Stated simply but effectively, European Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan’s plan is: increase demand, so that production has to increase, and incentivize farmers to produce more in order to sell more.
A few days ago, he announced that he wants to allocate €15 million a year to promote meat consumption in Europe, plus another €4 million starting next year to open new markets for European beef abroad. Finally, as if a reminder was necessary, the commissioner has, on more than one occasion, expressed his favorable opinion of the free-trade agreements with the United States and Canada, TTIP and CETA.
There’s no question that the problem of producers’ income is central. Too often agricultural production (obviously including livestock farming) does not guarantee an adequate return for producers, and paradoxical situations are created in which raw materials are traded for a price lower than their production cost, impoverishing producers and often driving them out of the market. Now, while this is indisputable, Commissioner Hogan’s proposal seems at the very least anachronistic. Industrial livestock farming is one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions (14.5% of the total) and occupies 70% of agricultural land, bringing with it deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil impoverishment and the depletion of water resources. And consumption incentives like those proposed will inevitably favor this farming model, certainly not the sustainable practices of farms with small herds focused on the local market.
So, instead of promoting meat consumption, the commission would do better to qualify it, rewarding those farms that work sustainably (perhaps with a closed cycle, in which the animals’ excrement is used to fertilize fields where feed is grown for the same animals), pay attention to animal welfare, use local breeds and provide European tables with better-quality meat that is healthier and less harmful for the environment.
And there’s a social aspect, because we must not forget that small-scale farms often represent a very important source of income in marginal areas that would otherwise risk depopulation and abandonment, processes that lead to the loss of social networks and environment and landscape maintenance, resulting in hydrogeological risks and rampant urbanization.
Currently in Europe each individual citizen consumes an average of almost 80 kilos of meat a year, a figure that is already too high. It makes no sense to try to increase it further, and instead it should be reduced, in accordance with the public health guidelines produced by the European Union itself. In fact, Brussels has clearly stated—not that long ago—that excessive meat consumption in Western countries leads to the rise of serious diseases, and therefore higher costs for national health systems. A fair income for producers will not come from an increase in quantity, but from a higher added value for the final product. But how can this higher added value be created? Citizens must be encouraged to eat less meat, but of better quality (spending a bit more in the short term, but saving in terms of health and reducing waste). There is no other option. This would encourage a real paradigm shift, and indicate a true way toward development for European livestock farming. Otherwise, we will only be perpetuating the vicious circle of a desperate search for economies of scale, which stem from an industrial logic that is unsuited to the agricultural and food sector.
We are approaching COP22, the 22nd world climate conference, which will be held in Marrakesh in early November. Hogan’s move is certainly not a great signal of the commitment that Europe will bring to the negotiation table. Livestock farming has a heavy impact on climate change, the response cannot be to increase consumption, because to resolve a problem today (assuming that the measures proposed would actually resolve it) we would be only aggravating another problem which is already huge and will soon be exploding.
Neither consumption incentives nor free-trade agreements will save European agriculture. The path must be one of education and information for citizens, who must form the critical mass necessary to insist that a hyper-productivity model does not befit the vision of a decent, fair and healthy future for everyone.
Carlo Petrini, La Repubblica, 30-10-2016