Agriculture expert: A ‘third body’ is needed between science and EU politicians

Luc Vernet: "When you are an MEP you have to participate to the public debate and you cannot have the full entire picture of scientific data." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

In order to rebuild confidence in EU decision-making, there is a need to establish a “third independent body” between EU politicians and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as neither NGOs nor the industry can say whether a substance should be banned or not.

Luc Vernet is a senior advisor at Farm Europe, a think tank specialising in EU agricultural affairs.

Vernet spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

The draft Common Agricultural Policy proposal was leaked. What is your reaction to that?

It’s a draft still under discussion within the European Commission. The important thing for the future is that the CAP is an economic policy and it is important for this policy to keep an economic dimension. It is both the economy and meets societal expectations. These two things should be within the package and that’s very important for the future, and it’s within the spirit of the communication.

The second element which is supposed to be assessed and which will have to be read very carefully is the common dimension of the policy. In 2013 the big trend was so-called solidarity and flexibility. Behind the terms of ‘simplification’ and ‘flexibility’, most of the time we are reducing the size of the CAP. This is a trend which is worrying for different reasons. The first is that the more you increase flexibility, the more you reduce the level playing field between farmers in Europe.

This means when Europe doesn’t play its role in setting the norms and the standards, you have diverging norms at EU level and battles among farmers. You need to have a clear and strong CAP, especially when it comes to environmental regulations.

What is the role of digitalisation in the farming sector?

There is a revolution ongoing in the farming sector with two dimensions. The first one is our knowledge of environmental issues, which is growing. The link and the connections between ecosystems and our capacity to farm land with a lower impact are increasing. And we have several tools – genetics – but also digitalisation, which will help us in the future. Plant breeding techniques and animal genetics as well.

Today, we have the capacity to build a very strong farming sector in Europe integrating societal expectations. But we see that the farming sector is confronted with high levels of volatility and low profitability. For farmers to invest, it is quite a complicated equation. We need the CAP to help farmers invest and look forward.

The new reality of the farming sector should be disseminated in the whole CAP. I take the example of greening. With recent digitalisation, we have the capacity to have meaningful greening. In the greening we can include digital farming measures. Today we have three measures: keeping pastures, ecological focus areas and crop rotation.

With digitalisation, we can do crop rotation instead of diversification because we have satellites and a capacity to control. Second, at the farm level, in relation with the EU and the farmers, we can set indicators and clearly establish objectives at EU level saying that via these technologies we can improve and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by X%. This would be a very simple measure for farmers to apply and a very efficient one.

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On the collection and management of data there are different standpoints. How can we ensure that smallholders will be able to be the main decision makers if they don’t have data under their own control?

It’s not having a machine for the sake of having a machine or collecting data for the sake of collecting data. In all systems we need to know what we want to achieve. There are two main objectives: first for farmers, it’s economic performance, and second, environmental performance.

There are two sets of data – data for farmers to increase performance and manage their farms in an efficient way, and second to have an idea of the efficiency of their policy when they give orientation.

When it comes to data, it is clear that farmers are the ones producing data and they should be the ones in a position to use and have a guarantee that data are not sold for another purpose for anybody.

When it comes to data, indeed it is a very sensitive point, but it should not be a problem that freezes completely the development of the system and blocks the dissemination of precision farming. We have to find a way to make digitalisation possible while solving this issue, knowing that for all the digital economy the only way to develop is to have proof of the interest.

If you don’t develop tools, software, data that are meaningful for one farmer, you will never see the value of data. What is important is beyond data: farmers are at the core of the concept and are the ones driving the digitalisation of the sector.

Do you believe that the glyphosate deadlock questions the reliability of EU bodies? And is there any possibility that a potential ban of glyphosate would impact food imports from third countries?

This topic has been instrumentalised for different reasons and with different objectives. Some at EU level wanted to stop a situation where the Commission, in all these topics, is alone in making decisions. And these people thought that via glyphosate, because it had scientific proof that it was safe, they would unlock the situation and force member states to go forward and to vote in favour of this.

And second, it has been instrumentalised as a flag for the transition of agriculture. But clearly, as you said it put a big question mark on the reliability of our authorities. But it shows as well that our politicians at EU level have a lack of ability to mediate between science and political decisions.

When you are an MEP you have to participate in the public debate and you cannot have the full entire picture of scientific data. This is the job of EFSA. But when you take the public debate which is driven by social media and so on, it is very difficult if you’re not a scientist to have a clear idea and a personal opinion on that. In addition to have organisations like EFSA, we need to build at EU level capacity to interpret science and deliver a clear message on the reliability of science.

Shall I trust IARC or EFSA? We need to rebuild confidence to have this capacity with trustworthy experts, fully independent, in a position to say “at the moment, we can rely on this science”.

Market disruption fears grow as glyphosate ban looms

The Standing Committee on Plant Animal Food and Feed met today (9 November) to discuss renewing the approval of the active substance glyphosate, which is produced by Monsanto and others, but no qualified majority among member states was reached again.

How can this be achieved?

We have the capacity at EU level to organise a body of experts between EFSA and the European Parliament. We could easily do that. But what we cannot and we should not have is to have a situation where it is a fight between industry and NGOs. The rule of law has to be protected by the institutions. And no industry or NGO can say “this active substance is the right one” or not. At the end of the day we have to make sure politicians are able to speak without doubt and with integrity. And clearly today we have a problem.

Do you claim that the Commission should ignore the real political risk and go for a re-authorisation of glyphosate?

No, I said that the European Commission, as well as the Council and the Parliament, should have all the tools at hand to make this decision, which is a big difference. And they have to make this decision having all the arguments to say at the moment, taking into account the research, I make this decision. But if they have real evidence that it is dangerous and there is no safe way to use it, they have to make a decision in accordance with the data they have. We need to bring common sense to the system. Because today we only have fake news from both sides and we don’t have a real argumentative debate, it is only an ideological debate.

What about imports? Will they be impacted if glyphosate is banned?

I seriously doubt this – the current situation today is that some products are not allowed in the EU but they are totally accepted for imports. The EU Commission has a system for organic certification, but it put in place a system of equivalence and not conformity for the logo. In wine or bananas, we have products to fight a specific disease which is allowed in other markets, with the stamp of organic farming, and not allowed in the EU.

Moving on to biofuels, the countries that produce first generation biofuels are piling on the pressure. What is next with this file? It is getting really complicated.

This file has been complicated from the beginning. Like glyphosate, it has been instrumentalised in the public debate. What is important is to go back to some clear facts and evidence and look at what we want to achieve.

What we want to achieve is reducing in the short term emissions from the transport sector. We have a tool to do it via first generation of biofuels, which was put in place more or less in the year 2000 in Europe.

This sector has come under attack mainly because of the food versus fuel debate. But when we look at the data, what happened to food production in Europe (not at a global level), clearly it had no negative impact on land use; on the contrary, it helped farmers to keep their profitability and to stay in business. In Europe, our problem is not with an expansion of arable land, it is on the contrary, to keep agricultural land in production. Our main land change is from agriculture to urbanisation or forest. And when we check food production, we managed in Europe to continue increasing our production and we did not increase our imports. So there was no negative impact on world markets because of the development of this activity in Europe.

We have one specific issue: during the last four to five years the main developments have not come from EU raw materials but from imports. And the dynamic is strong.

Palm oil, but it could be other crops as well. So we have to make sure the debate in Europe goes down to concrete facts and not ideology. We have a tool we developed for the last 15 years, and if we are to push for decarbonisation of the transport sector, we can keep this tool and in the future, I am sure we will have a sustainable transport sector combining all the tools.

If we want to switch to 100% electricity, we will have other debates on the sustainability of batteries as well. We need to have a panel solution and to use this entire panel.

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Paola Tamma contributed to this article.