Agrifood Brief: The EU’s Trojan horse moment 

Subscribe to the Agrifood Brief to receive the latest roundup of news covering agriculture & food from across Europe.

Legend has it that the Greeks tried for over a decade to conquer the ancient city of Troy, to no avail. And so, in a devious but particularly brilliant move, they decided to build a huge wooden horse and leave it at the city gates before (seemingly) sailing away.

Believing the huge wooden horse to be a peace offering, the Trojans welcomed the horse into their city as a symbol of their victory.

But there was something else afoot (or, should I say, a-hoof – ahem).

That night, after the Trojans had gone to bed, the Greek soldiers emerged from their hiding place inside the hollow horse to open the gates of the city and let in the remainder of the Greek army, which had sailed back under the cover of night.

Taken by surprise, the Greeks were finally able to conquer Troy from the inside.

Still to this day, the term ‘Trojan horse’ is used to refer to any kind of deception or trick that involves getting a target to willingly allow an enemy to subvert from within.

So why am I talking about this Greek epic this week? Well, because it seems the EU’s agri-food sector is in the process of being infiltrated with a Trojan horse of its own – only, this time, it’s wrapped up in a pretty package called ‘food security’.

Yes, the war in Ukraine has stirred up the age-old debate of whether the EU has enough food to sustain itself.

The short answer is – yes, it does, as the Commission emphasised last week in its food security communication.

Meanwhile, to quote straight from the horse’s mouth, the Commissioner told reporters on Monday (28 March) that there is “no direct risk for food security in the EU”.

“This [war] is not the reason to be afraid about food security in the EU. Our agriculture and our food system are strong,” he said, pointing out that the bloc has a “positive trade balance” in food.

But this hasn’t stopped the EU executive from jumping on the food security bandwagon and, in doing so, shelving (or, at least pausing) some of the EU’s green ambitions.

So why the urgent focus on production if the bloc is facing no imminent food supply issues? Well, according to the Commissioner, the answer is, essentially, ‘just in case’.

“This is the 33rd day of the war, but we don’t know what will be the consequence for the Ukrainian supply of food products for the Middle East country, North African countries,” he told reporters, adding that it is n(e)igh on impossible to predict the disruption at the global level.

“Under these circumstances, it is very important to have the potential for the production of food in the EU,” he stressed.

However, he evaded a follow-up question on whether the excess produced by the bloc would be guaranteed to be channelled towards these vulnerable regions.

The Commissioner also fully rejected the idea that this was in any way giving a ‘free pass’ to those that would see the bloc’s green goals diminished.

“I don’t like this [narrative] about the agricultural lobby – the farmers want to produce, of course – this is the tool to ensure food security, this is the main obligation of the farmers and we cannot criticise them [for wanting to] produce food,” he said.

In the first signs of splintering resolve, this week the Commission decided to allow the planting of crops on land set aside as ecological focus areas.

Discussions are also heating up over a potential derogation of the EU’s nitrates directive after a proposal put forward by the Dutch delegation during a meeting of agricultural ministers on 21 March.

Incidentally, this is not the first time the Dutch have pushed for such a move but, thanks to the cover of the Ukraine war, it’s perhaps the closest to succeeding that the idea has ever come.

The EU executive insists these measures are temporary and that, long term, nothing has changed. Time will tell if these assurances are as hollow as the Trojan horse.

The thing is, shelving sustainable ambitions until a later date is like closing the stable door after the (Trojan) horse has bolted.

Because the situation is, to put it bluntly, already night-mare-ish.

This month, we’ve witnessed the warmest weather in the Antarctic on record. Droughts are already plaguing the EU this year, with talks of culling animals to cope with the lack of water in some southern member states.

As Winston Churchill put it, those that fail to learn from history (or, in this case, Greek epics) are doomed to repeat it.

Will we look back at this moment as the EU agri-food sector’s Trojan horse that took down the Green Deal? Only time will tell.

By Natasha Foote

Podcast

Agrifood Podcast: New pesticides proposal leak, food security & UN rapporteur

This week, EURACTIV is once again talking about the hot topic on everyone’s lips right now – food security – and we hear about how German companies are cashing in from the Belarus sanctions. We also discuss our thoughts about …

This week, EURACTIV is once again talking about the hot topic on everyone’s lips right now – food security – and we hear about how German companies are cashing in from the Belarus sanctions. We also discuss our thoughts about the latest draft of the Commission’s Sustainable Use of Pesticides proposal, and we are joined by Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

Agrifood stories of the week

Commissioner: EU’s sustainable food strategy ‘on pause’, but not forgotten
The war in Ukraine has “pressed the pause button” on the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, but the long term ambition for the sector remains unchanged, according to the EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. Natasha Foote has the story.

German fertiliser mining could come out on top amid Belarus embargo
While the EU has banned the import of potash, a key mineral fertiliser, from Belarus as part of the sanctions regime, test drilling for additional potash mines in Eastern Germany looks promising. Julia Dahm reports.

Commission under pressure to ease rules on nitrates use in farming
The European Commission is under increasing pressure to ease rules on nitrate use in farming allowing the use of processed manure in sensitive areas to help cope with rising fertiliser prices. Natasha Foote explains more.

Food security is back on EU leaders’ menu with a global flavour
With global pledges and initiatives to be implemented in the next few years, this week’s back-to-back NATO and European Council summits marked the return of food production as a tool of humanitarian assistance and geopolitical stabilisation. EURACTIV has you covered.

EU unveils revision of food quality scheme amid push to change the minimum
The latest revamping of the EU’s geographical indications (GIs) policy was marked as “an evolution” without substantial changes but still ruffled the feathers of food producers and some member states, who would have liked to preserve the status quo of the framework. Gerardo Fortuna has more.

EU organic sector needs market-driven solutions, national strategies, say MEPs
The European Parliament’s agriculture committee (AGRI) has green-lit a new report on the EU’s organic action plan, in which it stressed the need for market-driven solutions and more support for countries to draw up individual strategies to boost the sector. Natasha Foote has the details.

German agri minister: Sustainable farming key for independence from Russia
German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir has joined the European Commission in dubbing agriculture a security issue. Making agriculture more sustainable and resilient is an important step towards more independence from Russia, he said in an address to German lawmakers. Julia Dahm has more

Agroecology: an obstacle and a necessity for achieving food sovereignty
The war in Ukraine seems to have set aside, at least temporarily and partially, Europe’s ecological ambitions for agriculture but this could lead to challenges in achieving food sovereignty. Hugo Struna has more as part of EURACTIV’s Special Report on food sovereignty and the war in Ukraine

How the Ukraine war has impacted the French agrifood sector
Also featured in the Special Report, is this overview of how the Ukraine war has impacted the French agri-food sector. Check it out here.

CAP corner

Letter controversy: This week, the Commission sent the first batch of observation letters on the new CAP strategic plans to the 19 member states that submitted their plans within the 1 January deadline. The letters focus on strengths and weaknesses in each plan, suggesting areas for improvement. However, the move sparked backlash from stakeholders once it emerged the Commission will only make the letters public once member states have had an opportunity to read and respond to the letters. The Commissioner explained on Twitter that this is due to the fact that the strategic plan proposal was prepared before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Therefore the [European Commission’s] intention to publish the observation letters slightly later aims at giving the Member States the opportunity to comment on them,” he said.

Show me the money: In a recent EURACTIV quiz, only 58.8% of respondents correctly identified how much of the EU’s budget is devoted to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), while just under two-thirds knew which of the CAP financial instruments is the largest. In this infographic, EURACTIV breaks down exactly how much money will head where over the next CAP period.

News from the bubble

AGRIFISH Council – what’s on the menu? Next week’s AGRIFISH Council meeting will involve both Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides as well as Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. Besides the adoption of conclusions on the sustainable carbon cycles communication, the meeting will also see an exchange of views on the revision of the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) regulation as well as the Commission’s recently published communication on safeguarding food security and reinforcing the resilience of food systems. Ministers will also discuss the market situation in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, while the Commission will present its proposal to revise the geographical indications scheme and the presidency will provide information about the Council’s ongoing work on vaccination against highly pathogenic avian influenza.

FARM: the French initiative to avoid the global food crisis:  Although it is still in the making, we now know a little more about the French initiative, FARM (Food on Agriculture Resilience Mission), launched by Emmanuel Macron at the G7 on 24 March, which sets out to preempt an upcoming global food crisis in the context of the war in Ukraine. FARM aims to bring the producer and exporting countries and the most vulnerable countries around the same table to agree on a package of measures to avoid the worst-case scenario. The three main priorities include:
Trade. Macron’s priority is to limit tensions in the markets by encouraging exports (and therefore production) and by being transparent about available stocks. The idea is to facilitate exports from the countries that have the most to those that need them.
Solidarity. If there is a large-scale shortage, a solidarity mechanism, carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP), for vulnerable countries must be set in motion quickly.
Investment. Some countries depend on Russian-Ukrainian imports for more than 50% of grain, such as Egypt (60%). The initiative sets out to help increase vulnerable countries’ production capacity to reduce their dependence in a sustainable way.

Pesticides snapshot: EFSA’s latest annual report on pesticide residues in food covers more than 88,000 food samples collected in the European Union in 2020. Analysis of the results shows that 94.9% of samples fell within legally permitted levels. For the subset of 12,077 samples analysed as part of the EU-coordinated control programme (EU MACP), 98.2% were within legal limits.

GMO imports approval: This week the Commission authorised three genetically modified crops (1 soybean, 1 oilseed rape and 1 cotton) and renewed the authorisation for one genetically modified cotton crop used for food and animal feed. According to a statement, all of these GMOs have gone through a comprehensive and stringent authorisation procedure, including a favourable scientific assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The authorisation decisions do not cover cultivation but only the import. Learn more.

Rent prices: According to data on agricultural land rents, published by Eurostat this week, in 2020, renting agricultural land was the cheapest in Slovakia, with a hectare costing an average of €57 for the year, although the cheapest regions in the EU for renting agricultural land were Central Norrland and Upper Norrland in Sweden (both €34 per year), while the highest rent prices were recorded in the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (on average €1,714 per hectare), approximately twice the national average.

Ukraine welcomed into the fold: The Commission started negotiations with Ukraine on Thursday (31 March) to offer the country the possibility to join the LIFE programme for climate and environment. By joining the LIFE programme, Ukraine will be able to benefit from financing to help restore its environment after the destruction brought about by the Russian invasion, be it pollution, destruction of ecosystems, or other long-term effects.

Antibiotic resistance: Antibiotic resistance in Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria is still high, according to a report released this week by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Campylobacteriosis was the most reported zoonosis in the EU in 2020 and the most frequently reported cause of foodborne illness, but the campylobacter bacteria from humans and poultry continue to show very high resistance to ciprofloxacin, a fluoroquinolone antibiotic, that is commonly used to treat some types of bacterial human infection.

Agrifood news from the CAPitals

SLOVAKIA

Slovak PM urges EU to send seeds to Ukrainian farmers. Ukrainian farmers are now entering the sowing period and the European Union must help them with seeds to avoid a global food shortage, Prime Minister Eduard Heger (OĽaNO) stressed on Tuesday after meeting with a Ukrainian delegation. Read more.

FRANCE

French president-hopefuls pitch ideas for generational renewal. With half of France’s farmers set to retire within the next ten years, generational renewal is a key challenge for the country’s farming sector. Ahead of this month’s presidential election, the different candidates have pitched a range of measures to tackle the problem. Get all the info here.

GERMANY

Study bemoans lack of protected areas for insects. Insect biodiversity is waning because they do not find enough spaces to retreat in Germany’s agricultural landscapes, a new study commissioned by environmental NGO NABU warns. According to the report, biodiversity loss can often be found even in protected areas. One reason for this, according to the researchers, is that these areas are often very small and directly border farmed land. Through these borders, fertilisers and pesticides can often protrude into the nature protection areas, the study finds. “To restore biodiversity, we need sufficiently large protection areas where agricultural use and environmental protection are coordinated,” NABU president Jörg-Andreas Krüger concluded.

SPAIN

Spain allows crop production on fallow land. Up to 600,000 hectares of fallow land in Spain can now be used for pasture or cultivation according to a decision adopted by the government on Tuesday (29 March) in an effort to ramp up food production. The step is set to implement a proposal made by the European Commission in its recent communication on food safety in the face of the war in Ukraine. EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro has more.

AUSTRIA

Austrian farmers welcome digitalisation efforts. The country’s farmers union has welcomed the government’s step to invest another € 1,4 billion in expanding broadband networks in Austria. “The broadband infrastructure is the basis for the digitalisation of rural areas and thus decisive for their future,” the organisation’s director, Norbert Totschnig, said. So far, less than half of households in Austria have access to a broadband connection. With the additional funds, the government wants to tackle this issue.

LUXEMBOURG

Luxembourg is now free from avian flu. After three months without any new cases, the government now officially considers Luxembourg free from avian flu. The news comes as many countries in Europe still struggle with outbreaks of the illness among poultry. According to the agricultural ministry, the preventive quarantine measures put in place at the end of last year will now be lifted, although the ministry still calls on all actors to respect biosecurity measures.

ROMANIA

Fertiliser producer restarts production. Azomures, Romania’s largest fertiliser producer, announced plans to restart production after the European Commission said member states may grant aid to companies working in the field. Get the full story here.

GREECE

Greece has sufficient stocks of agri commodities. Raw materials are available but the market needs some time to regulate itself and to deal with the high prices, the country’s minister of rural development and food, Georgios Georgantas, stressed in an interview on Thursday (24 March). “Our goal is to strengthen the primary sector, to support the farmers to continue to produce. If farmers continue to produce, we have nothing to worry about,” the minister said. (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni| EURACTIV.gr)

CROATIA

Pork prices are expected to increase further over the Ukraine war. The EU still cannot predict how much pork prices will go up because of uncertainties in the global market, but a price shock is expected, the Croatian Chamber of Agriculture (HPK) said. Prices are expected to increase soon for the sake of the survival of the sector, given that input prices have sharply increased globally and the production at present is untenable, the chamber explained. In Croatia, pig farming makes up an important share of agricultural production, accounting for 25% of its value in 2020. Croatians annually consume about 50 kilograms of pork per capita, far more than any other type of meat. The level of self-sufficiency of own pork production is around 65 per cent and a further decrease is expected because of the present trends, as the number of pigs in the country is decreasing. (Željko Trkanjec, Euractiv.hr)

Events

4-7 April | European Parliament’s plenary in Strasbourg

4 April | European Parliament AGRI Committee meeting, including a dialogue with Commissioner Wojciechowski

4 April | EIT Food online course: Trust in Our Food

6 April | AGRIFISH Council meeting – Luxembourg (see above for agenda)

8 April | Meeting of the FAO Council on the impact of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on global food security

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe