The Second Half of the Twentieth Century

From the 1950s, agricultural policy was a main driving force within the growing European Economic Community (EEC). Already during the 1950s, agriculture in France and the Netherlands had recovered from wartime damage and searched for new export markets. Germany, that had lost many of its most productive agricultural regions, aimed at reestablishment of its position as an industrial nation and expected to remain an importer of agrarian products. These differences between France and Germany became the basis of the new EEC. In Eastern Europe, the implementation of socialist economic principles in the Soviet sphere of influence brought far reaching changes. In Eastern Germany a short lived land reform divided the old estates into family farms, but after a few years the old estates were reestablished as collective farms. Collective and state farms were also established in other parts of Eastern Europe, most rigorously in the Soviet conquered Baltic States. Else-where however, particularly in most parts of Poland, small scale farmers were left untouched.

The second half of the twentieth century has been an extraordinary period for European agriculture. During the Cold War, agriculture in the EEC, as well as in its Eastern European counterpart Comecon, was characterized by a strong influence of (supra) national governments on price levels within a protected market. The main reasons to protect the agricultural sector were the characteristic fluctuations in prices, for a product that was essential for survival. The fluctuations were mainly caused by external causes, such as weather and diseases, which were difficult to control. Moreover, the inelastic demand had in the past caused extreme fluctuations in prices. Support for agriculture therefore aimed at stabilizing prices and, by doing so, production. Within the EEC, another factor was the effective lobby by farmers’ organizations. Even after new technologies (pesticides, selection) had diminished fluctuations in production levels and surpluses became a growing burden on the budget, farmers’ organizations still successfully lobbied for continuation of subsidies.

In fact, many of the uncertainties that had always characterized agriculture, now diminished, as production circumstances were increasingly controlled and pests seemed ever more controllable. Agriculture moved from risk management toward profit maximization. The landscape in Western Europe developed further in the direction of dispersed farms with enclosed land. This process was speeded up by enclosures, that now took place all overWestern Europe. These rural restructurings (German: Flurbereinigung; French: remembrement; Dutch: ruilverkaveling) became a highly planned activity, stimulated and often executed by the national governments. The process took place in a period of relatively low world market prices and rising labor costs and strengthened the processes of scale enlargement and mechanization in European agriculture. In 2000 the 15 member states of the European Union together counted 9 million farms, and agriculture and forestry together employed some 9.5 million people. Fifty years earlier, in the same countries 20 million farms still employed 30 million people.

The extraordinary period of extreme state intervention in agricultural production is now coming to an end. In Eastern Europe a phase of reprivatization is taking place since the collapse of the socialist system in 1989. It is certainly a radical transformation, but there is also a remarkable degree of continuity: locally, for example, in parts of Eastern Germany, a direct line runs from the old country estates to the post war collective farms and to the present large scale capitalist farms.

The tendency toward a more open world economy, which is proclaimed by the World Trade Organization and the large non European agrarian exporters, is expected to lead to a gradual abolition of agrarian subsidies. One result of the successful process of enlargement of scale in agriculture is, that in most European countries less than 5% of the population is still involved in farming. The few remaining farmers lost most of their political influence. The future of European agriculture is uncertain, and future transformations are to be expected.

With all transformations, there is also a degree of continuity. Actual maps of differences in productivity in agriculture still show – just like four centuries ago – the most intensive agriculture in the northwest European core region. Also, the main landscape types, that essentially go back to the Middle Ages, are still recognizable.