Agrifood Brief: Guardians of the Green galaxy

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Amid rising concerns over Europe’s food security, the EU’s sustainable goals for the farming sector have taken many blows in recent weeks. But now, it seems, the ‘green empire’ strikes back.

Since 2019, the EU has been setting out and putting into practice a whole galaxy of plans to make the bloc more sustainable, otherwise known as the European Green Deal.

For the agrifood solar system, this includes the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy and the Biodiversity strategy, both of which set out a number of targets on sustainable agri-things like pesticide reduction or organic farming.

But as the ongoing war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia – two key producer countries for agricultural goods – put a strain on Europe and the world’s food supply, calls to just Farm to For-get about it are mounting.

The key argument is that, as food shortages loom, farmers in Europe should focus on production, rather than, say, setting aside land for biodiversity.

In the past two weeks, rebels against the green goals have appeared everywhere – in Brussels as well as the member states.

“In the current context, set-aside or extensification of agricultural land are counterproductive,” the chair of the European Parliament’s agri committee, conservative German MEP Norbert Lins, wrote in an open letter on Thursday.

In Germany alone, Lins argued, almost 350,000 hectares are currently set aside – land that he estimates could be used to grow cereal for around 25 million people.

France’s Julien Denormandie, who currently holds the presidency over the agricultural council, is another strong voice warning we shouldn’t be starry-eyed about sustainable ambitions in the face of galactic risks to food production.

Among the member states, he is supported by the likes of Slovakia, where the ministry has called to “reconsider and partially correct the objectives” of the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies and potentially postpone them.

A number of farmers’ associations are also part of the rebel alliance, including EU lobby COPA-COGECA, which reportedly called to halt the F2F Strategy in an EU food security meeting behind closed doors.

Earlier this week, it seemed like the rebels’ cause was gaining ground, as Ukraine decided to halt exports of key foodstuffs like wheat and sunflower oil, adding to fears over the loss of Ukrainian products on world markets.

But just as it seemed like the EU’s sustainable farming goals might be overthrown, a team of guardians stepped up to defend the Green Deal galaxy.

One heavyweight among them: Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of delivering on the Green Deal.

“Please, don’t believe in the illusion that […] you would help food production by making it less sustainable,” he said, echoing an argument also put forth by environmentalists: Namely, that sustainability and food production are not opposed, but rather two sides of the same coin.

Meanwhile, a group of around 90 European and national environment and climate organisations wrote in an open letter to the Commission on Thursday arguing that the crisis in Ukraine is “yet another reminder of how essential it is to implement the Green Deal and its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies”.

For his part, German minister Cem Özdemir has also come out as a dedicated green guardian, stressing multiple times that sustainability goals should not be curtailed.

But what could be the final blow for any efforts to overthrow the Green Deal empire came during a meeting of the EU’s new food security expert group on Wednesday.

Even though EU agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski had hinted before that the Commission could reassess its sustainable food strategies, Commission representatives reportedly made it very clear during the meeting that putting aside the EU’s green goals was not an option.

Whether this does indeed mean that any doubts about food green goals will now disappear into the void or whether there is still space for manoeuvre shall remain a question for a future episode of the galactic Green Deal saga.

By Julia Dahm

Agrifood stories of the week

Commission reaffirms commitment to EU’s green goals in first food security meeting
The European Commission stood firm in its resolve to forge ahead with the EU’s sustainable food goals in the first expert meeting on food security this week, despite growing fears around food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine. Natasha Foote has the details.

EU supermarkets start rationing foodstuffs amid fears of panic buying
Some European retailers have started taking the drastic step of limiting the amount of sunflower oil per consumer amid ongoing fears that the war in Ukraine will cause food shortages and trigger panic buying. EURACTIV’s agrifood team has got you covered.

Commission doubles ambition for EU biomethane production from agricultural waste
The European Commission has doubled its objective for home-grown biomethane production to 35 billion cubic metres per year by 2030 as part of efforts to bolster the bloc against a looming energy crisis, according to a new communication. Learn more.

EU farmers boss: War might hit our food supplies, but will hit Africa, Middle East harder
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. Find the interview here.

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. Natasha Foote has more.

Timmermans cautions against relaxing Green deal goals for sake of food security
Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans stood up for the Green Deal objectives in the EU’s farming policy despite the calls of prioritising food security aspects in the wake of supply disruptions caused by the Ukraine war. Gerardo Fortuna has the story.

Germany stands against questioning food green goals amid Ukraine war
While calls to reconsider the green goals the EU has set for the food sector have increased since Russia attacked Ukraine, German farm minister Cem Özdemir has stressed sustainability efforts should not be curtailed. Julia Dahm has more.

News from the bubble

G7: EU Agriculture Commissioner participated in the Extraordinary G7 Agriculture Ministers’ meeting on Friday (11 March). The aim of the meeting is to discuss the recent Russian aggression against Ukraine and the concerted G7 response to it and to unanimously adopt a short joint statement. In his opening address, the Commissioner warned of the impact of the war on the food sector, saying he supported the intervention of German agriculture minister Cem Özdemir in relation to the mandate of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and encouraged the FAO to come forward with regular information and updates on the global food system. He also took the opportunity to throw some shade at Russia, pointing out that the meeting used to have an extra member.

Food security at the EU summit: A mention of food security was included in the conclusions of the informal European Council to be held this week (10-11 March) in Versailles. “We will improve our food security by reducing our dependencies on imported agricultural products and inputs,” the final text read. It also featured the aspiration to increase the EU production of plant-based proteins, in line with the idea put forward by the French presidency to set aside 10% of agricultural land earmarked for high biodiversity landscape to be used for producing protein crops.

MEPs clash over food security and F2F: On Monday (7 March), the group coordinators of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (COMAGRI) had a closed-door meeting with a representative of the Commission’s service DG AGRI. After the exchange of views, the COMAGRI chair Norbert Lins wrote a letter to farm Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski to ask for more flexibility for increasing the acreage of lands under production and for importing crucial commodities from third countries. He also called upon the Commission to temporarily allow the use of plant protection products “where effective on those ecological focus areas, which are suitable for growing protein crops for the duration of the crisis.” The letter received harsh criticism from the Greens and the Left, who are pushing not to look over sustainability aspects of the EU’s agri-food policy. “We are very unhappy, to say the least, about the letter and these developments,” a parliamentary source from the opposition told EURACTIV. The Greens sent a separate letter asking the Commission to commit in favour of strengthening and implementing the Green Deal in agriculture.

Agri-statistics: The European Parliament has approved the provisional agreement on the regional economic accounts in agriculture (REAA), one of the three files on agricultural statistics currently under revision. “Starting in 2023, the new rules allow for a more effective CAP implementation and ensure broad dissemination of data,” commented the rapporteur Petros Kokkalis on Twitter. Talks on the trickiest of the three agri-statistics file, the regulation on agricultural inputs and outputs (SAIO), are ongoing. Learn more.

SCA: On the menu for Monday’s Special Committee of Agriculture (SCA) meeting includes a strong focus on carbon farming, with discussions on the Council conclusions for agriculture and forestry on the European Commission’s communication on sustainable carbon cycles, as well as on the situation in Ukraine. Proposals from the Commission’s first food security crisis expert meeting will be considered during the meeting.

Pigmeat meeting kicked off:  The European Commission held its first European Pigmeat Reflection Group meeting this week. The EU is the world’s second-biggest producer of pork and the biggest exporter of pork and pork products. The group is designed to review all aspects of the sector to ensure its sustainability and resilience in socio-economic, environmental, climate, animal health and animal welfare terms. In addition to this kick-off meeting, five meetings are planned until the end of the year, discussions from which will feed into a final report with possible recommendations to be delivered in early 2023.

Support for small farmers: The European Commission announced a Latvian scheme to support small farmers affected by the coronavirus pandemic this week, including €4 million budget increase, to be in line with the State aid Temporary Framework. The scheme is a re-introduction of a measure approved by the Commission in March 2021, which expired on 31 December 2021. Under the scheme, the public support takes the form of direct grants. It  will continue to be open to micro and small-sized enterprises active in the agricultural primary production sector.

Food safety news: High-pressure processing (HPP) of food is effective at destroying harmful microorganisms and poses no more food safety concerns than other treatments, according to the conclusion of a scientific opinion published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) this week.

Geographical indications: The Commission approved the inclusion of three geographical indications this week: ‘Zagorski štrukli’ as a protected geographical indication (PGI), as well as ‘Zagorski bagremov med’ as a designation of origin (PDO), from Croatia, and the “Homokháti őszibarack pálinka” from Hungary as a protected geographical indication (PGI).

Agrifood news from the CAPitals

BULGARIA

Government starts stocking up on grain. The Bulgarian government has decided to buy wheat, corn and sunflower seeds worth € 550 million to ensure the country’s food supply amid worries over possible shortages due to the war in Ukraine. Read the full story here. (Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)

IRELAND

Ireland takes action on food security, but leaves farmers underwhelmed. Irish agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue met with representatives of the farming community this week to discuss approaches to tackling food insecurity triggered by the war in Ukraine. But farmers remained underwhelmed by the government’s proposed measures, which included the idea of having farmers focus on growing grain. Read more on the meeting here and on farmers’ reactions here. (Molly Killeen | EURACTIV.com)

GERMANY

Female farmers demand more action for rural gender equality. On the occasion of International Women’s Day on Tuesday (8 March), the German association of women in rural areas called current government action for gender equality insufficient. While some labour market reform plans announced by the government seemed promising, “not only are we still waiting for action to be taken, it is also necessary to look specifically at the living conditions of women in rural areas,” the organisation’s president, Petra Bentkämper, said. One key issue that would need to be addressed is to bring women working in agriculture into insurable employment “in order to strengthen their independence and prevent old-age poverty,” she added. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

SPAIN

Ministry aims to boost women’s role in fishing and farming. The Spanish agriculture and fisheries ministry has launched a plan to enhance gender equality in the sector. The plan is meant to encourage more women to enter sectors where they are underrepresented so far, according to the ministry. In fisheries, including processing and distribution, around a third of workers in Spain are female, while women mostly perform auxiliary tasks such as preparing nets or unloading and sorting fish. At the same time, the strategy also set out to strengthen the role of those women who already work in the sector by improving their working conditions, boosting their role in decision making, and strengthening their representation in professional organisations. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

AUSTRIA

Austrian farmers call to scrap set-aside of agricultural land amid Ukraine war. In the face of the difficult situation on agricultural markets induced by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Austrian farmers have entered the debate on reconsidering the EU’s green goals and called to put food supply first. “We clearly commit to the environmental and climate goals set out in the future Common Agricultural Policy, but in the face of the war in Ukraine and its impact on food supply, we need to make use of all available agricultural land in order to compensate the production lost in Eastern Europe,” Georg Strasser, president of the national farmers’ association, said. Strasser also voiced concerns over Hungary’s decision to restrict exports of key foodstuffs. “National isolationism is not a good call,” he said. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

SLOVAKIA

Slovakia: Commission should adjust Farm to Fork strategy, Biodiversity strategy. The Slovak ministry of agriculture has also joins calls for the European Commission to review the green goals set in the Farm to Fork strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy due to concerns about the EU’s food security amid Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. “Given the (…) apparent effects of severely limited agrifood trade (mainly imports) on EU agriculture, we believe it will be necessary to reconsider and partially correct these objectives of both strategies,” a ministry spokesperson told EURACTIV Slovakia, adding the “most important thing is to ensure food security”. The ministry also indirectly confirmed that it would try to adjust its CAP Strategic Plan, which it sent to the European Commission in February. “The changes could concern, for example, the addition of interventions, which would also include activities mitigating the impacts of the current situation and possible compensation tools for Slovak primary producers and processors,“ they said. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)

ITALY

Italy’s government wants to delay eco-schemes over food security fears. In a hearing at the Italian Parliament, Italy’s agriculture minister Stefano Patuanelli said he is in favour of postponing the entry into force of the measures introduced in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) aimed at limiting agriculture production, namely the eco-scheme measures for biodiversity landscape. He also proposed to increase the percentage of coupled payments for the most strategic productions for which the EU is not self-sufficient like in the case of protein crops and to allow the use of set-aside areas and all pastures for productive purposes, even if partially occupied by spontaneous shrub vegetation. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

GREECE

The three guidelines for the protection of the agrifood market. On Monday (7 March), the Greek agriculture minister Georgios Georgantas made remarks about the impact of the Ukraine war on the global energy market, stressing that the agrifood sector will not be unaffected by the crisis. In this context, he pointed out that “we should move towards three directions.” In particular, he said that we should “support farmers in every possible way so that production costs are kept at an acceptable level and support the cultivation of cereals and oilseeds in order to build up stocks and gradually wean ourselves off Russia and Ukraine”. He also said the “EU should immediately activate CMO measures to address the disruption of markets and to absorb from the Greek market the products whose export will be affected, mainly fresh fruit and vegetables”. (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni| EURACTIV.gr)

CROATIA

Minister: Government is working on food security. Croatian Agriculture Minister Marija Vučković has said the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would affect supply chains in Croatia and  announced further measures to mitigate the negative impact on food security. Vučković said the government was already working on these measures as part of a 4.8 billion kuna (€ 640 million) package on energy prices, which would include farmers and fishermen. The measures include reducing VAT on fresh food and gas. Speaking of food security, Vučković said it should not be ignored that Ukraine and Russia export a quarter of wheat and oilseeds to the EU, albeit less to Croatia, she added. “We have already had meetings with crop farmers, meat producers, dairy farmers and the fishing industry, and we have met with the Croatian Employers Association, the Croatian Chamber of Commerce, the Croatian Chamber of Agriculture. Soon we will have new measures to alleviate the negative economic impact on food security,” the minister said. Vučković also announced aid of 200 million kuna (€26,6 million) to offset the rise in fertiliser prices for small and medium farms. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

Events

11-13 March | Global Conference on Agriculture – Berlin

14 March | Let’s discuss organic! (Webinar)

15 March | Forum for the Future of Agriculture

16 March | Pesticides : What’s at stake on the EU Agenda?

17-18 March | Developing resilient rural communities

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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