|Saving the Seed - Genetic Diversity and European Agriculture (GRAIN, 1992)|
|5. Diversifying the future|
What to do with the European Community's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has probably been one of the most hotly debated issues in Europe over the past decade. It has come under attack from farmers, environmentalists, industrialists and Third World groups alike. The essence of the CAP is basically a system of guaranteed farm prices for specific products, way above those at world market levels, combined with various measures to block the entry of cheaper products from outside the Community. In the public eye, the CAP is often associated with surplus production and escalating costs. In 1991, the EC spent 33 billion ECU (some US$ 45 billion), or 60 per cent of its entire budget, on CAP alone. But the bulk of this money does not go to the farmers. A full two-thirds of it is devoted to non-productive activities such as stockpiling and destruction of the surpluses, or getting rid of them on the world market through export subsidies.
In recent years, EC governments and Eurocrats alike have been growing more and more alarmed about this policy-induced nightmare: an ever-rising bill for an agriculture that employs an ever-shrinking minority of Europeans. But the real pressure to overhaul the current CAP comes from the GATT negotiators and foreign countries such as the USA, which see the EC price and export subsidies, combined with protectionist measures to stop cheap agricultural products from entering the EC market, as unfair competition for their own farmers.
The heart of the now agreed upon CAP reform is a dramatic 30 per cent cut in prices paid to cereal farmers until 1994, topped off by a 15 per cent reduction in beef prices and a 5 per cent lowering of butter prices, among others. These cuts are designed to move EC farm output towards world market price levels and progressively eliminate current subsidies. The European Commission argues that high prices paid to EC farmers in the past have stimulated dangerously intensive forms of agriculture together with the encumbrance of surplus production and environmental pollution. The new price reductions will, according to the Commission, help arrest further intensification of agriculture and thus alleviate the escalating damage to the environment.
All this sounds wonderful, but in reality things might be quite different. Farmers in the EC have indeed benefited from guaranteed prices above world market levels. But those prices paid to farmers have been progressively lowered over the years while more and more money is devoted to export subsidies. By increasing export subsidies, the EC ends up dumping its produce on the world market, which itself leads to lower prices to compete with. Thus the vicious circle gets worse and worse.
Contrary to the Commission's projections, farm price reductions in the EC have always lead to greater intensification and more surplus production. Between 1963 and 1983, EC cereal prices were reduced by 45 per cent, and since then by another 30 per cent. During this period, agricultural production increased and surpluses built up. Obviously' if farmers are faced with lower prices they either go out of business or they increase production, depending on whether they can make further investments or not. The EC farming community has declined 35 per cent over the past 15 years, while ever increasing production has become concentrated among fewer and fewer farms. Today, 60 per cent of the EC's grains are produced by only 6 per cent of the Community's cereal farmers, 75 per cent of the milk comes from 25 per cent of the dairy farms, and 80 per cent of the pigs are raised by 10 per cent of the pork producers. Slashing prices yet again under the new CAP regime is more than likely to stop up this process: further concentration of production on fewer farms, which will have to drastically intensify their production methods in order to keep up.
Compensation ... for whom?
The other side of the CAP reform coin is compensation. The policy-makers recognise that the newly imposed price levels are below the production costs of three-quarters of Europe's farmers, who will have to retire or find another job if nothing else is done. Only a quarter of Europe's largest farmers would be able to keep up with the lower prices if they manage to increase output and lower their costs. So a system of compensation payments is being set up according to the number of hectares each farmer was planting, in the case of cereals for example, and the average yield in each region, before the CAP reform. Thus, if you are a farmer in a high yield region and you have done your best to increase EC surplus production over the past years, you are likely to get most of the compensation. However, if you happen to be a farmer in a disadvantaged part of Europe that tends to provide low yields and harbour small farming production systems, you'll end up getting the smallest part of the cake and a compensation that keeps you in the same trouble as you were in before.
In modelling the reform, one 'mea culpa' of the EC Commission was that, up until now, the bulk of the price subsidies ended up with the minority of well-off farmers. However, with the new compensation system linked to yield and acreage, the same is likely to happen. It is calculated that 80 per cent of the compensation will end up in the hands of 20 per cent of Europe's farmers. The end result is that the 20 per cent better-off farms in the EC will, on the one hand, react to lowered prices by further intensifying their production, and on the other hand, catch most of the compensation from Brussels.
Obviously, an important question for farmers is: how long will the compensation last? And for the national governments: how much will it cost? Nobody really knows. Apart from the costs of the compensation system itself, a huge bureaucracy will have to be put in place to monitor who has the right to what compensation. In one German land, Bavaria, it is estimated that over 200 extra staff are needed to do the counting. Officials from the EC Commission swear that the compensations will be paid until the end of time. But farmers rightly remain sceptical. As one observer stated to the press, 'The farmers know that they are being paid to do nothing. That is a very vulnerable position to be in.' The first attack against the compensation package might already come this year from the UK, whose turn at the rotating six-month EC presidency began in July 1992 with the firm intention to lower EC expenditure on just about everything. It might very well be that the compensation system merely serves as a short-term bait on paper to get the larger farmers' unions to accept the reform package and close the discussion.
Set aside ... for what?
One major condition for the large farms to receive the compensation is that they have to set aside at least 15 per cent of their arable land, which means not using it for food production. This measure is intended to ensure that EC farm surpluses are once and for ail cut down. Many doubt whether it will really work to that effect, though. The set aside scheme is basically imported from the United States - where it has proved not to work. Despite 20 years of its application in the US, the system backfired: surplus production has increased continuously there, while whole regions have been losing their farmers.
The CAP set aside scheme is also often presented as a neat way to reduce production and recover soil productivity by taking the pressure off part of Europe's arable land. This is simply not true. 'Setting aside' land in the new policy is not defined as leaving it alone to recover from intensive practices: heavy machines, toxic pesticides, chemical fertilisers, massive irrigation and draining. It means, rather, that farmers are not allowed to grow food per se on it. This is where Europe's biomass advocates come in. Potatoes, colza, cereals and all sorts of other crops can be grown on the set aside land if they are used for non-food purposes such as making bioethanol, biocarburants, starch and other components for industrial use. Piles of studies are financed by the EC Commission and special subsidy programmes go to industry to make it technically feasible to use the set aside land more intensively than ever by producing raw materials for a newly emerging biomass industry. As long as you don't grow 'food' on the set aside land, you are free to do what you want with it. There is no limit on the amount of chemical fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides you can use on this land. Rather than reduce production, the set-aside rule will, again, intensify it.
If you are a large 'competitive' farmer and are not interested in the biomass business, there is an easy way around the set aside scheme. The set aside quotas are tradeable with other farmers. So farmers with poor soils might obtain and accumulate set aside parts from large farmers working on the best soils who then have their hands free to grow whatever surplus they want. As there are no rules about with whom you can trade your set aside land, we might end up with a situation in which the better-offfarmers in northern France, UK and Denmark continue to produce Europe's food surplus, while entire regions in Greece, Spain and Portugal are officially 'set aside'.
Europe going green?
All in all, the reform will push European agriculture further into the split that was ripped open with the launching of the first CAP decades ago: 'real' intensive and large farms provide the bulk of Europe's agricultural output, while the 'unproductive' smaller farms can't keep up. To a large extent that split is geographical. The EC Commission divides Europe into 'advantaged' and 'disadvantaged' regions. Currently, the 'real' crop farming is done by large holdings concentrated in northern France, and parts of England and Denmark, while the intensive animal production takes place in the Netherlands, parts of Belgium, northern Germany and northern Italy. These farms roughly account for 25 per cent of the Community's agricultural land, while the remaining 75 per cent is dismissed as lacking economic efficiency.
By lowering prices and channelling the bulk of compensation payments to the already 'advantaged' regions and farms, this split will be further enhanced. With the current CAP reform there is simply no agricultural future for 75 per cent of the Community's farmers. For some countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, this means that there is no future for agriculture at all, as virtually all of their farmers fall into this 'disadvantaged' group. But also in the better-off countries, many farmers will not survive the onslaught. In trying to figure out the future of their pesticide sales, the German agro-industry already reckons that only 80,000 of Germany's 400,000 farmers will be in business by the year 2002. The industry remains optimistic, though, as they expect that those fewer farmers will actually increase their use of chemicals to intensify operations.
The masterminds behind the CAP reform figured that they had to do something for the losers, and came up with a series of 'accompanying measures'. With 75 per cent of Europe's farmers not needed any more for production purposes, the policy-makers decided to use some of the arguments of conservation groups by saying that the time has now come to recognise that farmers have an important role in the protection of the rural environment and management of landscapes, and that they should be recompensed accordingly. The move is clever in several respects. It allows the CAP reformers to present their package as 'socially just' and 'environmentally friendly', as for the first time these considerations are explicitly taken into account. Proudly presented as the 'Agri-Environmental Action Programme', this new part of CAP offers subsidies to farmers if they start growing organically without chemicals or stop draining, irrigation and ploughing up meadows. You can also get money if you stick to rare breeds or local crop varieties in danger of extinction.
But small farmers will have to hurry, if they want to pocket any of the ECUs earmarked for 'environmental services'. The budget is extremely limited: 400 million ECU (some US$ 540 million) in the first year, up to 900 million (or US$ 1.2 billion) in the fifth year. Beyond then, no further guarantees. This is merely 1 to 2 per cent of what Brussels spends right now on its agricultural policies! And it is meant for three-quarters of the Community's farmers, who otherwise have no future at all!
Delinking agriculture and environment
Despite the enthusiastic reactions from EC bureaucrats, hard-nosed economists and free-traders worldwide, the new CAP reform is directing Europe's agriculture straight towards a profound disaster. Basically the reform amounts to a violent separation of a 'productive' and 'competitive' minority that produces the bulk of Europe's food and raw materials for industry, and a written-off majority that gets paid to do some environmentally-friendly freewheeling or just go out of business.
With respect to genetic resources management and the vulnerability of our uniform crops and livestock, the reform could not be more sinister. Forced to increase productivity further, the competitive minority will be more demanding of and reliant upon ever fewer varieties and animal breeds to be able to attain the maximum results. Already, the most productive European farmers plant no more than one or two of the highest yielding crop varieties, each of them genetically uniform. This trend will unfortunately only be reinforced by the new CAP. Europe's agro-ecosystems will be further standardised and concentrated in fewer areas that allow for even fewer crop varieties to be sown on larger acreages. With the new CAP we are definitely heading towards a European agriculture based on the same wheat from Denmark to Greece, and the same cow from Holland to Portugal. The use of chemicals, fertilisers and hormones to sustain this unsustainable production will certainly expand, while regionally adapted and genetically diverse crop varieties and animal races will be forced into extinction.
In the animal sector, the CAP 'logic' is atrocious, as farmers are further pushed to separate milk and meat production, which means mixed breeds will be slaughtered as 'illogical'. With the drop in beef prices, specialised beef producers get a premium of 90 ECUs for each animal. Dairy farmers, trying to sell their unproductive cows, get nothing apart from falling beef prices. And with the drop in milk prices, the dairy farmers have no choice but to intensify further. This vicious price system will lead to an even deeper separation between meat and milk production, with each type of farmer trying to make it in his or her own sector, and write off any future for rustic, mixed breeds. There is no room for anything less than the pure and thoroughbred.
The 'accompanying measures' to promote some sustainable farming and nature conservation for the losers in the race will certainly not compensate the loss of diversity in the productive sector. The rule is intensification and uniformity, the exception is caring for the environment. The rule provokes extinction while the exception allows for conservation as long as there is money available. As the genetic resources community has slowly started to realise, the only way out of our spiral towards ever increasing genetic vulnerability on the farm is through the integration of production and conservation, rather than their separation. In this context, the last CAP reform is one giant step in just the wrong direction.
Agricultural policy: what reform ?
Hardly a week goes by these days without some report in the news about farmers protesting in the EC. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) threatens to put most of them out of a job, as prices will be further reduced in order to streamline the productive sector to a few competitive enterprises. At the same time, consumers are growing more critical and vocal about the quality of the food supply and how crops are grown and animals raised. Reports of nitrate overloads in soils and water supply, hormones in meat, chemical residues and heavy metals in fruits and vegetables are stirring up concerns about how wonderful all this cheap food really is.
The single largest factor shaping the direction of farming and of our food system is agricultural policy, which in the EC countries boils down today to the reform of the CAP, agreed upon by the 12 Agricultural Ministers on 21 May 1992. Hailed by the press as 'the most radical overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy in its 30-year history' (1), the CAP reform takes the industrialisation of agriculture one major, and perhaps final, leap forward. At the heart of the plan is a new, enigmatic and radical split of agriculture into the 'productive' and 'non-productive' sectors. 'Real' farming will be reserved for the most machine-like factories of northern Europe. These are the most intensified units producing food stuffs in an environment where cows stand on cement floors and lettuce is grown in nutrient solutions. Those producing under these conditions will be the only ones who might be able to chase over the price cuts to compensate income loss by increased volume of output. The few farmers that will be able to keep up - perhaps 20 to 25 per cent according to some calculations - will be the ones where productivity-raising technologies will be directed, accumulated and concentrated.
All the rest, about 75 per cent of our farms today, according to the same estimates, will be slated into the 'non-productive' sector, and with it most of southern Europe. On to these people and these regions, Brussels will initially sprinkle a rather fatal dose of payments and compensations to leave agriculture altogether or receive annually scrutinised subsidies for providing 'other services': landscape management, agro-tourism or ecologically benign earth-scratching. Obviously, nobody knows how long these subsidies will last. The next reform might have to take care of them.
The picture looming over European agriculture is one of a profound split. Quantity and output will be the realm of the productive sector, promoted and protected by the hardcore Ministries of Economic Affairs and Agriculture. Quality and diversity will be the job of the eco-service sector, weakly backed up by Ministries of Environment or Social Affairs. Such a division is a disaster in terms of safeguarding and using genetic diversity. Paying people to conserve outside of production systems is like inviting a hangman to cure your stiff neck. Diversity does not thrive in deep sleep. It must live and grow, or it dies out. Separating conservation from production - paying a few farmers to produce and compensating all the others for managing the environment - will only exacerbate the social and environmental problems that previous policies created.
The division is also a disaster for the 'productive' sector itself. The question is really what type of agriculture we want - and how long it should last. Do we want to go on diminishing the capacity of our farmlands and livestock to carry the load of exploitation with sophisticated and expensive external technologies, that tend to pollute as much as marginalise the role of people? Do we want to continue heightening the risks attached to the vulnerability of genetically uniform plants and animals? Do we want our agriculture to revolve around an ever declining number of species and varieties, with the same food produced everywhere and controlled by a few interest groups? Or on the contrary, do we want to see diversity come back to the farmlands and markets, and strengthen the balances and security force of our cropping systems, rural economies, relations with developing countries and personal lives? We have the choice.
Diversity, both social and biological, will have to be reinstated into production systems and the relationships that animate our rural and urban societies. Forcing the already intensified and genetically impoverished super-farms into a deepening spiral to produce more for less will push them further to the edge of biological disaster. A holistic and long-term strategy for agricultural development is more urgent than ever.
In sum, we are facing a proposed reform of Europe's agricultural system that amounts to no reform at all. It will concentrate the ills where they hurt most, within a reduced agricultural production scheme, letting the rest flounder under the banner of environmental and social difficulties. Clearly, if we want to create an agricultural strategy that is the slightest bit sustainable, in economic, environmental and human terms, then we have to take a more integrated approach. For as long as people will continue to produce food, by growing crops and raising livestock, production must be anchored within an explicit environmental and cultural framework.
The CAP desperately needs to be reformed, but in a direction that integrates the social and environmental dimensions of agriculture, those so-called 'externalities' that economists currently ignore. Genetic diversity is a vital component of both these dimensions. It is a cultural heritage-that designs our societies and which people need to be able to continue moulding, and it is a tool to reform agricultural practices towards more viable forms of production. The cultural uniformity and the environmental damages of chemical farming are both inextricably linked to genetic erosion. We need an agricultural development programme that aggressively reintroduces diversity into our fields, markets and lives. In short, we have to reinstate diversity as a social strategy for survival.
Europe's agricultural policy should call upon those institutions that are storing the remaining folk varieties and landraces to get them growing again in the fields, and provide mechanisms to make that possible. Diversifying agriculture, and our agro-ecosystems at large, must start by putting a wider range of varieties into the production system. Heterogeneous landraces, multiline varieties, varietal mixtures and multiple cropping systems have to be developed and readapted to pull farming out of its spiral towards sterility and bankruptcy. This would be of benefit to the farmers, who could substantially improve the economic and ecological viability of their farms by having renewed access to crop varieties that are hardy, resistant, stable and better tasting. And it would obviously be of benefit to consumers, who would have more choice and a less vulnerable and less polluting food system.
Conservation of folk seeds is doomed if it is delinked from production, and our farming systems are in dire need of diversification. The answer seems obvious. An agriculture that is sustainable needs to revolve around diversity and social control over resources to meet social demands. The imperative, then, is not to keep deepening the very dangerous split but to rebuild the relationships that allowed farming, and agri'culture', to evolve for all those years. That means getting the resources back on to the farms and giving people the space and capacities to keep working with them. Certainly, the idea is not to push the clock backward and make every farmer a breeder.-But if we do not get the resources back into circulation and if we do not decentralise control and management of those resources, we continue on our spiral towards dependency and vulnerability.
Legal policies: renegotiating rights and responsibilities
If our agricultural policies are in need of reorientation, so are the legal systems that affect management and the use of biological diversity. The rules and laws currently in force do everything to reduce competition in the seed market and stifle innovation in plant breeding. Legal tools and regimes governing the use of our genetic heritage are extremely powerful. But they must be transformed into creative measures that will promote responsible action with respect to conservation, social control and exploitation of our plant heritage.
The two sets of laws governing the use of genetic resources - seed registration systems and intellectual property regimes - must be revised urgently to diversify the seed supply and balance monopoly rights with a clear set of obligations.
Regarding seed registration, it is urgent for national governments and the European Community to relax the very stringent laws that determine who can sell which seeds in Europe and what criteria they have to meet. The need to register varieties on a list before being able to commercialise them is not a bad idea, but the problem lies in the requirements to get them on the list: all geared towards uniformity.
The current registration system works against genetic diversity, and its use in agriculture, in at least two ways. First, as explained earlier, the criteria for certification do not allow for the legal marketing of traditional varieties and anything less than highly pure, elite cultivars. This effectively outlaws the entire spectrum of folk varieties, and thus hampers the efforts of people working with them. Second, even if criteria for registration were loosened to allow for more diverse planting materials to be marketed and offered to growers, fee levels would have to be cut. Current charges to get and keep a variety on the list are prohibitive for the many grassroots organisations that might be interested in doing so.
Several official people working on genetic resources conservation for their governments know that this is a biased system and some administrators are starting to recognise it as well. There is every argument in favour of starting to redress this imbalance through the creation of an integrated seed supply system, also to the benefit of those farmers and gardeners that want to use more diverse materials. France has already set the example in the fruit sector, to show what can be done. Their parallel list for old fruits is less demanding in genetic purity and cheaper to comply with. Such examples are worth broadening, and should be extended to all species where registration is currently necessary. Where we are cursed with biased legislation that works against diversity, we must amend it. Current initiatives to introduce stricter EC legislation over fruits and flowers, to match the rules governing agricultural and horticultural crops, go exactly in the wrong direction.
While fighting to change laws that effectively restrict competition and diversity in the first link of the food chain' we also have urgently to knock some reasonableness into the current schemes that grant intellectual property rights over plants. If, in the market, there is an urgent need to guarantee people's rights to sell seeds, then in the field, we need to assert farmers' rights to use and re-use them. The reform of the Plant Breeders' Rights system, as enshrined in the UPOV Convention of 1991, has already weakened many of the particularities that justified this system as 'adapted' to the needs of agriculture. In particular, the farmer's right to re-use seed harvested from a protected crop variety has been scrapped, reformulated as a farmer's privilege and will have to be decided upon at the national level. The strengthening of Plant Breeders' Rights is not only bad news for farmers, but also restricts activities in breeding, and thus affects consumers as well. One of the features of the UPOV system will not allow breeders to use each other's varieties freely if the results are genetically alike. This limitation on the free exchange of germplasm will undoubtedly result in fewer breeders being able to compete, which, in turn, is likely to result in more uniformity in the field.
Of course, the situation will be much worse if our governments give in to the heavy pressure from the biotechnology industry to allow for full-fledged patents on life forms. If permitted, patents in the breeding sector would have a dramatic effect on availability of genetic resources for crop improvement, benefiting only a few companies who can make a fortune on a few genes. While Plant Breeders' Rights may make it economically difficult for farmers to re-use seed from their own harvest, patents will make it downright unlawful. And as companies patent whole species, plant characteristics and major genes, they will be able to regulate competition with near perfection.
Whatever rights society decides to grant to the developers of technology, they should be balanced with obligations. In the control of genetic resources, which are so vital to food security worldwide and which depend to a large extent on the contributions made by farmers, a balance must be struck. NGOs working to secure a better basis for farming and food security are talking now about the need to establish legislation on Intellectual Property Obligations (IPOs) at national, regional and UN levels to ensure that there is a more equitable balance of responsibilities.
IPOs should reflect society's legitimate demands for sustainable agricultural development, a clean environment and food security. In the field of plant breeding and biotechnology, this would mean that rights holders would be asked to contribute to the management of biological resources by subscribing to a set of internationally recognised guidelines for sustainable breeding. Some preliminary ideas of what such guidelines could entail are provided in Box 5.1.
Box 5.1: Breeding for sustainable agriculture: IPOs
1 Measures to promote genetic diversity
(a) Diversification of breeding programmes
Plant and animal breeders should be required to broaden the genetic base of agriculture by utilising a wider range of germplasm than currently practised. Their programmes should be monitored and directed to help discourage extreme forms of monoculture and be directed toward the development of mixed cropping systems, multilines and varietal mixtures.
(b) Limitation on the wide-spread multiple use of single genes
With the new biotechnologies it becomes in principle possible to widely incorporate the same 'single-gene solutions' in many agricultural crops and livestock. Apart from further promoting genetic erosion, this would exacerbate vulnerability to pests and diseases. Regulations should be drawn up to prevent this.
(c) Establishment of Genetic Uniformity Ceilings (GUCs)
Governments should establish regional threshold limits on genetic uniformity to be respected by breeders. When a single variety occupies a certain percentage of that crop's acreage in a region, measures should be taken to restrict further sales of the variety, promote the use of alternative varieties in the same region, or oblige the breeder to contribute to regional conservation efforts.
2 Support for conservation
(a) User's fee on biological diversity
Plant breeders should be subject to a tax on the commercial value
of their seed sales as a measure to support conservation of genetic resources.
The funds should be spent on national and regional conservation programmes that
involve both governmental and non-governmental organisations.
(b) Support for an international fund for the conservation of genetic diversity
Breeders enjoying intellectual property rights over plant material should contribute to the worldwide effort to manage genetic resources through multilaterally agreed payments to an international fund under the auspices of the UN.
3 Cooperating with the broader genetic resources community
(a) Return what you take
Duplicates of germ plasm samples collected in farmers' fields should be provided as well as information resulting from research on those materials. Codes of Conduct on collecting, such as the one now bring worked on in FAO, should be turned into binding national legislation.
(b) Offer what is not in use
Plant breeders should make genetic resources currently not under trial freely available to researchers and community organisations.
(c) Honour farmers' rights
Breeders should respect the right of farmers to reuse seed from their harvest without being subject to royalty charges. Legislation should be developed to recognise the rights of the informal innovators who developed local varieties in the first place, involving direct payment, adapted research and other rights derived from the innovative activities of farmers.
The demands for stronger and stronger monopoly rights over our genetic heritage have gone too far. There is no longer a balance between society's interests and those of intellectual property rights holders. As citizens dependent on the food supply and dependent on the availability of genetic resources for our food security, we have to have the common sense to start negotiating again on the basis of a give-and-take arrangement. A system of rights without corresponding responsibilities is no system at all.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge in securing a sound basis for agricultural development in Europe is reshaping the structure and process of research. Science and technology not only have to be responsive to society's real needs, apart from mere profit margins, but also have to promote the role of people in innovation, rather than marginalise them. Western Europe once enjoyed a strong public research environment, but as explained earlier, this is being sold off to the private sector at an alarming pace. When corporate interests take command of the test tube, we must take a second look at what kind of control we are ceding to essentially uncontrollable interests.
A strong public research system working to design innovation in agriculture is absolutely vital in several respects. First, we cannot expect the private sector to do everything. In plant breeding over the past decades we have seen what this means. Industry is not interested in certain crops or types of farming that are not profitable in the short or medium term. This, however, dots not mean we should deprive ourselves of those crops or those innovations. At the same time, the public sector should also provide some healthy competition to the private sector in the same field of work. We also need some margin of openness about what kind of research is carried out and mechanisms to share information, personnel and resources in a public structure. In essence, we need accountability and forms of innovation that are not driven by commercial interests alone.
But salvaging our public research sector from its own sell-out to corporate financiers is only part of the problem. We desperately need to revamp the very structure and direction of research so that the work agenda is decided by the end-users and people are empowered through the process rather than merely considered passive recipients of technology. In agricultural research, this reversal of the top-down approach is more necessary than ever. Local solutions to local problems have to be found through alliances between farmers, scientists, small-scale industrialists and consumers. Farmers in particular have for too long been cut off from institutional research. They obviously know their needs and problems best, and they have an important role to play in agricultural research. Farmers are - by necessity - innovators and experimenters, as well as entrepreneurs. Tapping into this source of creativity and recognising its value, would be of great benefit to promoting more responsive, 'real needs' research.
The bias against farmer-initiated and farmer-based research in Europe is nowhere clearer than in the ways that 'unorthodox' agricultural sciences, for example the work to strengthen the underpinnings of biodynamic production or permaculture, are totally marginalised by the official sector and the dominant doctrine. Yet these approaches to agricultural development are extremely fertile and anything but unreasonable. Ecologically, they are geared towards sound production methods that are both long term and holistic, with diversity as a hinge to sustainability. Socially' they are eminently popular approaches to research and experimentation that bring people into the process of innovation rather than shut them out.
No one is against cutting edge research. The problem is that people have been cut out of it. There is no social control over research in Europe, just 'temperament testing' of new technologies when they arrive packaged at our doorsteps. Take biotechnology, for example. A lot of public criticism has emerged from NGOs, farmers and consumers organisations and environmental groups about the directions and control, the safety and relevance, of this new and powerful bundle of techniques and how they are put to use. Many of these people have been unfairly labelled as Luddites and anti-science obscurantists. That is to look at the issue from the wrong perspective. What many public and professional interest groups are crying out for is some form of transparency and democratic decision-making over science and technology. That kind of dialogue, consultation and participation in research and development is simply absent.
Clearly, the current structure and direction of agricultural research in Europe is inadequate to face the need to involve society - and the different 'consumers' of technology - in planning, directing and evaluating how we put science to work for us. Alienating people from the research process creates a sterile intellectual environment and a culture of irresponsibility that can become explosive. Resources and the development of technology have to be shared more democratically so that people will invest in innovation, and not forever be expected just to swallow what they are sold.