Towards International Agrarian Reform: What role would Europe play?

The EU should promote more sustainable, small-scale agriculture.

A powerful swarm of international financial institutions (IFIs), like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, wields great precedence in setting the direction of EU agricultural policies. The usual suspects seem to have once again determined the agenda during recent backroom negotiations on a new Common Agricultural Policy.

This provoked outcries and accusations of “Greenwashing” from environmental groups as established as Greenpeace, despite the EU’s effort to gloss over its agricultural plan as being in synch with the “Green Deal” (that misappropriated term which Ursula Von Der Leyen plagiarised from our allies, fellow proponents and hopeful initiators of the Green New Deal). Other critics include the remaining defenders of family farming in Europe. Voices of protest were undercut once again in this week’s EU parliamentary vote against reform-proposals, as ministers decided to favour agribusiness-as-usual with nearly €400 billion.

Notably for those interested in foreign policy, neither side in the negotiations mentioned the trade and environmental impact these policies have on countries in the Global South. This pattern is not new. The economic analyses of those designing EU common agricultural policies have almost never considered the long-term societal and ecological costs of the narrow industrial options they impose overseas on the world’s South. Yet these costs tally extremely high, and are perhaps incalculable. For example, the ways in which industrial mechanised farming affects the balance of biodiversity, including soil and water, while rendering the production of nutritious, quality food impossible over the long term. According to infectious disease experts, mechanised industrial farming –the pivot of EU dominance in the global agricultural market — vastly increases the likelihood of future (mostly bacteriological rather than viral) pandemics on our already pan-quarantined horizon.

But this is not even registered as a blip on the radar screen — none of these costs enter the IFI’s calculations. Neither do the brutal consequences of the marginalisation of small farmers by agribusinesses: a spiral of land-dispossession, poverty, malnutrition, debt, mass-migration and even suicide. This sordid reality is not exclusive to cultivators in the financially choked South — this also describes areas of Europe’s East in particular.

Eastern European farmers export their best produce Westwards, amidst a local market competitively swamped by increasingly bad but expensive Western products, in the shadow of extractive investors. The Balkans, including EU member Bulgaria, receive agrotoxins banned in the Western EU because of how they endanger children and fauna. For example, Bulgaria’s beekeepers report that our crucial pollinator figures among these casualties of venoms which are rampant in their country despite being outlawed — just imagine what Europe exports to Asia, the Americas and Africa.

In European bureaucracy, these costs are written off as “market externalities”, acceptable consequences of “market failure”. Said without jargon: this is how unregulated markets fail humanity and nature, by letting private interests hinder effective production and the fair use and distribution of public goods.

Take off the CAP.

Despite the fact that any child can understand how food and agriculture are essential life-sustaining activities, small farmers and agricultural labourers comprise 70% of the world’s poorest billion people. In developing countries, agriculture employs on average 60% (ranging from 20 to 90%) of the population. By contrast, agriculture employs less than 5% of EU citizens and generates just 1.6% of EU gross domestic product (GDP).

The EU should promote more sustainable, small-scale agriculture to generate higher yields over the long term, leading to more equitable growth. Instead, it spends almost half its budget on subsidies via the common agricultural policy (CAP).

The CAP enables producers to keep prices artificially low, often below production cost, making it impossible for small producers in poor countries to compete in world markets — and even for Europeans within their own markets. Often the main beneficiaries of subsidies are not Europe’s small farmers, but its largest landowners — the rural oligarchies. Subsidies spur overproduction in the EU and the global dumping of cheap EU food surpluses, economically locking out most of the world’s family farms.

This is also about migration. Every year, roughly 50 million people leave rural areas, seeking alternative livelihoods. As a result, valuable knowledge on locally optimal, traditional farming goes lost. Food security therefore becomes threatened, while rural migrants swell the planet’s urban slums and banlieues.

It’s time to blow off the CAP.

Neoliberalism: Protectionist, but only when convenient.

For decades, Europe and other wealthy regions, have insisted on “reciprocity” in trade relations with less industrialised countries, sounding the trumpet of “free trade” to compel these countries to open up (liberalise) their markets in tandem with structural adjustment regimes enforced by International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

So-called ”reciprocity” in trade agreements between countries with vastly asymmetrical economic development levels mostly benefits affluent countries with highly developed manufacturing and service sectors, while denying poorer countries the space and flexibility to develop their own industries.

On the other hand, “reciprocity” or bilateralism goes unobserved in areas like agriculture — where countries in the Global South actually have an advantage, and would profit greatly from export. In these areas, Europe maintains a highly protectionist trade policy, exemplified by CAP and a battery of tariff and trade barriers. A number of financial and trade institutions ranging from the WTO to bilateral and regional “Free Trade Agreements” and what in the jargon are called “conditionalities” and “structural adjustment” regimens, play a crucial role in these destructive patterns.

Revitalise the Countryside.

Europe must cease subsidies to agribusiness, factory farms and wealthy landowners. These funds should go towards rural rehabilitation — for small farmers and sustainable agriculture, nature conservation, agroforestry, and rewilding. Europe should promote agrarian reform across the board instead of generating unfair competition with farmers in what we call the Global South — those regions the Cold War’s architects had named “the Third World”.

Short-sightedness and Eurocentrism have bred a policy in which many pesticides that are banned from use in Europe — such as the Swiss-designed chemical Paraquat, which causes Parkinson’s disease through long-term exposure — continue to be legally produced in the EU for shipment to South America, spreading illness and birth defects. A more comprehensive, and transnational ban on marketing locally-outlawed agrotoxins could encourage the revitalisation of more local agricultural traditions for developing natural pesticides, such as eucalyptus-extract or breeding certain fauna that prey on nuisances.

Pandemics do not only begin in exotic and surreal markets of Wuhan or Kinshasa — the likelihood of a bacteriological mutation inside European meat factories, might spark future outbreaks of disease, unless we act soon. The dense, overcrowded and sorrowful mechanized meat-and-egg factories in Europe stand as monuments to overproduction, and to the policies of drowning out and blocking trade with small-scale farmers outside of Europe.

DiEM25’s pillar on foreign relations proposes a policy of international agrarian reform as a matter of social-economic justice.

Furthermore, seeing the “Green” benefits of small-scale harvestry, we cannot seriously contemplate a Green New Deal without a global solidarity and international agrarian reform. The Green New Deal for Europe (GNDE) ought to be for everybody, and not just for Europe and North America. Rather than painting cruel policies “green”, we can envision a just transition, preserving dignified work and inherited knowledge about health, nutrition and the natural world, and in which migrants leave rural areas only because of choice, no longer driven by desperation or necessity.

This article was collectively produced by the Peace and International Policy pillar. It has drawn upon and contains several extracts from the work of a former member of this DSC, Sona Prakash, parts of which were also published in Jacobin earlier this year, and other parts contributed to the Green New Deal for Europe report “Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition” in 2019.”

Photo Source: Giuseppe Russo from Pexels.

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