrow, where we’ll have the chance to discuss these issues with farmers on their operations.