Agrifood Brief: Size matters

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Another week, another public consultation.

Whether it’s deforestation or the EU’s new animal welfare legislation, there’s plenty of opportunities for everyone to give their two cents on the Commission’s policy plans.

This is important given that this feeds into and shapes policy direction in the years to come.

What’s interesting is that we are currently observing a shift in how these consultations are used.

Take the recent consultation on the highly charged topic of gene editing, for example.

For a quick background, the consultation, which was open for comments for four weeks and closed on 22 October, was designed to feed into a review of the EU’s rules on ‘new genomic techniques’ (NGTs).

Under the current framework, NGTs, which the industry argues creates a more directed genome modification using the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, fall under the GMO (genetically modified organisms) directive.

However, in a study released in April, the Commission outlined plans to update this in line with the latest scientific and technological progress, although what this means in practice is still unclear.

In such a pivotal moment for such a high-stakes topic, it’s not necessarily a surprise to find that plenty of people – 71,000, to be precise – had something to say on the matter.

But what may be more surprising to learn is that of these, 69,000 were auto-generated responses from EU citizens taking part in a campaign calling to keep NGTs under the current GMO legislation.

The campaign, spearheaded by the Greens alongside a host of campaign groups, including Save our Seeds, GM Watch, and EU organics association IFOAM, involved platforms through which citizens could respond using a ready-made template known as (the incredibly catchy) “key-collision clustering algorithm”.

This was done to make sure people had an “easy way to submit their comments, so the Commission can see how problematic its plan is in the eyes of ordinary citizens,” according to a statement from Slow Food Europe. As one of the associations that set up the platform, they added that the Commission’s platform makes it “very hard for people to participate”.

Madeleine Coste, food policy officer for Slow Food Europe, said that the strong mobilisation of citizens to respond to the consultation reflects the “deep worries” that they have about the possibility of deregulating new GMOs, and of no longer being able to choose GM-free food.

“We now expect to see the voices of citizens reflected in the next steps,” she said, adding that “now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens” about NGTs.

This is not the first time that such campaigns were used to respond to Commission consultations and, judging by current trends, it’s certainly not the last.

For example, of the 1,194,761 responses to the EU’s consultation on deforestation, 1,193,611 responses were identified by the Commission as submitted through a similar campaign. 

Meanwhile, earlier in 2021, the #RestoreNature campaign of WWF, BirdLife and EEB brought together just over 100,000 responses, bringing the total number of citizen responses to 110,094 or 98% of the total number of responses.

So this kind of coordinated “clustering” campaign is increasingly being mobilised to respond to consultations, much to the chagrin of some stakeholders, who accused green campaigners of “hijacking” the consultation.

“The Greens / EFA, in the EU Parliament, together with some anti-genetic engineering NGOs, hijacked this survey by feeding in thousands of pre-formulated comments,” farmer and blogger Susanne Günther wrote in a post, pointing out that the secondary website bypasses some of the official website’s verification processes.

For comparison, the blog points out that a separate consultation on the review of EU regulations surrounding the protection of the marine environment, which ended on the same day as the gene-editing consultation, recorded just over 100 citizen responses.

Meanwhile, pro-GM campaign group Genesprout Initiative wrote on Twitter that they “regret that the public consultation on plant gene editing launched by the Commission is being “misused” by certain organisations”.

But campaigners point out that there is no reason to discard these campaign responses when others have been considered in the past. 

The real question is, what impact does this kind of coordinated campaign really have on the policymaking process?

Well, quite a bit, judging by the Commission’s response to questions from EURACTIV.

Asked whether the Commission would consider the campaign coordinated responses in the same way as others, the spokesperson confirmed that the Commission would take “all submitted content during the process of the forthcoming impact assessment” into account.

But this also begs the age-old question – does size matter?

By that I mean that, will the Commission take into account not just the content of the responses (which are obviously all more or less identical), but also the fact that they make up 97% of the responses?

The answer appears to be yes, size does indeed matter.

The spokesperson confirmed to EURACTIV that the Commission will take into account both “the content of the replies as well as the number of responses”.

This holds interesting implications for the way that stakeholders mobilise their resources to respond to consultations in the future – here’s hoping the Commission is prepared to deal with the deluge of responses that this news could bring.

(N.F)

Please note that due to the public holiday on Thursday there is no EURACTIV agrifood podcast this week. Make sure you tune in next week when we’re back to our usual scheduling! 

Agrifood news this week

Commission bows to pressure to water down Green Deal ambitions in CAP plans
The European Commission’s ambition to tie the EU’s farming subsidies programme to the European Green Deal is set to fall victim to pressure from member states in a behind-closed-doors procedure. EURACTIV’s agrifood team has the story. 

Agricultural implications of the COP26 methane pledge
The agriculture sector, one of the world’s most significant contributors of methane, will be directly impacted by the first global commitment to cut methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Gerardo Fortuna has the details.

Environmental organisations call for action to tackle agrochemical data ‘blind spots’
Environmental and health organisations across the EU have called for action on agrochemical data ‘blind spots’ in an open letter, saying that it undermines the EU’s green goals and fuels mistrust in society. Natasha Foote has more. 

Carbon farming: Europe’s new trend?
Check out this European Special Report, where EURACTIV and its partners across Europe examine the prospects of carbon farming, its application on a national level as well as the challenges EU farmers are expected to face.

The series of articles on carbon farming kicks off with a look at how EU farmers can be financially incentivised for its proper rollout. 

A second article takes a look at the British farming sector, which has set an ambitious strategy to reach net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in agriculture by 2040. But for all farmers to be able to contribute, the government should step in and provide the necessary means, the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU) told EURACTIV.

Seasonal farm workers in Germany exposed to ‘massive labour rights violations’
Seasonal agriculture workers are exposed to numerous labour rights violations in Germany, according to a new report by the Fair Agriculture Initiative alliance on seasonal work in German agriculture. EURACTIV Germany reports.

French beekeepers call for immediate ban on common herbicide to help ailing sector
French beekeepers have called for a ban on the second most widely used herbicide, profulscarb, saying that this is needed to protect the ailing sector which is reeling from the worst honey harvest to date. EURACTIV France reports.

Industry, NGOs clash over role of genetics in agricultural transition
While the French seed industry, the government, and the European Commission agree on the need to develop crop varieties further, NGOs have warned of risks linked with deregulating new genomic techniques. EURACTIV France reports.

Brewers turn to blockchain for beer sustainability
To make beer production more sustainable, European brewing companies have started using blockchain technology. However, NGOs warn that single-use packaging still contributes to a large carbon footprint for many beverages. Julia Dahm has more.

Challenge of greening agri-food system is ‘absolutely massive’, industry says
As nations gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the food and drink industry – a vital sector of the economy – are a central part of the conversation. Learn more.

CAP corner

State of play: According to sources, the provisional timetable is still for the basic legislation to be finalised on 2 December, in which case the urgent secondary legislation should enter into force over the course of December. During this week’s SCA (Special Committee on Agriculture) meeting, member states warned that if there are any procedural delays in adopting the main package, this will have a knock-on effect on adoption of secondary legislation. Non-urgent secondary legislation will be adopted in early 2022.

Member states highlighted that the basic legislation should be finalised on time and that the secondary legislation should not go beyond the scope set out in the basic legislation. They also stressed that the secondary legislation should not place an additional admin burden on local authorities and/or beneficiaries.

It seems the Commission is set to bow to pressure from member states not to include a requirement for member states to specify how their strategic plans will incorporate the Green Deal. See EURACTIV’s story on this for more

News from the bubble

Pigmeat, fertilisers, high prices: According to sources, during a recent SCA (Special Committee on Agriculture) meeting this week ahead of next week’s AGRIFISH meeting, around two thirds of member states took the floor to highlight various issues affecting them, including the serious situation in the pigmeat industry, high input costs (feed, transport, fertilizer) and shrinking profit margins as a result of these high costs. These are likely to be the main topics for discussion at next week’s meeting.

Contingency plan: Following the COVID-19 crisis and as announced in the EU’s flagship food and farming policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission has adopted a new contingency plan designed to step up coordination at European level to ensure citizens do not face food shortages during crises, with the aim to improve the resilience of the EU food supply chain, identity existing shortcomings, and put forward actions to improve preparedness at EU level. To do this, the Commission will establish a European Food Security Crisis preparedness and response Mechanism (EFSCM), a group of food supply chain experts coordinated by the Commission to exchange data, practices and strengthen coordination.

Soy ‘largest loophole’ in anti-deforestation proposal: 17 environmental and development NGOs sent a letter to Vice President Timmermans and Commissioners Dombrovskis and Sinkevicius urging them to close what they say is one of the largest loopholes in the leaked EU anti-deforestation proposal: soy animal feed from South America. “If the regulation fails to include these soybean cake imports, it would, at best, ignore half of the problem. At worst, it would become a perverse incentive for soy traders to crush all soybeans at origin and turn them into soy meal and cake for exports to the European market, wiping out any potential environmental benefit of the law,” the letter warns. 

Grub’s up: The Commission has authorised the placing on the market of a second insect, Locusta migratoria (migratory locust), as a novel food. It will be available in the form of frozen, dried and powder and is intended to be marketed as a snack or a food ingredient, in a number of food products. This authorisation comes after a stringent scientific assessment by EFSA which concluded that migratory locust is safe under the uses submitted by the applicant company.

Geographical indications: Following this week’s meeting of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Wine, Spirits and Quality Products, the geographical indication (GI) sector, represented by Association of European Regions for Products of Origin (AREPO), European Federation of Origin Wines (EFOW) and the European antenna of the World Alliance of Geographical Indications (oriGIn EU), urged the European Commission to abandon proposals that would weaken the EU’s GI policy, calling for an ambitious reform that will strengthen GIs within the Farm to Fork strategy.

On the same theme, the European Commission approved the application for inclusion of “Urueña” from Spain in the Register of Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) and “Fertőd videki sárgarépa” from Hungary in the Register of Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) this week. 

Agrifood news from the Capitals

GERMANY

German left-wing parties to back new genomic techniques (NGTs) in regional government. According to the coalition agreement for the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, presented by social democratic SPD and far-left Die Linke on Monday (8 November), the regional party branches will “demand the approval of NGTs from the federal state and the EU”. The paper argues that “in times of climate change, the knowledge-based use of NGTs is necessary”. Small farmers’ association AbL denounced the plans. “The majority of farmers and consumers still do not want any GMOs on their farms or their plates,” Helmut Peters, spokesperson of the association’s regional branch said. “The new regional government should take this seriously,” he added. The region had held elections the day of Germany’s federal elections. On the federal level, where coalition talks are still ongoing, the SPD has taken an anti-NGT stance in its electoral programme. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.DE)

FRANCE

New escalation in the “water war”. After an anti-basin demonstration that degenerated in the Marais Poitevin last weekend (6 November), political and trade union reactions have succeeded one another this week. The demonstration, which ended with the destruction of an agricultural mega-basin and violent clashes between demonstrators and the police, was heavily condemned by most French agricultural syndicates and the minister of Agriculture, Julien Denormandie. Opponents of the mega-basin project on the other hand defended their action, which according to them consisted in “dismantling” an “illegal” basin. French Green MEP Benoît Biteau spoke of an “act of civil disobedience” which was necessary to “defend the access and sharing of a vital resource”. Reacting to this new escalation, the deputy of Deux-Sèvres, Delphine Batho, sent an open letter to Mr Denormandie, asking him to put the construction of new mega-basins on hold and to organise a local referendum to put an end to the currently ongoing “infernal spiral”. ​​(Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.FR)

GREECE 

New rules on open air markets spark controversy. A draft bill on local public markets, which are a key part of Greek culture, passed last week (2 November) which aims to tighten controls on the procedures related to open-air trade. This will include authorising the competent minister to issue ministerial decisions to regulate the details on open-air trade operations. However, the move has sparked controversy, with the opposition warning about the danger of turning “the public markets into supermarkets” given that the law requires that “holders of licenses for activity in the outdoor trade are obliged to declare the beginning of business activity in the competent tax authority”. (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni| EURACTIV.gr)

POLAND

Financial penalties will not spill over to farmers. The new minister of agriculture, Henryk Kowalczyk, has said that the financial penalties imposed on the country by the CJEU for the activities of the Turów mine and the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court will not affect the Polish countryside and spill over to Polish farmers. He also took the opportunity to point out that Polish farmers today are not far from achieving the political goals of implementing the European Green Deal, with the exception of the target on organic farming, which aims to see 25% of EU agricultural land farmed organically by 2030. In Poland, the scale of organic farming is negligible today, he said, with just over 3% of land farmed organically. (Kamila Wilczyńska | EURACTIV.pl)

SLOVAKIA

The Ministry of Agriculture is going to help food producers with access to credit. A new study carried out by the European Investment Bank and the European Commission has estimated that the annual investment debt in the Slovak food sector is worth €175 million. However, the amount of money that Slovakia plans to allocate to support the food industry in the CAP strategic plan and or the cohesion policy funds is far from being able to fill this gap. The Ministry of Agriculture has therefore decided to help food producers via financial instruments. From next year, it will provide them with concessional loans, for which it will allocate €250 million from its own state assets. The state has not yet used financial instruments to support the sector, meaning farmers and food producers used commercial bank loans for investments. “Farmers will be able to use the loans to renew and modernise processing capacities, which will increase their competitiveness and bring more Slovak food to store counters,” siad Minister Samuel Vlčan. The ministry expects that with leverage effect financial instruments will pump €1.5 billion into the sector. The ministry’s proposal has yet to be approved by the national parliament. The money will be provided by private banks, and the lending will take place over a period of 10 years (2022-2031). (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)

CROATIA

2.9% rise in average prices of agricultural commodities. The average prices of agricultural produce in the April-June period of 2021 rose by 2.9% compared to the second quarter of 2020, according to the data provided by Croatia’s  national statistical office (DZS). Broken down by types of commodities, plant products’ prices increased 7.1%, while prices of livestock, poultry and animal products went down by 1.4%, which was caused in large part by a 14.7% tumble in the prices of pigs. However, prices of goods and services for current use in the second quarter increased by 16.5% compared to the same period last year, and this increase was influenced by the increase in prices in all groups of inputs, including fertilisers and animal feed. (Željko Trkanjec, Euractiv.hr)

SPAIN

Agricultural organisations Asaja, COAG and UPA have asked the Spanish minister of agriculture, Luis Planas, for an urgent meeting to address the need for a plan to stop “the critical situation that the farms are going through.” EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro has more

Events

15 November – AGRIFISH Council meeting

15-16 – FarmEurope’s Global Food Forum

16 November – Beyond Nutriscore

18 November – Interparliamentary hearing on the development of CAP strategic plans in each member state

17 November – Healthy soils for sustainable agriculture

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