What's Wrong with Rural Development?

Why Europeans want to avoid "Americanization" of agriculture

BERLIN - American agriculture – ah, the envy of the world. Rich with technology, vibrant markets, transportation infrastructure and the world's smartest farmers…who could not love us, right?

Turns out most people involved in European agriculture would scurry the other way if their ag policies looked like ours. They're hoping they never see their agriculture – more specifically their beautifully coifed small villages – become "Americanized," in the words of German farm leader Gerd Sonnleitner.

"I believe there is large scale agreement between (European) farmers and the population," Sonnleitner told a large audience at last week's opening of GreenWeek, Europe's largest food and agriculture exhibition held each January in Berlin. "We want to retain our small and medium-sized family farming systems, and to develop them further. We do not want to see the Americanization of agriculture."

The quote was quickly picked up by the German press. Me? I was confused. What's wrong with our agriculture?

I asked Roger Waite, European Commission Spokesman for Agriculture and Rural Development. A former Ag journalist from Great Britain, Waite had been explaining Europe's Common Ag Policy (CAP) to readers for 17 years before coming to work for the European Commission.

"Americanization means large fields, and villages disappearing," he said. "Europe prides itself on rural development policy. EU rural development policy is of interest to a number of people in Washington. They want to know about job diversification, maintaining rural schools, the social aspect – it seems quite a problem in the states."

Ah, government support vs. free market economies – I was beginning to understand.

The American farm economy is more or less laissez-faire – an environment in which transactions between private parties are free from state intervention. It's a French word that broadly translates to "leave it alone."

That approach in Rural America has seen benefits – for example, business growth for farmers; and downsides, such as abandoned communities, stressed-out country schools and a general rural brain drain.

Differences in how governments approach Ag can be traced back to post-WWII, when many Europeans went hungry. From that scarcity came the European Commission and CAP, whose sole purpose then was to provide food security. America was a game changer in the war, but it was never invaded and never faced hunger. Our farm policy was borne from problems related to the dust bowl and Great Depression.

This could become a huge topic of debate as grain prices continue higher and discussion begins on a new farm bill. Next week I'll offer a breakdown comparison of European and American spending on Ag and rural development. The differences may shock you.

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