Is migration an unintended consequence of an introspective agricultural policy?


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John McClintock

John McClintock is Director of ACTION on Migration and Agriculture

A hundred years ago, Britain ruled the waves and much of the land. Those parts of the map not coloured pink were ruled by France, Germany, Portugal and the rest of Europe. The world is a better place now that people rule themselves, but we have overlooked a small detail.

The stomachs and palates of Europe were partly fed from overseas. Europe was an important market for agricultural commodities and benefitted from a reliable supply of cheap food. Farmers in many of the overseas territories had a secure and profitable market. The territories themselves were on a path to economic progress. Both sides were exploiting their comparative advantage.

In the 1950s, the countries of Europe began contemplating a European Economic Community. Clearly, Germany would be the industrial power. If farming in Europe was nurtured, France could be the agricultural power, equal in standing to Germany. But France would not achieve equal status if it continued to import cheap food from overseas.

France faced a dilemma. Either it could throw in its lot with the European Community and stop importing food commodities from its Empire, or say no to the Community. The French opted for the Community, and this spelled the end of imports of foodstuffs into Europe.

The loss of the European market was a shock for foreign countries. Economic development faltered, and was further rocked during the 1960s and ‘70s when Europe, like the United States, dumped their food surpluses on the newly-independent countries of the world. Unsurprisingly, growth slowed and living standards stagnated.

A problem of true severity, though, is that Europe’s farming is no longer sustainable

In contrast to the economic difficulties of its former colonies and dependences, Europe itself grew steadily more prosperous. A chasm in living conditions gradually arose between Europe and its neighbours. It is this difference in living conditions that is driving economic migration to this day.

If Europe had not shut the rest of the world out of its market, many countries would have developed in tandem with us. The migration crisis is, in this sense, an unintended consequence of our introspective agricultural policy.

A problem of true severity, though, is that Europe’s farming is no longer sustainable.

In the 1960s, it was enough for each hectare to produce a tonne of grain. The population of Europe has since increased by 50%, farmland has shrunk and we have developed a taste for meat-based diets. Each hectare that remains must produce five times as much. Farming has intensified to the point it risks destroying its own foundation: the fertility of the soil.

Europe has, therefore, two big challenges. One is migration. The proximate cause is the chasm in living standards, and the ultimate cause is the lack of growth in poor countries. The second challenge is our own unsustainable farming practices, which need proper greening.

Perhaps one challenge can help solve the other.

Farmers must adopt eco-farming methods – fewer inputs of pesticides, antibiotics, fertilisers and fossil fuels. But less input means less output: our farmers would produce less food if they adopted eco-farming methods. That means, in turn, that farmers would not earn so much money from farming.

Though farmers recognise the benefits of eco-farming, none want to be worse off. For many, the last decade has been a torrid one because of low prices. Lower output could, however, be offset by higher farm prices. Net farm revenue could remain the same. In adopting eco-farming, farmers need not be made worse off.

Those who argue against importing food should remember that it was standard practice before the common agricultural policy came into being in the 1960s

If our farmers were to receive higher prices for their commodities, would this mean high food prices in the supermarket? Not necessarily. As higher raw material costs work their way down the food chain, their impact is diluted. Moreover, consumers’ disposable income is set to rise with resumed economic growth. A new policy could be designed so that consumers continue to pay proportionately the same for their food – about 15% of income.

Less food produced in Europe would mean a return to imports. Herein lies the trump card of our proposal: if Europe imported food commodities from poorer countries, it would provide those farmers with the market they do not have. They will become more prosperous and economic growth will resume, after an interruption of 55 years. There will be less incentive to migrate.

Those who argue against importing food should remember that it was standard practice before the common agricultural policy came into being in the 1960s. There was never a problem with unreliable supplies. Indeed, only once has Europe experienced a supply interruption of any foreign commodity, and that was during the 1970s oil crisis brought on by the Yom Kippur war. Europe now keeps precautionary oil reserves. It could keep precautionary food reserves.

Ultimately, who would pay the cost of this proposal? All of us. Part of the annual increase in disposable income, arising from economic growth, will find its way back to the farming sector rather than stay in our pockets. Since everybody will benefit, it is only fair that everybody pays their portion of the cost.

If Europe carries on destroying its soils, we will have neither farms nor food security. But eco-farming could save us, bring about economic development in poorer countries and reduce economic migration.

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