Agrifood Brief: Got (bio) milk?

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After riding high on a wave of rapidly growing consumer demand for more organic products, the French ‘bio’ milk branch is facing an unprecedented decline in demand this year.

While the sector has successfully doubled its production since 2017 and the market has doubled between 2015-2020, interest seems to have dropped off in 2021.

This situation reminds me of a lovely French movie in which a young woman asks a shop owner for advice: your olives over there look delicious, but they’re so expensive… are they really that much better than the cheap ones over here?

To which the vendor gives the very philosophical answer: Madame, we unfortunately live in a world in which the best product is on one end of the line and the cheapest on the other, he says. Maybe one day we’ll live in a perfect world where the best also happens to be the cheapest – but until then, if you want the good stuff, pay for it.

Well, don’t we all want the good stuff?

We say we do, and we also say we’re willing to pay for it.

By way of example, 80% of the French are in favour of better living conditions for farm animals destined to end up on our plates, while seven out of 10 Germans say they’re rather willing, or even very willing, to pay extra on meat products from happier animals.

The same is true when looking at the statistical willingness to pay more for environment-friendly products or even sustainable packaging.

Give us the right things, and we’ll pay the price!

However, when looking at actual consumer behaviour, things look a little different. The world is, after all, not a perfect place, and the things that are best for animal welfare, the environment, and, ultimately, our health are not necessarily good news for our wallet.

In other words: the things we want and the things we buy are often not the same in a phenomenon referred to as “cognitive dissonance”.

This bitter truth has just come around to hit the French organic milk sector.

One of the explanations put forward by French dairy group Soodial: The sudden decline in births, caused by the sanitary crisis, and the simultaneous rise in breastfeeding generated by the virtues of home office have reduced the need for organic baby milk.

One would assume that additional factors are certainly at play… but be that as it may! The really interesting point in this story is not the question of whether or not parental behaviour has led the French organic milk sector straight into crisis – but what this crisis means for French and European political ambitions.

As a reminder, the European Commission has only recently announced its ambition to boost organic farming, as part of its flagship Farm to Fork strategy.

By 2030, the Commission wants to see no less than 25 % of all farmland in Europe managed by organic agriculture (versus 7.5 % today), an ambition which of course includes organic dairy farming.

However, “political ambitions are one thing, market realities another, as we see today, and not only in France”, as pointed out by Alexander Anton, secretary-general of the European Dairy Association (EDA).

The positive trend in organic production and consumption over the last years may be “significant”, but it remains insufficient in view of the objectives presented in Brussels, Anton told EURACTIV.

And for a very simple reason: “Dairy farmers don’t fulfil political plans or ambitions, they serve markets.”

The day that consumers really want to enjoy a 25% organic share in their milk products, the demand will be satisfied by European dairy farmers, Anton promised.

“But we simply don’t see that demand right now, neither in France nor in other European countries”.

The problem being the extra costs generated by organic production modes, which – surprise, surprise – have to be paid by someone, or to put it more frankly, by consumers.

But, “since price is after all still the most relevant criterion for consumers’ choices, the organic sector has lost a bit of momentum in a difficult economic environment, while other factors, like energy costs, show a rather steep upwards trend,” he explained.

Organic milk and happy hens, but also, enough money to pay our bills, fuel our cars and go on the occasional holiday: the things we want (we really, really want) are numerous, and sometimes conflicting. The choice is ours – to the limit of our purse.

To sum it up with the words of our philosophical French movie character: Maybe one day, in a perfect world, everyone’s fridge will be filled with eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, healthy food, meat from blissful animals and organic milk – wonderful stuff that will cost less than conventional products.

But let’s face it: that perfect world is still far, far away.

(by Magdalena Pistorius)

EU Agri Commissioner dangles promise of ‘comprehensive’ Farm to Fork impact assessment
The EU’s Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, has teased stakeholders with the promise of a ‘comprehensive impact assessment’ of the Commission’s pivotal food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), but remained vague as to what this means in practice. EURACTIV’s agrifood team has more.

UN experts decry own food summit as putting profit before people
A group of UN human rights experts have joined in the criticism of this week’s UN Food Systems Summit, warning in a statement that instead of having the promised “people’s summit”, the most marginalised and vulnerable risk being left behind. Natasha Foote has more.

Commission ‘not afraid’ of global coalition against EU’s food policy
EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has stood by the environmental ambition in the Commission’s pivotal food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), which has been targeted by the creation of a new global coalition focused on productivity. Gerardo Fortuna has the story.

EU institutions join forces to launch first annual organic day
The European Parliament, the Council and the Commission came together on Thursday (23 September) to celebrate the launch of an annual ‘EU Organic Day’, designed to promote organic agriculture to bolster its production and consumption in the EU. Read more.

How will Germany implement the CAP’s green targets?
EU farm ministers agreed to a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in July that favours “greener” farming practices, with terms like “eco-schemes” and environmental “conditionality” taking centre stage during the negotiations. But what does this concretely mean for German agriculture? EURACTIV Germany reports.

New German arable strategy fails to impress environmentalists, organic farmers
Although Germany’s annual harvest and arable farming report was revised at the end of August to take account of the climate crisis, it still includes changes that remain just ‘symbolic politics’ for environmentalist NGOs and organic farmers. EURACTIV Germany has more.

To learn more, about Germany’s green ambitions, check out EURACTIV Germany’s special report on the country’s roadmap for greener CAP subsidies

Gender equality: The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) published a background note highlighting the link between gender equality and agriculture sustainability. In particular, they collected evidence that CAP decision making has been gender unequal in the last decades.

Methane emissions: EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski felt the need to publish a public statement defending the Commission’s work to reduce methane emissions after “recurring remarks” that the EC is not doing enough in this area. The Commissioner insisted that member states will be able to take advantage of the new CAP reform and the accompanying eco-schemes to better reduce methane emissions. See here for more.

Crop monitoring: A new JRC MARS bulletin on crop monitoring in Europe was published this week, which found that, at the EU level, changes to the yield forecasts for most summer crops – except green maize – are revised slightly downwards, though remain above the 5-year average.

Sustainable water use: On Tuesday 28 September, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) will publish a special report on the impact of the EU’s agricultural policy on efficient and sustainable water use.

Have your say on glyphosate: The EU’s Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have started parallel consultations on the initial scientific evaluations of glyphosate. In the next 60 days, the two EU’s agencies will gather relevant comments or scientific information and data from all interested parties who want to contribute in a bid to bring citizens and stakeholders close to the renewal process of the herbicide.

Gene editing: The Commission has launched a new roadmap for feedback on new genomic techniques to help guide its future legislative proposals on gene editing. The roadmap will be open for feedback for 4 weeks.

Animal transport: It seems that officials are on the move again after the pandemic saw us all grounded at home, starting with a group of MEPs who went to Bulgaria this week to investigate the realities of live animal transport. After the trip, Green MEP and chair of the committee of inquiry on the protection of animals during transport, Tilly Metz, tweeted that “clearer and better rules” are needed within the EU, including more controls, harmonised sanctions, better cooperation amongst member states and “most of all, a rethink of our food supply chains and our attitude towards animals”.

Sustainable farming: The EPP leaders also visited La Castelluccia Farm, on the sidelines of the Bureau of the EPP group, where they debated strong and sustainable European farms. “We praise this family business that is at the forefront of the protection of the agrarian landscape & techniques of conservative agriculture,” they said in a tweet.

Leaders and laggers: The world benchmarking alliance published a new assessment exploring the sustainability of 350 most influential food and agriculture companies on their social, environmental and nutritional impact this week. Find out who is leading, and who is lagging.

IRELAND
Ireland has struck a new deal which will pave the way for the export of sheepmeat and breeding pigs from Ireland to China, in a move which has caused considerable consternation among agricultural stakeholders. Natasha Foote has more (EURACTIV.com)

FINLAND
Forestry should be based on local conditions and knowhow in each member state, the Finnish government’s ministerial committee on EU affairs, chaired by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, said on Friday, highlighting that forest policy belongs to the competences of member states. EURACTIV’s Pekka Vanttinen has more.

FRANCE
French senators are discussing a draft bill on protecting farmers’ revenues. Lawmakers have started debating the draft bill, which was adopted by the French National Assembly in June, this Tuesday (21 September). In the context of recurrent “price wars” between producers and retailers, the bill aims to restore farmers’ capacities when negotiating the prices of their products. It is also supposed to make sure that production costs, which fluctuate in accordance with the prices of raw materials, are better taken into account during the yearly price negotiations between farmers and supermarket chains. However, in a report published on Monday on behalf of the Senate’s economic affairs committee, senator Anne-Catherine Loisier sharply criticised a draft bill featuring too many flaws to present any real chance of improving farmers’ revenues. (Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)

SLOVAKIA
The agricultural minister Samuel Vlčan discussed with around a hundred farmers and other agri food stakeholders this week about how to make the best use of the future eco-schemes rewarding farmers for practices beneficial for the climate and environment. For the first time he presented a working proposal for their design, which will be submitted to the European Commission for approval by the end of the year. The minister expressed his determination to help meet the CAP green goals, but at the same time he voiced dissatisfaction with the allocations that Slovak farmers will receive for their ecological activities. “I have no problem making us greener than spinach, but I wonder who will pay for it,“ he said referring to the slow external convergence of direct payments. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)

ITALY
The agriculture ministry has convened by 6 October a forum called “The Table of Italian Gastronomy” to discuss the Italian food supply chain together with the sectors that has been most affected by the pandemic. Among the topics that will be touch on will be consumer information, healthy eating, organic products, food waste, as well as the EU’s Green Deal and the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

GERMANY
On the occasion of this week’s UN Food Summit, German environmentalist NGO NABU has slammed the country’s current agricultural policy as “completely inadequate” to deal with upcoming challenges. “The next government coalition must, for example, immediately fix the errors of the national plans for the implementation of the 2023-2027 EU agricultural policy,” the organisation’s Konstantin Kreiser said ahead of the federal election on Sunday (26 September). The NGO also criticised that agriculture “has played almost no role” in the election campaign. “There is a direct link between food production, our consumption patterns, and the two big environmental crises – biodiversity loss and global warming,” NABU president Jörg-Andreas Krüger said. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

UK
Britain’s meat processors will start running out of carbon dioxide (CO2) within five days, forcing them to halt production and impacting supplies to retailers, the industry’s lobby group warned this week according to Reuters. The CO2 gas is used to stun animals before slaughter, in the vacuum packing of food products to extend their shelf life, and to put the fizz into beer, cider and soft drinks. The CO2 crisis has compounded an acute shortage of truck drivers in the UK, which has been blamed on the impact of COVID-19 and Brexit. “My members are saying anything between five, 10 and 15 days supply (remain),” Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association told Sky News. “The animals have to stay on farm. They’ll cause farmers on the farm huge animal welfare problems and British pork and British poultry will disappear off the shelves,” Allen warned, adding that the country is “two weeks away from seeing some real impacts on the shelves”. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

27 September | Bioeast foresight conference

27-29 September | Agritravel and slowtravel expo

27-29 September | Conference on Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystems (WEFE) Nexus scientific advances in the Mediterranean region

30 September | Launch event of the U-LABEL, a new platform for wine and spirit companies

30 Sept – 1 Oct | Organic Food Conference 2021 – Warsaw

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