The European Commission proposed a drastic overhaul of the EU's massive farm support program Wednesday but came under immediate attack from farmers, environmentalists and even the United Nations.
The EU's executive Commission is seeking to make the euro53 billion ($73 billion) annual program that absorbs almost half the EU budget greener, more efficient and fairer to the new member states from central and eastern Europe by retargeting subsidies and support.
Among the raft of proposals is one that would put part of the funds aside for farmers who meet standards of sustainability and environmental protection. It also wants farmers to leave at least 7 percent of land fallow for ecological purposes. The plans cap the amount of money that can be given to any one farm at euro300,000 ($414,000).
Farmers complained that the proposals would lead to unnecessary bureaucracy, while also restricting their production, even as the global population and food demands expand.
Environmentalists said the proposals were insufficient to protect the environment and meet the challenges of climate change.
A U.N. global food expert said the proposals would continue to distort the global market because subsidized farmers are able to sell food more cheaply, at the expense of poorer nations.
Still, EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos said his proposals amounted to "a major step for the future of European farming."
After the farm support program has been criticized for years for being overly costly, corruption-prone and impractical, Ciolos proposed making it more nimble as the EU's 40 million farmers increasingly fall victims to sudden quirks of nature and volatile food prices.
He also proposed creating a "crisis reserve fund" of euro3.5 billion ($4.8 billion) to deal with such emergencies.
The proposals will now go to member states and the EU parliament before they can be approved, which could take a year.
Farmers balked at the red tape running through the hundreds of pages of proposals. The rules will be so complicated "you won't be able to take a tractor out into the field without consulting a manual and checking rules and regulation," Gert Sonnleitner, the head of the EU farmer's union Copa, said.
The complaint of excessive paperwork was immediately backed by the EPP Christian Democrats, the biggest group in the European parliament. Rules "need to be simplified so that farmers can spend more time working in the fields or in their barns instead of behind their desks," the EPP's Albert Dess said.
"It will be a bureaucratic monster," Sonnleitner said.
Beyond the complaints about bureaucracy, farmers also lashed out at proposals to let at least 7 percent of land lie fallow as an "ecological focus area" to make Europe's countryside greener and healthier.
This comes against a backdrop of predictions that the global population will soar to 9 billion in 2050, pushing food demand up by 70 percent.
"There is a contradiction that we need 70 percent more food and then ask to reduce land by 7 percent. It is simply wrong to have this set aside," said Paolo Bruni, the president of the Cogeca. He insisted that the farmers backed a greening of the industry but said production increase was just as important.
Dess also said he opposed the set-aside of farmland to let wild nature take over again. "A growing world population leads to a rising demand for food. We need incentives for growth. Anything else would be irresponsible," Dess said.
Environmental groups, from the WWF to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, all chided Ciolos for falling short on green credentials and backing intensive farming instead.
"The plan will allow the agrochemical business to keep a firm lock on the food chain," said Greenpeace spokesman Marco Contiero.
That also applies in the commercial sense, said U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter. Farm multinationals boosted by EU subsidies will continue to smother small farmers from the developing world. The overall size of the EU program might decrease slightly over the coming years, but not much.
"The main victims are developing world farmers, who are crowded out of their own markets by subsidized western produce," De Schutter said.
Criticism also was targeted at the capping of support for individual farms at euro300,000 a year, even if salaries can be taken into account. If farmers need to compete on world markets, size should not be contained in such a way, said Bruni.
"We can't ask farmers to be competitive and then limit their size," Bruni said. "This is a clear contradiction."
Farming, despite its overall impact on EU output, has always been a key sector within EU policy. Half a century ago, the EU pushed through a unified and subsidy-laden program to make sure hunger would be banished from the continent forever.
It was so successful that by the 1970s the EU was paying support for excess farm products which were dumped on the world markets and distorted prices.
The proposed plan is now seeking to find a better balance between production and support.
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