Ministers to debate Commission plans for ‘free-range’ beef

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Series Details Vol.4, No.18, 7.5.98, p6
Publication Date 07/05/1998
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Date: 07/05/1998

By Myles Neligan

EU FARM ministers will meet this weekend for an informal discussion on one key element of the European Commission's strategy to promote environmentally sound farming practices, as part of its reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The measure under discussion aims to encourage small-scale 'extensive' beef farming, which emphasises grass grazing and outdoor rearing, in contrast to 'intensive' production, involving larger herds, indoor rearing and the use of low-cost artificial foodstuffs.

This would be achieved by increasing a special grant available to farmers with low livestock densities from 36 to 100 ecu per head of cattle. The extra money is intended to compensate extensive producers for their higher costs.

Animal welfare and environmental organisations have frequently criticised intensive production techniques because they require farmers to keep their animals indoors for long periods.

Many agricultural experts have blamed the BSE epidemic in the UK on intensive rearing practices which led farmers to start feeding their cattle on meat and bone meal - the cheapest available protein supplement.

Intensive livestock farmers also harm the environment by flooding agricultural land with accumulated slurry when cattle are released for occasional grazing.

"This is an environmentally friendly proposal which will work to the advantage of farmers who practise genuinely extensive production techniques," said a Commission spokesman.

The measure has been welcomed as a step in the right direction by environmental groups and farming associations, including the Committee of Agricultural Organisations in the European Union (COPA), the EU's main farming lobby.

But the reception it will get from EU national governments is less certain. Member states are divided on the issue, according to whether or not extensive farming is widespread in their beef industries.

Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, which place greater emphasis on intensive production, have previously protested that the proposal may put their beef farmers at a disadvantage to their competitors in countries such as Ireland and Spain where the extensive model predominates.

Other countries have criticised the Commission proposal for not going far enough. French Agriculture Minister Louis le Pensec has already claimed that the measure will not provide sufficient help to those extensive beef farmers in mountainous regions, who face particularly high costs.

"Our proposal occupies the middle ground between these positions. That shows we have probably pitched it about right," said the Commission spokesman.

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