The European common agricultural policy (CAP) and health

There are many crucial links between health and agricultural policies. Policies that support agriculture may also interfere with market prices and, therefore, influence European consumer decisions; for example, agricultural subsidies may lower the price of tobacco, sugar, fats or alcohol and, thereby, impact on non-communicable diseases. Policies regarding agricultural practices can also have a profound impact on health; for example, permitting the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, the misuse of antibiotics or the dangerous overcrowding of livestock.

Agricultural policies also have a global impact on health in poor countries outside Europe by both creating a subsidized market for products dumped on these countries, which may be harmful to health, and by undercutting local farm prices or imposing excessive restrictions on their exports, thereby potentially depriving local farmers of their livelihoods. Obviously, such measures can also be positive; they can promote better nutrition, support local economies both within Europe and in other countries, and prepare for and respond to a disruption to food supplies, for example, in the event of drought or flood.

WHO, in its global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, has taken the stand that "Member States need to take healthy nutrition into account in their agricultural policies" with reference to the overproduction of unhealthy commodities that contribute to obesity and non-communicable diseases. The decision to phase out European tobacco subsidies by 2010 can be seen as a victory for public health. It also paves the way for policy change in other commodity sectors, such as the ongoing reform of the fruit and vegetable sector. Despite setbacks to Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms, in December 2008, the Council did adopt a regulation for the creation of a school fruit scheme, financed through the CAP. The programme, starting in 2009 and representing 90 million euros of annual EU funding, will distribute fresh fruit and vegetables across European schools in an attempt to encourage healthy eating habits and curb obesity in children aged six to ten. This money will be matched by national and private funds in those member states that choose to implement the programme.

Agricultural subsidies must be considered alongside trade tariffs and other barriers to trade. Indeed, agricultural policy has become the linchpin of international trade negotiations. In July 2008, negotiations at the WTO broke down and the Doha round was stalled due to the inability of the US, China and India to reach agreement on access to agricultural markets. The EU has relatively low tariff barriers for developing countries and, as part of the Doha trade round, has offered to eliminate all export subsidies for agricultural products. In November 2008, the long-awaited reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy also encountered problems during the meeting of the Council, when several member states rejected reforms that had been adopted by the European Commission. While reforms would not have reduced subsidies to European farmers, it would have shifted those resources from agricultural production support to rural development projects. This was also a point of contention; the final compromise maintained that an almost negligible 5 per cent of farm support would be channelled from agricultural production to rural development and environmental protection. The reform package is expected to be taken up again as a priority of the Czech presidency in May 2009.

There is a need to examine the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU within the context of a European Strategy for Global Health. This should highlight areas of public health concern within the EU and examine the impact of agricultural and trade policies on health in developing countries. The strategy should involve both politicians and consumer organizations, since they need to be able to identify how to shop ethically and healthily, and to expose current policies that act against this.


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