The New Mansholt Letter
A new policy for agriculture and food, into which nature and sustainability are integrated, could provide Europe with a new impetus. More than thirty years after the founder of European Agricultural Policy, Sicco Mansholt, wrote a letter of alarm on the consequences of his policy, the moment has come for drastic change. The Netherlands will be hosting all of Europe’s Ministers of Agriculture today. In the past year, 2500 young farmers and food professionals from 120 countries provided their input for ‘a New Mansholt Letter’. Today, we will be appealing to the Council of Ministers of the European Union through this letter.
Our food system is faltering. Dairy farmers in Europe are producing milk below its cost price. In the USA, more and more people are starting urban farms among the ruins of the collapsing metropolis of Detroit. The Arab Spring, with its exceptionally violent outbursts in Syria, Libya and Egypt, started as a classic bread riot in Tunisia. French farmers travel from demonstration to demonstration, even destroying the stands of representatives of government agencies and the under-paying meat industry at an agricultural trade fair in Paris last February. While the agricultural industry is embracing hi-tech and becoming increasingly cost-efficient, farmers and livestock breeders are teetering on the very brink of existence. The paradox of our current food system is clearly visible on our streets and in our shops: dreams of lush green meadows, healthy cows, well-fed pigs and fields of waving wheat are sold at rock-bottom prices: sectors in which farmers all across Europe have to fight to keep their heads above water and vistas that often do not reflect reality. In the up-market segment, on the other hand, we see traditionally hand-crafted sausages selling like hotcakes, next to ‘bean to bar’ sustainable chocolate and birdseed expensively marketed as ‘superfood’. The nostalgic dream of the unspoilt countryside and the flourishing farming profession stands in shrill contrast to the multinational food industry that calls the shots today. The gap between food production and the consumer was never this unbridgeable.
The Netherlands - a food-producing country par excellence - aims to manifest itself as one of the front runners of hi-tech food production in the next few years to come. Next week, the European minsters of agriculture, led by the Netherlands State Secretary for Economic Affairs Martijn van Dam under the motto Food of the future, the future of food, will be gathering at the Agriculture Council in Eindhoven, where they will be standing in amazement at extremely efficiently grown sweet peppers and tomatoes, admiring smart drones that cultivate plants automatically with minute precision, and exploring the use of data and GPS applications for reducing the use of crop protection agents to a minimum and using water as efficiently as possible. These innovations will, without a doubt, change the manner in which food will be produced and consumed in Europe in ways that we can barely imagine today. This can be compared to the impact produced by the introduction of the tractor, artificial fertiliser and crop protection agents on the post-WWII agricultural system in response to the foundations laid by the Dutch farmer Sicco Mansholt for the common European agricultural policy as we know it today. Under the motto ‘No More Famine’, Mansholt developed an agricultural policy in the Netherlands that was intended to increase the sector’s productivity and improve the well-being of the farmer. It led to unprecedented economies of scale in the agricultural industry. The small-scale countryside was transformed into an efficient production landscape. Mansholt laid the foundation for one of the most innovative and productive agricultural sectors in the world. When Mansholt became the first European Agriculture Commissioner in 1958, his successful policy was adopted throughout Europe as a model. His common agricultural policy even became the driving force behind the European Union.
Technology undeniably played an essential role in Mansholt’s agricultural policy. However: the role played by the farming profession, as well as political cooperation, were essential elements not to be overlooked in this turnaround. In fluent (albeit with a strong Groningen accent) German, French and English, Mansholt indefatigably built bridges between European Heads of State, playing for high political stakes when necessary. Mansholt’s dream was a Europe in which farmers would earn a decent living and all people would have access to nutritional food in sufficient quantities. However, Mansholt recognised that the production, processing and trade of and in food is also a moral and social issue. He considered food to be a common good; more than a commercial product alone. Farmers were promised a guaranteed price for their products. Mansholt invested heavily in information and education to promote a modern farming profession.
There was, however, a drawback to Mansholt’s system. The food surpluses that came into being in the nineteen-sixties bring this to light in a painful manner. Scarcity was transformed into obscene over-abundance. Modern agriculture launched a destructive attack on nature. At the end of his career, Mansholt predicted the negative side effects of his life’s work. In a letter of alarm written to the chairman of the European Commission in 1972 he called for radical changes to counter environmental degradation, waste and the declining social and economic position of the farmer. He never received an answer, and was ignored as an ideological hippy.
Now, forty years later, many of the scenarios predicted by Mansholt have become reality. ‘No More Famine’ has been replaced with ‘constant access to cheap food’- and this comes at a high price. Additionally, the emphasis of the system has shifted, in which the farmers no longer maintain a pivotal position as this has been taken over by purchasers and processors, who now call the shots and set the prices. In some countries, the very soul has been taken out of the countryside; multinational corporations buy large parcels of land and replace farmers with contractors, most of them cheap seasonal labourers from Eastern Europe or Asia. Consumers are unaware of the far-reaching hollowing-out of the countryside. The relationship between rural and urban communities has been rendered obsolete. What are the consequences if this system of over-production and under-payment collapses and farming as a profession disappears, resulting in potential famine or even war? In the meantime, scientists, opinion makers, policy officers, farmers’ representatives and Twitterers are engaged in a fruitless discussion about which agricultural model would be ‘the best’. From dogmatic trenches a dichotomy is being created between ‘large-scale’ (associated with technology) and ‘small-scale’ (associated with false romanticism). If we persist in this, our moment for taking action will pass and Mansholt’s doomsday scenario will become reality.
A new Ideal
However, if there is anything that everyone - from farmers to policy officers, and from politicians to the corporate community and consumers - can agree upon, it is that a change is imperative. The call for a fundamental, sustainable food system is becoming louder and louder. Just as European agricultural policy laid the foundation for European cooperation after the Second World War, a fundamental, moral agricultural and food policy would be able to provide the faltering European project with a new impetus. This impetus would hopefully lead to a Europe in which hi-tech and food innovations are the driving force behind family businesses and food producers, and in which local products, our planet, nature and our countryside are given a prominent position and where farmers are considered a key social factor - not only as producers of food or contractors labouring on their own premises: a food policy that looks beyond economic affairs and that embraces rather than opposes new and ‘hip’ ideas such as urban farming, shorter chains and the slow food movement.
Food and agricultural policy cannot be viewed from an economic perspective alone: this is about the socio-cultural future of the city and the countryside, about urban planning in the Netherlands and Europe. In the spirit of Sicco Mansholt - No More Famine - Europe is in need of a new ‘Ideal’. We need an agricultural and food policy that gives hi-tech innovations and pioneering farmers the space they deserve in terms of legislative, social and urban planning policy to guarantee their further development, and in which enough space is also reserved for family businesses that not only produce food, but also manage nature and our landscape and, in doing so, often bridge the awareness gap between producers and consumers. If we pursue a common policy, we could pave the way towards closing the biological cycle and achieve true sustainability - to which no single form of agriculture currently holds the key, as predicted by Sicco Mansholt in his letter of 1972.
This letter is signed by hundreds of farmers, manufacturers, scientists and many others, not only from the Netherlands but from all corners of Europe and even the entire world, and is directed at the current leaders of the European Union. Make use of the term of the Netherlands’ chairmanship of the EU to provide our agricultural and food policy with a new impetus. Let us pursue a policy on food that will provide Europe with new incentives that will preserve the beautiful continent that we cherish. The time is ripe for action!
On behalf of the 2500 young farmers and food professionals from 120 different countries who gathered in Milan at ‘We Feed The Planet’ in October 2015:
Guus Beumer (Directeur Het Nieuwe Instituut)
Jan Huijgen (farmer, philosopher, winner of the Mansholt Prize)
Piet van IJzendoorn (voorzitter Vereniging BioDynamische Landbouw en Voeding)
Joris Lohman (Slow Food)
Carlo Petrini (founder of Slow Food International, winner of the Mansholt Prize)
Bert van Ruitenbeek (director Ecominds)
Joszi Smeets (Youth Food Movement)
Debra Solomon (Urbaniahoeve)
Jack Stroeken (Slow Food Netherlands)
Wouter van der Weijden (director of CLM foundation)
The Mansholt Letter
‘Dear President’, the European Commissioner for Agriculture Sicco Mansholt starts his letter, dated 14 February 1972, addressed to the then President of the European Commission Franco-Maria Malfatti. ‘I think it is desirable that, during our final year, the Commission concerns itself intensively with the economic policy to be pursued. Though we will probably not be able to make concrete proposals to the Council of Ministers, we could formulate a number of fundamental ideas that could mark the start of the development of a new policy.’ It sounds calm and decisive, but very soon this new policy turns out to be necessary to deal with ‘grave matters’ facing not only Europe but also ‘all of mankind’.
Mansholt based his urgent letter on a report by the System Dynamics Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published in July 1971, which sounded the alarm concerning the consequences of the rising world population, food production, industrialisation, pollution and depletion of natural resources. To these he adds other concerns: ‘creating meaningful employment’, ‘achieving genuine democracy’, ‘creating equal opportunities for everybody’ and ‘our relationship with developing countries’.
The tone of his letter really becomes alarming when Mansholt doubts the feasibility of the measures he proposes, because of the impossibility of imposing them on the whole world. In fact, he suggests, the issues that face mankind are not impossible to deal with. But doing nothing is not an option, and he envisages an important role for Europe, which is ‘on the way to becoming a genuinely significant power’ and in his view should lead the way.
A fundamentally different policy needs to be pursued, according to Mansholt, to prevent the world from ‘breaking down’. ‘If nothing is done, the world’s population will double in about 30 years, and will have risen from 3.5 to 7 billion by the year 2000’. To ensure the survival of mankind under the conditions indicated, he calls for: giving priority to food production; reducing material goods, compensated for by increasing immaterial goods (education, intellectual development, use of free time); prolonging the life-span of ‘capital goods’; avoiding the production of ‘non-essential’ products; and combating pollution and the depletion of natural resources.
Mansholt realises that an economy based on growth leaves no scope for such measures. ‘It would be desirable to consider how we could contribute to an economy no longer based on maximum growth per capita. In addition, issues such as planning, tax policy, distribution of raw materials and probably certain essential end products should also be taken into consideration.’ From now on, he contends, the aim should be on ‘gross national benefit’, not on gross national product.
In all of this, two themes stand out for Mansholt: a fair distribution of food and welfare in the world, and a circular economy. New European policy should therefore be based on a ‘precisely planned economy’, he believes, ‘with the aim of securing the material needs that are strictly necessary for every individual’ and ‘a production system without pollution and the development of a circular process’. According to him, the decline in material welfare caused by these measures will need to be compensated for by ‘a greater public concern for intellectual and cultural development’.
With regard to agriculture, his particular area of expertise, he recognises that the increase in scale needs to stop, and he notes: ‘the natural balance will play an increasingly bigger role in food production’. He points to the limits that will ‘swiftly’ be reached when it comes to available agricultural land, reserves of fresh water and the disturbance of the ecological balance through the use of pesticides and insecticides. For example, he proposes to work with CR certificates (CR = clean and recycling) that entitle the holders to tax benefits and special price policies, and thus - in today’s parlance – improve the sustainability of food production.
‘I view it as highly desirable that in our final year we concentrate on these issues and make well-grounded proposals to the Council,’ Mansholt concludes his letter with hope. A letter to which he never received an answer, owing to a changing of the guard in European politics, but one that raises issues that are as relevant today as they were over forty years ago.