EU farmers boss: War might hit our food supplies, but will hit Africa, Middle East harder

Food diplomacy has already become the next front of the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries account for 53% of the world’s trade in sunflower oil and 27% of its trade in wheat. The lessons from the COVID pandemic, when the EU was undoubtedly a loser in terms of the vaccine diplomacy, are that it pays to be proactive. [SHUTTERSTOCK/MOMA_PRODUCTION]

The EU is unlikely to go hungry as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, but it could have a devastating impact on areas of Africa and the Middle East, according to farming boss Pekka Pesonen, who called for an ‘enhanced’ Green Deal package to maintain both quality and quantity in the European food supply.

Pekka Pesonen is the secretary general of the EU farmers’ association, COPA-COGECA. He spoke with EURACTIV’s agrifood team about the fallout of the war in Ukraine and how the EU’s green goals should be expanded in light of the situation.

As it stands, what do you see will be the main impact of the war in Ukraine on food supply?

The situation is not yet fully analysed, and we haven’t seen the full impact of it yet. But I think it’s quite safe to say already at this stage, that we would expect that we would have major disruption of international trade patterns, and especially in agricultural commodities that such as maize, sunflower, oil, and we expect trade disruptions not only between us [Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and the EU] but also third countries.

What is your main concern currently?

The main concern is that we would have serious disruption at the international level. The EU can supply its own, we have some stocks, so we have reason to believe that we wouldn’t go hungry. But the consequence of these disruptions that we see coming for our bilateral trade arrangements would most probably have a third party impact, especially in North Africa, Maghreb countries, Egypt, possibly the Middle East.

And the last time this happened, we had a so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and this time, we need to also recognise the fact that Russia and Ukraine have become very active in these regions in terms of trade. It is not going to be so easy to replace these volumes that we most likely lose in international trade to these particular regions.

Ukraine halts export of key foodstuffs as concerns mount over EU food security

Ukraine’s government has introduced export licensing of key foodstuffs including wheat, corn, poultry meat, and sunflower oil according to the Ukrainian news agency, Interfax Ukraine, as EU farmers sound the alarm over food security across the bloc.

How can the EU help compensate for the expected loss in these areas?

First and foremost, [the EU] has to carry our weight in these international trade structures – we need to be able to replace those volumes for ourselves that we most probably are going to miss from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The second step is to see how much [the EU] can trade, but the reality is that we are talking about relatively big volumes and the EU cannot completely replace this [loss].

We have to keep in mind that the EU, like everyone else, is facing higher costs for inputs, especially fertilisers. So let’s focus on supplying the EU market first and then, if we can, we would be happy to supply certain commodities to third countries.

So how can this gap be filled?

We need to put our trade relations with other partners in the global trade framework to the test. The fundamental element is that we have to find a new international trade structure in the coming weeks to supply the market with sufficient quantities, or volumes to supply certain key markets so that they won’t see any major price increases that would be politically sensitive. I think there’s a common understanding across the big players that we need to act upon this.

There have been calls from some to radically rethink the EU’s green goals in light of the situation in Ukraine. What is your take on this?

We need radical additions to the Green Deal. We have no problem with the Green Deal as such. We believe that the fundamentals are there, but we need to have a sufficient toolbox for European agriculture to do the thing that they are required to do – supply food in a sustainable manner. But we need to have the assistance of the EU to make this happen, we need to have a rebalance of the value chain, we need to have coherence and policies.

So, we need an enhanced Green Deal package to enable us to do [this]. It’s about sustainable production and maintenance of supplies, in both quantity and quality to the market. I think this additional layer needs to be there, and the Commission has failed to deliver it.

EU to look again at Green deal goals in farming to ensure food security

The European Commission will look again at the objectives of its main sustainable food policies, the Farm to Fork and the Biodiversity strategy, to see if they can ensure Europe’s food security in the aftermath of the Ukraine war.

What would you say to claims that food security is no longer an issue?

When it comes to the issue of food security, we have been completely committed to making sure that we safeguard consumer and societal interests, and we have shown a very good outcome of the process. It is very much about the long term commitment of the EU institutions together with stakeholders and farmers, that the agriculture tips to put investment in place for European agri-food chain to be more sustainable, more resilient, and supplying foodstuffs, to the level that the society expects.

And now all of a sudden, Commission college members point out that we don’t have a food security issue, putting the blame on agriculture itself and questioning this whole work. We cannot accept this. If we don’t deliver the quality and quantity of what the consumers expect, there’s no hope for any EU policies, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). We know this all too well, and that’s why we are committed.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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