‘Dear President’, the European Commissioner for Agriculture Sicco Mansholt starts his letter, dated 14 February 1972, addressed to the then President of the European Commission Franco-Maria Malfatti. ‘I think it is desirable that, during our final year, the Commission concerns itself intensively with the economic policy to be pursued. Though we will probably not be able to make concrete proposals to the Council of Ministers, we could formulate a number of fundamental ideas that could mark the start of the development of a new policy.’ It sounds calm and decisive, but very soon this new policy turns out to be necessary to deal with ‘grave matters’ facing not only Europe but also ‘all of mankind’.

Mansholt based his urgent letter on a report by the System Dynamics Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published in July 1971, which sounded the alarm concerning the consequences of the rising world population, food production, industrialisation, pollution and depletion of natural resources. To these he adds other concerns: ‘creating meaningful employment’, ‘achieving genuine democracy’, ‘creating equal opportunities for everybody’ and ‘our relationship with developing countries’.

The tone of his letter really becomes alarming when Mansholt doubts the feasibility of the measures he proposes, because of the impossibility of imposing them on the whole world. In fact, he suggests, the issues that face mankind are not impossible to deal with. But doing nothing is not an option, and he envisages an important role for Europe, which is ‘on the way to becoming a genuinely significant power’ and in his view should lead the way.

A fundamentally different policy needs to be pursued, according to Mansholt, to prevent the world from ‘breaking down’. ‘If nothing is done, the world’s population will double in about 30 years, and will have risen from 3.5 to 7 billion by the year 2000’. To ensure the survival of mankind under the conditions indicated, he calls for: giving priority to food production; reducing material goods, compensated for by increasing immaterial goods (education, intellectual development, use of free time); prolonging the life-span of ‘capital goods’; avoiding the production of ‘non-essential’ products; and combating pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

Mansholt realises that an economy based on growth leaves no scope for such measures. ‘It would be desirable to consider how we could contribute to an economy no longer based on maximum growth per capita. In addition, issues such as planning, tax policy, distribution of raw materials and probably certain essential end products should also be taken into consideration.’ From now on, he contends, the aim should be on ‘gross national benefit’, not on gross national product.

In all of this, two themes stand out for Mansholt: a fair distribution of food and welfare in the world, and a circular economy. New European policy should therefore be based on a ‘precisely planned economy’, he believes, ‘with the aim of securing the material needs that are strictly necessary for every individual’ and ‘a production system without pollution and the development of a circular process’. According to him, the decline in material welfare caused by these measures will need to be compensated for by ‘a greater public concern for intellectual and cultural development’.

With regard to agriculture, his particular area of expertise, he recognises that the increase in scale needs to stop, and he notes: ‘the natural balance will play an increasingly bigger role in food production’. He points to the limits that will ‘swiftly’ be reached when it comes to available agricultural land, reserves of fresh water and the disturbance of the ecological balance through the use of pesticides and insecticides. For example, he proposes to work with CR certificates (CR = clean and recycling) that entitle the holders to tax benefits and special price policies, and thus - in today’s parlance – improve the sustainability of food production.

         ‘I view it as highly desirable that in our final year we concentrate on these issues and make well-grounded proposals to the Council,’ Mansholt concludes his letter with hope. A letter to which he never received an answer, owing to a changing of the guard in European politics, but one that raises issues that are as relevant today as they were over forty years ago.