Steven Beckers, founder of Building Integrated GreenHouses (BIGH), looks at products at the Bigh Urban Farm in Brussels, Belgium, 22 August 2018. The agricultural farm on the roof of a food hall in Anderlecht is said to be the largest suspended farm in Europe covering a space of 4,000 square meters (m2) with 2,000 m2 in greenhouses and another 2,000 m2 in open fields. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

Specificity of the agricultural sector

The basic and inherent function of agriculture is the production of food.  Agricultural activity also generates many goods and services of a different type, e.g. shaping the agricultural landscape, creating valuable agricultural ecosystems (such as meadows and pastures), ensuring adequate water retention. Other non-productive functions are not related to the very fact of conducting agricultural production, but to a large extent affect the specificity of rural areas and farms, e.g. care for cultural heritage, protection and enrichment of local and regional national traditions. Non-productive functions of agriculture (together with the basic production function) are part of two important developmental concepts, namely sustainable development as well as multifunctional rural development and agriculture. Therefore, it is possible to indicate a wide range of functions and activities that can be implemented especially by smaller, but also larger farms.

Agriculture, unlike most other sectors of the economy, is heavily dependent on weather conditions. In addition, unfavorable factors affecting the volatility of prices of agricultural products and emerging natural disasters or diseases of plants and animals cause that each year at least 20% of farmers lose more than 30% of their income. At the same time, the pressure on natural resources (water, soil, clean air) is still apparent and partly results from certain forms of agricultural activity. Therefore, in order to meet these challenges, a strong Community-based agricultural policy is needed, which should be maintained in its current two-pillar shape.

The importance of the CAP

Over half a century of the Common Agricultural Policy is a success story. Today’s CAP is a modern Community policy that has improved farmers’ income and lives, that takes into account challenges related to food security and climate change, as well as takes care of the natural values and the settlement network of rural areas. However, it is also half a century of difficult negotiations and disputes over the shape of rural and agricultural support. The reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy have always been a response to the changing external conditions.

Also today, the EU is getting ready for another change in the CAP. The draft of its future budget was presented by the European Commission (EC).  These are not ready solutions, but a starting point for the discussion that is currently taking place. According to the EC proposal, the future CAP should take into account, on one hand, the diversification of agricultural models and regional specificity and the diversity of economic, social and environmental goals on the other.  However, for farmers to be able to reconcile such diverse objectives and their multitude, also with regard to the agreed sustainable development objectives adopted in the UN program, appropriate support from the CAP is necessary.  However, the CAP budget in current prices in 2014-2020 is lower by 11.5%, i.e. by over EUR 48 billion, than in the 2007-2013 period.  What is more, the budget proposal for agriculture for the period 2021-2027 is smaller by another 15%.

Currently, work is being done on legislative proposals that contain specific solutions presented by the EC.  Probably many of them will come into force, which is why the EU  farmers must get to know them in the near future to be able to plan the future of their farms.  There is no doubt that in the face of many serious challenges related with globalization, the need to preserve the competitiveness of European agriculture, Brexit and its consequences for the budget, it will be necessary to further strengthen and maintain the Community’s agricultural policy, which should continue to support viable and sustainable agriculture in all EU regions.

Farms of the future

Today’s challenges in agriculture are closely related to the challenges of modern times.  First and foremost, it is about ensuring the supply of high-quality food and a fair income for farmers. At the same time, agricultural production must be environmentally friendly, innovative and technologically advanced.

All these features of farms of the future translate into challenges faced by European agriculture.  We must take into account the fact that we are participating in a single, common market.  One of the major challenges resulting from the functioning of the Community’s agricultural policy will be to maintain the competition rules on the single market.

European agriculture is very diverse in terms of climate conditions, size and type of production as well as level of technology.  Agriculture in the so-called new member states still needs modernization to get closer to the level of agriculture in the “old” member states.  In such a situation, it is difficult to choose CAP instruments that would be supported equally by large and small farms, that work on fertile and poor soils, lowlands and in difficult mountainous conditions.

Processes of concentration that take place in Europe and increasing the scale of agricultural production taking lead to an increase in the size of farms, and thus to a steady decrease in their number.  On the one hand, it is a positive process because our competitiveness on the world market is growing, but on the other – it leads to the industrialization of production and departure from the so-called European model of agriculture.  As a result, farmers and their families constitute a minority in rural areas, and some rural areas are rapidly depopulating.

Of course, one cannot forget about the functioning of small farms. Their impact on the production volume is relatively small, however the scale of social issues related to their functioning is large.  Small farms have a number of social, economic and environmental functions that cannot be overlooked.  Small farms are family farms, where the work is carried out by family themselves.  They are a place of employment and retain excess workforce.  In the context of difficulties in finding jobs in the countryside, they provide social security for many people who can not find employment.  They can also successfully provide food security by providing food to household members for their own use and for local markets.  This approach is positive towards the promotion of local, high-quality regional products and is an alternative to mass-produced food.  In addition, small farms exhibit special environmental values, high biodiversity, create exceptional landscape values, and are a place to promote traditional cultural heritage and values.

The growing influence of external conditions

When talking about farms of the future, we must take into account the fact that the number of natural disasters increases (droughts, floods, spring frosts, fires) and they require appropriate intervention and support from the Community budget and national budgets (the last must be approved at EU level).  Finally, we have a situation where European agriculture increasingly depends on external conditions (the growing global market, progressing globalization processes).  This translates into the need to compete on the world market with agri-food products produced by companies in other parts of the world, that produce on a much larger scale and do not always maintain the appropriate production and quality standards.  Meanwhile, the European agricultural model provides high production standards, is environmentally friendly, but also more expensive and therefore is not always able to withstand competition on global markets.

Summing up, farms of the future must take into account adaptation to new challenges, and the reformed CAP must ensure that vital and sustainable agriculture is maintained in all regions of the EU.

Dr Czesław Siekierski has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2004, representing the Polish People’s Party. He currently chairs the institution’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI).