16 December 2020, Belgium: I would like to welcome all the participants to this sixth edition of the Agricultural Outlook conference.
Let me thank first President von der Leyen for her kind words of support to the Farming community. I share the view of the President that food security for our societies, fair incomes for our farmers and sustainability for our planet must be ensured. These are the most important challenges.
The Outlook conference of last year was one of my first events of being the Commissioner for Agriculture. We met in person and the room was full.
One year on, we have a very different situation. The positive side of having the conference online is that we were able to invite more participants than usual.
Coming back to your question, my first year in office has been mainly characterised by three things!
Firstly, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected all of us in an enormous way and of course it affected European agriculture. I have to give a big thank you to our farmers and those employed in the broad agri-food sector for having ensured our food security during this difficult time – a task that also required active support from the European Commission.
The EC introduced measures supporting farmers and the agri-food sector in the context of the crisis. The guidelines facilitated the movement of agricultural products and seasonal workers at a crucial time and kept borders open. The so-called green lanes allowed for the transport of food and animals, while agricultural workers were given priority for crossing the borders.
In addition, market-related interventions followed, such as support for private storage of beef and cheese. Measures were also taken in the wine sector and a decision was taken allowing Member States to increase public funding for farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs. We introduced a possibility to transfer a proportion of unused rural development funds to assist farmers affected by the impact of the pandemic. Those measures offered important support during the crisis and were welcomed by the farmers.
I would like to thank our partners and agricultural organisations for good, inspiring cooperation in the preparation and implementation of those crisis instruments. I would also like to thank the European Parliament for their good cooperation and for efficiently handling crucial legislative amendments facilitating the provision of assistance.
Another important matter is achieving a considerable increase in the draft Common Agricultural Policy budget for 2021-2027.
I remember our meeting last year. At the time I said that my task would be to defend the draft budget proposed in 2018 and that I would be defending that budget against a decrease, but not against an increase.
In May 2020, the Commission proposed to increase the CAP budget by EUR 26 billion, i.e. from EUR 365 billion to EUR 391 billion. At the July summit, EUR 387 billion was finally approved, which exceeds the 2018 proposal by 22 billion. The initiative displayed by the Commission with regard to increasing the budget shows that the von der Leyen Commission appreciates the importance and relevance of agriculture and is aware of how great the needs of the sector are.
The third thing is the continued reform of the CAP, enriched by aspects of the Green Deal, and by elements of the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies. There has been considerable concern regarding the reform’s chances of success, with extreme views expressed.
Some find it lacking in ambition, others believe it is too ambitious and a threat to food security. Meanwhile, we have been making progress and trilogue negotiations are already underway. I am optimistic that together with the Parliament and the Council we will make our agriculture more friendly towards the environment, climate and animal welfare, and our agricultural policy more friendly to farmers, while strengthening the food security of our citizens and the economic security of our farmers.
To sum up, with regard to my first year I would like to highlight three substantial achievements: 1) effective crisis management during the pandemic; 2) increase in the future budget; 3) substantial progress made with regard to the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy taking account of the Green Deal aspects.
An additional reflection, when we met at this conference a year ago, we had uncertainties and concerns about the key issues regarding the future Common Agricultural Policy.There was no decision on the Multiannual Financial Framework and, at the same time, the proposal with a heavily reduced budget for the next seven years was valid.We had uncertainty over the course of the CAP reform and the transition period.Today we have the MFF, including the CAP budget increased by EUR 22 billion, a transitional regulation that satisfies farmers, and we have significant progress in the reform of the CAP.
Indeed, young farmers and ensuring appropriate generational renewal in agriculture are both of key relevance for the future of European Agriculture and for our food security.
In this regard, the situation is difficult, but the difficulties vary in every country. A considerable proportion of agricultural holdings in the EU are operated by older famers who have no successors and no prospects for stable development. This is a major challenge for European policymakers.
The existing CAP instruments to support young farmers under the first and second pillars will be continued and developed, which is also reflected in our recommendations to Member States regarding their CAP national strategic plans. But the key to improving the situation for young farmers is not only the Common Agricultural Policy.
More generally, we need to make rural areas more attractive and vibrant living places and this is a challenge for all EU policies and in particular those also providing financial support to rural areas – as foreseen in the Treaty – such as the cohesion policy but also new instruments under the NextGenerationEU funds. We need to ensure that in the forthcoming programming period these instruments dedicate substantial funds also to rural areas.
I know that this largely depends on political decisions taken in the Member States. However, in my dialogue with Member States over their strategic plans, I will be encouraging them to offer more support to rural areas from these other funding sources. This will contribute to the improvement of living conditions in rural areas. Then it will be easier to encourage young people to take up farming.
For instance, there is the issue of transport exclusion in many rural areas, which are not always served by public transport, hampering access to education, medical services, culture and entertainment. And of course there is the issue of digitalisation. There is some urgent catching up to do here, as many rural areas are excluded from IT infrastructure, which poses a considerable obstacle to day-to-day activities, as well as to agricultural work. This is where we want to achieve progress rapidly. That is also a key element of the long-term vision for rural development that we are intensively working on and which has recently been the subject of public consultations.
Farmers of the future
The study we present today on the farmers of the future clearly indicates that farming is very diverse. I do not believe in a single model of a farmer, as agriculture is diverse and should remain so, offering space for various types of holdings and agricultural activities. Our farmers therefore need to be diverse.
So I’d rather talk about the future of the farmers than about the farmers of the future.
First of all, their future must be secure in the economic sense. Farmers ensure our food security, so agricultural policy should ensure their economic security.
One of the ways to strengthen agriculture economically and to improve its crisis resistance is to encourage agriculture to be more focused on local markets and short supply chains. That is a major objective of the Farm to Fork strategy.
The ongoing agricultural ‘production race’ has made farmers too dependent on external supplies and external markets. We see this, for instance, in certain animal production sectors, the existence of which is dependent on the import of fodder and on the export of their products to distant markets.
Naturally, we will continue to promote exports and to strengthen the position of European agriculture on the global markets. However, at the same time we will be encouraging farmers, processors and food traders to contribute to the short supply chain system. That should be a key instrument to improve the crisis resistance of European agriculture. We are planning a range of measures to further promote EU food on the EU market, such as strengthening the system of geographical indications, stating the origin of food products, and the envisaged animal welfare label.
In this context, I would like to in particular underline the importance of our promotion actions carried out around the globe with a view to promoting high-quality EU food products and beverages registered as geographical indications. Of course, we are taking steps to ensure their high level of legal protection. By doing this, we want to ensure that EU geographical indications are not counterfeited, which is important not only in order to protect their worldwide sales, but also to ensure a development of rural areas where those products are produced. As you well know, this objective is mainly achieved through a network of free trade agreements, which the EU signed with many countries around the world. This protection should also be extended to new markets by negotiating free trade agreements among others with Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Mercosur.