EU farmers chief: Farmers need to know changes to CAP rules by spring

"For us, it is important that the French president defends this technique during the French presidency of the EU Council. There is no doubt that NGTs [new genomic techniques] have advantages for agriculture," said Christiane Lambert.

In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, Christiane Lambert, president of the EU’s farmers association COPA, looks back at the major agricultural issues of the year in France and Europe and discusses her expectations for when France takes over the rotating EU Council presidency next month.

Christiane Lambert is president of EU farmers association COPA, and was also the first woman to have been elected to head France’s leading agricultural union, FNSEA.

Let’s start with the CAP: adopted in November, the 27 EU member states have until 31 December to submit their national strategic plans to the European Commission. We will then have to wait for the Commission’s response, possibly the end of summer 2022, according to the Deputy Director-General of the Commission’s DG Agriculture and Rural Development, Tassos Haniotis. Are you concerned about this delay?

When Mr Haniotis announced the deadlines, I think all farmers were concerned. The national strategic plans have to be submitted to Brussels at the end of December, then they will be examined. They will be the subject of remarks which will be sent back to the member states for corrections, and then they will be sent back to the Commission… it is really necessary that everyone tries to respect the deadlines, otherwise it will be very problematic for us.

The Commission will already be able to start working on the strategic plans that will be submitted to it. We have been given the commitment that the deadlines will be shortened as much as possible so that the member states can receive them in March or April. This is extremely important to us.

We are also going to push our agriculture minister to be tough on the Commission during the French EU Council presidency. The changes planned for the new CAP are important for farmers, and we need to know the rules of the game by the end of spring 2022.

Regarding the national strategic plans already published, several NGOs have just published a report in which they claim a lack of green ambition in these plans. 

Whatever we propose, it will never be enough for the NGOs. NGOs can talk and tell us what to do, but it is the farmers who have to implement things.

There were several options for these national strategic plans: either they were going to be very high in terms of green ambition in particular, and very few farmers would manage to achieve the objectives. In this case, many farmers would lose significant support, and in addition, if very few farmers met the objectives, there would be no environmental results.

The objective, however, is really to have as many farmers as possible make progress and meet the objectives of the eco-regimes. The positive result for the environment is very much linked to the fact that as many farmers as possible manage to enter the scheme.

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The Commission plans to adopt a soil health law in 2023, which has raised some concerns in the farming community. From a farmer’s perspective, what are these concerns, and what do you expect from the Commission’s proposal? 

This soil strategy worries us because it is a top-down regulation, but as soils are very different from one region and one country to another, there should not be a single European rule. We must keep the possibility of producing on all soils by adapting agricultural practices to respect the specific situations of each one. Everything will depend on the fairness of the proposals that are made.

What is certain is that, as climate change accelerates, these obligations and this strategy in relation to the soil must be connected to the reality of climate hazards. Climate change means that in some years, there will be huge floods, and in other years there will be very serious droughts. This calls for a great deal of humility in the proposal that will be made. And, of course, everything will depend on the financial means that will be put on the table to support farmers.

On rising fertiliser prices, the Commission continues to insist that the situation is due more to energy prices than to the ban on importing liquid fertilisers. The ban is being reviewed, do you expect the Commission to backtrack?

It is certain that the soaring price of gas has a huge impact on fertiliser prices. The price of fertiliser has doubled or even tripled, depending on the fertiliser. So [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s strategy is having a big impact on European farmers, which is worrying in terms of price increases and, in the long term, fertiliser availability.

Then there is the attitude of European fertiliser manufacturers. We ask them to be realistic and serious, i.e. not to speculate on scarcity, otherwise, we may end up with lower yields. But we also risk having insufficient protein levels, which would be detrimental for animal feed.

France will take over the EU Council presidency on 1 January 2022. One of the subjects on which there are high expectations is the question of so-called ‘mirror clauses’ concerning environmental and health standards in the EU’s trade agreements with third countries. What do you expect from the French presidency in this area?

In fact, ‘mirror clauses’ already exist in trade agreements, but they are not sufficiently implemented. Today, the European Union wants to impose even more stringent environmental, health and animal welfare requirements on itself: this increases the distortion of competition between European products and those from other continents because the existing mirror clauses in traditional trade agreements are already insufficient.

With the issue of climate change on the rise and the new, very demanding Farm to Fork strategy, we fear that this will accentuate this competitive gap even further, and we, therefore, effectively raise the question of additional ‘mirror clauses’. It is not a question of banning trade, but on the other hand, we want there to be clearly established rules to make this trade more equitable.

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Another important issue for this presidency will be the question of pesticides. Many NGOs are calling on France to commit to a re-authorisation of glyphosate, but also a gradual phase-out of synthetic pesticides in general, as promised by Emmanuel Macron at the World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September. What is your position on the subject?

Emmanuel Macron sometimes talks too fast, that’s what happened in Marseille. He said that France was going to speed up the phasing out of pesticides, and eight days later, he backtracked and said instead that he wanted to speed up the European harmonisation of rules and to phase out problematic products as soon as possible.

But we must not put farmers in a technical impasse, i.e. prevent them from treating their crops. No ban without a solution, because if banning certain products stops production, everyone loses.

Moreover, it is not up to one country alone to decide, because we have a single market. We need single rules for authorising or banning plant protection products: if a product is considered dangerous in one country, it is normal that it is dangerous in the other. Either it is dangerous, or it is not.

France will therefore work hard to harmonise the rules at the European level to improve the use of plant protection products and will also accelerate research into biocontrol and a uniform definition of what constitutes biocontrol.

There is one more topic that has created a lot of division this year: new genomic techniques. What are the risks and benefits of these new technologies for you?

We cannot judge new genomic technologies in the same way as we judged GMOs in 2001. The technique has evolved, it has nothing to do with it. For us, it is important that the French president defends this technique during the French presidency of the EU Council. There is no doubt that NGTs [new genomic techniques] have advantages for agriculture. In the face of climate change, we need additional tools, plants that are more resistant to disease.

It will be better for the planet, it will be better for plants, consumers and animals. And it will also be better for our wallet because we will need less fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides on our crops. I think we have to be educational to maintain this idea that innovation can be synonymous with better.

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