( AFP ) - The European Union launches this week a root-and-branch review of its Common Agriculture Policy amid growing pressure to ease production limits in the face of a global commodities boom.
On Tuesday the European Commission kicks off a "health-check" of Europe's generous farm support system, which was foreseen under a sweeping shake-up of the CAP in 2003.
After a consultation period, the EU's executive arm aims to come up with reform proposals in the first half of 2008 to be decided on during the second half of the year when France, Europe's biggest farm power, hold the bloc's presidency.
During the last deep reform of the PAC in 2003, the link between the amount of aid farmers received and the amount they produced was broken, or decoupled in EU jargon.
However, numerous exemptions were obtained at the time, not least by France.
Ensuring a lively debate, the Commission now wants to take the reforms even further, according to its plans, a copy of which AFP has obtained.
In particular, it wants to devote more money to rural development programmes and less to direct subsidies to support farmers' incomes while also reducing aid to the biggest recipients of subsidies.
Also, the Commission wants to permanently do-away with a requirement that farmers leave some of their land fallow each year, which was suspended for the 2007-2008 marketing year to allow more production in the face of crimped supplies.
"For the CAP to continue to be a policy of the present and of the future, it needs to be able to evaluate its instruments, to test whether they function as they should, to identify any adjustments needed," the Commission's plans said.
Set up in 1962, the CAP eventually exceeded its original aim of ensuring Europe's food sufficiency and led to chronic overproduction that drove down prices and left many farmers dependent on EU handouts.
The health-check comes amid dramatic changes in the farming world, which is increasingly struggling to keep up with booming global demand, fuelled by China and India.
After long years of slumping prices due to overproduction, farmers are enjoying one of the strongest booms in decades, with wheat prices doubling in a year, and is driving food prices higher.
In addition to demand from fast-growing developing countries, prices for farm commodities are also being lifted by the spreading use of biofuels as well as droughts in some major agriculture powers such as Australia.
The convergence of those factors has changed the tide for CAP, which for decades has focused on reining in production after years of gluts.
Swallowing up 40 percent of the EU's joint budget, Europe's generous farm subsidies and other support have become a growing source of conflict in the EU, with France leading resistance to reductions in the face of criticism -- foremost from Britain -- that the system is hugely wasteful.
France now aims to take advantage of the current situation to ensure that the CAP remains "ambitious" in the run-up to a sweeping reform drive after 2013, French Farm Minister Michel Barnier said at the beginning of the month.
The PAC health-check is to coincide with a parallel debate next year over a total overhaul of the EU budget for the years after 2013, in which farm subsidies and Britain's contested rebate will play a central role.
Last week British Foreign Secretary David Miliband already began to set the stage for the debate, stressing the need to mordernise European agriculture.