Is Western policy dooming Eastern European farmers? | WWF

Is Western policy dooming Eastern European farmers?

Posted on
12 June 2002
Shepherds tending flocks in mountain meadows and picturesque orchards full of organically grown peaches and apples are still common sights in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). But with the current process for joining the EU, these sights may not exist for much longer. Many of the 'candidate' CEE countries hoping to enter the EU currently practise sustainable farming activities. These activities derive from the high level of extensive small-scale and organic agriculture that was practiced in these countries before 1990. Especially in remote areas such as the Romanian and Czech Carpathian Mountains, traditional practices thrived in balance with local capacity and needs. Despite the upheavals of the economic transition after 1990, environmentally sustainable farming received a boost in the past decade: relatively costly pesticides, fertilizers, and other inputs obliged farmers to farm more organically as they simply could not afford high-input farming. As a result, many small-scale agricultural activities based on traditional methods have survived until today. But WWF, along with other environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe, warns that these activities may not survive the EU accession process. To become part of the EU, candidate countries must integrate into the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Past experience has shown that this policy tends to support intensive, large-scale farming activities — exactly the opposite of what is currently practised in many candidate countries. Furthermore, the system is heavily subsidized, with money going mainly to the most economically advantaged farmers. According to Elizabeth Guttenstein, Head of European Agriculture and Rural Development at WWF, this makes the policy socially unsustainable and economically inequitable. WWF also warns that the Common Agricultural Policy is environmentally unsustainable. "The policy has supported and encouraged industrial farming practices that have led to dramatic losses of biodiversity in existing EU Member States," said Andreas Beckmann, WWF EU Enlargement Coordinator. For example, a recent study conducted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds shows alarming declines over the last 30 years in UK bird populations that depend on farmland, including once common birds such as the skylark (75 per cent decline), song thrush (66 per cent decline), and grey partridge (78 per cent decline). The implementation process itself also threatens traditional farming. In theory, SAPARD — the European Commission instrument that provides funds to assist integration into the Common Agricultural Policy — allows each candidate country to democratically define the form of rural development taken during accession. But in reality, the large sums of money available, and the powerful private lobbies behind them, are causing candidate countries to compete with each other, while quickly drawn up national proposals for funding tend to focus on large (and 'efficient') farming schemes. These large projects threaten to further displace small-scale farmers and reduce their economic competitiveness. Small farmers are often unaware that such projects are being planned. They are also often barred from even entering the funding process. "We have found that there is a fundamental disconnection between those carrying out sustainable projects at the local level, and policies at the national level and with the European Commission," said WWF Policy Officer Charlie Avis. "This is especially true for policies being implemented through the EU accession process. And those who care most seem to be the most disconnected." An example of this disconnection can be seen in Hungary. According to an unpublished study by Gusztav Nemes of the Hungarian Academy of Science, European Commission and Hungarian officials decided on the form and content of a farming development programme that emphasized central administration and adaptation of Hungarian agriculture to unsustainable Western European practices — and in the process deeply frustrated hundreds of communities who had made their own plans based on local needs and conditions. A parallel study in Poland tells a similar story. But while it seems clear that EU accession is not compatible with traditional farming, not everyone believes this is a bad thing. SAPARD Head Alan Wilkinson believes that society does not wish small-scale farming to continue. At the recently held Green Week sessions in Brussels, Wilkinson cited his personal origins on a UK farm which he considered to be a struggle and which he was happy to leave. In his view, small-scale, extensive farming is inefficient and will inevitably be replaced with intensive farming. Thus, Romania's shepherds of today are a dying breed never to be replaced — but this loss will be more than compensated for by the attractive options brought by Westernization. There is no easy answer to the question of whether farmers in candidate countries want to stay on their farms. It is possible that in these countries, where there is a much higher level of agricultural activity than in the EU, local farmers may wish to stay put and carry on traditional practices. It is also possible that, following EU membership, they may find themselves with few options. "I don't think hundreds of thousands of Polish farmers will be able to leave their farm to become Brussels bureaucrats," commented Friends of the Earth Europe representative Magda Stochkiewicz at the Green Week session. Aside from the fate of small-scale extensive farmers, what of Europe's last natural environments and their inhabitants? If doomed for the same reasons as the farmers, what truth should be read into the conservation policies of the EU, or for that matter, any EU policy? The issue was neatly summed up during a debate held at the end of the Green Week sessions. The session's Chairperson opened the debate with a short story about the common tree sparrow in Hungary, of which there are still many. While the same had been true in the UK decades earlier, the tree sparrow is now rarely seen in the British countryside, primarily as a result of intensive agricultural practices that are not yet widespread in CEE. "You left the farm and had an option," said the Chair to Mr. Wilkinson. "The tree sparrow also appears to have left, but with fewer options. Hopefully, the same fate does not hold true for tree sparrows in the candidate countries, or the farmers there." *Paul Csagoly is Communications Manager at WWF's International Danube-Carpathian Programme (1010 words) Further information: Green Week This year's Green Week sessions were held in Brussels from 15–19 April, hosted by the European Commission’s environment directorate. The aim was to raise awareness of the environmental situation and the effects of environmental policies throughout Europe, including in candidate countries that hope to enter the EU soon. SAPARD SAPARD (Special Action for Pre-Accession Measures for Agriculture and Rural Development) is an important fund set up by the EU for agriculture and rural development in CEE countries preparing to join the EU. WWF's work on EU accession WWF's Accession Initiative seeks to raise awareness of the threats and opportunities for nature conservation and sustainable development connected with the historic enlargement of the EU. In addition to following the enlargement process in general, the Initiative is focussed on working closely with EU institutions, national governments, business, and NGOs in three areas that are of strategic importance and where WWF and partners can achieve the greatest impact. WWF's work on SAPARD Working with the Accession Initiative, WWF's European Policy Office aims to see 10 per cent of SAPARD funds allocated directly to nature conservation by 2005 and to ensure that SAPARD programmes do not lead to the loss of high nature value farming systems and environmental damage. The Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative — a partnership of over 50 organizations facilitated by the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme — has prepared a report on the strengths and weaknesses of the SAPARD programme, entitled Results of an Independent NGO Evaluation of SAPARD: National Plans and Processes in Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. WWF's work on the EU Common Agricultural Policy WWF's European Policy Office is working towards the next reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2006. The objective is to shift the large amount of money spent on traditional forms of agricultural support (such as price for cereals and beef) into support for sustainable rural development. WWF believes that by 2010, 75 percent of Common Agriculture Policy funds should be spent on rural development with a third of this money allocated to agri-environment programmes.