Agrifood Brief: Trade t(r)ussle

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COMING SOON: Be sure to look out for EURACTIV’s live blog next week bringing you the latest on the CAP reform negotiations as they happen.

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33- EU's agri boss, CAP negotiator, #finalCAPdown (again)

 

This week: EURACTIV speaks to the EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski ahead of next week’s pivotal CAP reform negotiations about the the thorny issues that remain to be hashed out, how he sees his role and his relationship with the EU farming community, and his vision for the future of farming beyond this CAP reform. We also speak with Ulrike Müller, CAP rapporteur for horizontal regulations, about her expectations for next week’s discussions

Much like a rebellious teenager going it alone for the first time, the UK is looking to distance itself as much as possible from its old family and say g’day to their cool new friends. But could farmers be the sacrificial lamb at the altar of independence?

That’s the big question this week, which has seen a t(r)ussle between UK farmers and their government over the looming trade deal between London and Australia.

In one corner, we have trade secretary Liz Truss, who, backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, aims to seal the trade deal in the coming weeks before opening talks with Canada and Mexico.

It seems that Truss is pushing to give Australian products complete tariff- and quota-free access to the UK market, phased in over 10-15 years.

But her assurances that the deal would open up a key market and pave the way for growth in exports across Asia have done nothing to placate farmers, who fear they will be hung high and dry if the agreement scraps tariffs and quotas on beef and lamb imports and other produce.

A fair concern, given that a key aim of Australian trade policy is to get its agricultural products, such as beef, lamb, dairy and wheat, into markets it’s currently locked out of.

Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, cautioned that ministers “need to make sure concessions to our hugely valuable home market are not given away lightly.”

“There is a very real risk that, if we get it wrong, UK farming will suffer irreversible damage,” she warned, adding this will be to the detriment of “our environment, our food security and our rural communities”.

“The British government faces a choice. It must recognise that opening up zero-tariff trade on all imports of products such as beef and lamb means British farming, working to its current high standards, will struggle to compete.”

While Environment secretary George Eustice purportedly shares the concerns, he continues to toe the government’s line, telling The New European this week that there was a “balance to be struck” between opening up trade and protecting domestic industries.

“We think there are great opportunities, we’re very keen, for instance, to pursue trade agreements with Australia and also with the United States and with other countries as well,” he said.

It’s worth pointing out that the deal would be one of the first the UK has struck since leaving the EU’s single market at the start of this year.

As such, it shoulders an extra burden of being a symbol of the UK’s newfound independent status.

It’s been suggested by some that there may be more hearts at play here than minds, as rumour has it that Truss and Johnson argue that a softer trade deal wouldn’t seem like a large enough divergence from EU policy.

As the old adage goes, an idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you.

So the question is – which is it?

Is the UK trussed up in ideology? And does this ideology behind Brexit trump farmers and consumers interests?

As Dmitry Grozoubinski, former Australian trade negotiator and executive director at the Geneva Trade Platform for the Graduate Institute of Geneva, remarked, “performative divergence” from the EU is a “stupid basis” on which to make any kind of policy.

“Offer Australia tariff and quota-free access if you want to, but only if it makes sense for the UK, not to prove you’re nothing like your father,” he pointed out. Indeed.

“If the UK wants to remove all tariffs for Australian goods, it should do so because it has made a policy decision on the merits, the precedent, and fully considered the impacts on farmers (and put plans in place to mitigate),” he continued, adding that insecurity about Brexit is “no basis for policy”.

Agriculture is usually protected in trade deals and, as a notorious sticking point in any free trade deal, usually the last chapter to be finalised.

This may be partly because, as I have previously pointed out, farming is so much more than just another industry. It is central to how so many societies function and orientate themselves.

Or it might be because, as David Henig, UK director for the European centre for international political economy, suggested, farmers have a “large supply of smelly stuff and tractors with which to dump it outside any administrative building of their choice”. (He was keen to point out that this was “absolutely not an endorsement”).

This is also not a suggestion, but I’ll just leave that there.

Stories of the week

CAP rapporteur: Negotiators have ‘responsibility’ to offer farmers full package deal
As talks on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) approach crunch time, EURACTIV’s agrifood team spoke with Renew Europe’s Ulrike Müller, rapporteur on the CAP horizontal regulation, to hear her take on the current state of play and her expectations for next week’s discussions between the Parliament, Council, and the Commission.

Greta’s army turns again to EU Parliament to scrap the CAP
Young climate activists trying to halt the reform of the EU’s farming subsidies programme will turn their focus back to the European Parliament after their best ally, the Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, made clear his hands are tied on this dossier. Gerardo Fortuna has the story.

Harmful ‘forever’ chemicals widespread in EU fast food packaging, warns new report
The use of persistent and health-harming PFAS chemicals in disposable food packaging remains widespread across Europe, according to a new report, which highlights the role of regulation in reducing exposure to these chemicals. Natasha Foote has the story.

EU’s dismissal of crop-based biofuels will impede transport decarbonisation: industry
The EU’s decision to cap the share of crop-based biofuels in the bloc’s energy mix risks hampering efforts to decarbonise the transport sector, industry has warned ahead of the revision of the renewable energy directive. Sean Goulding has the story.

EU farmers chief: Commission is ‘ultra-orthodox’ on biofuels’ sustainability
The European Commission’s insistence on capping conventional biofuels is “ultra-orthodox” as it deprives farmers of a potential market outside the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) while simultaneously hindering agriculture’s environmental potential, the head of EU farmers’ association told EURACTIV in an interview.

Expert: ‘Climate natives’ should be at the centre of EU’s Farm to Fork strategy
Europe’s vision of the future of food systems needs to be improved with a focus on young generations, who will be putting into practice the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), according to Riccardo Valentini, a prominent agricultural expert, who warned that “everything in this transition that is done without young people is a waste of money”. Learn more.

News from the bubble

Farm to Fork marks first anniversary: This week saw the one year anniversary of the EU’s flagship food policy, Farm to Fork strategy. Agricultural stakeholders, including EU farmers association COPA-COGECA, wrote a joint letter outlining why they “cannot celebrate” its anniversary because the strategy “still raises too many questions in the European farming and agri-food community”.  “Let’s be perfectly clear, we are not opposed in essence to the approach proposed within the Farm to Fork strategy or the Green Deal. We are all conscious that our food system must integrate further measures to improve its sustainability as fast as possible while maintaining the highest quality standards and food affordability,” the letter reads.

Meanwhile, as the European Parliament prepares its own-initiative report to the EU Farm to Fork Strategy, civil society organisations in the areas of environment, food systems, animal welfare and health have come together to set out 10 key priorities which they call on MEPs to endorse in their report.

End the Cage Age: The EU Parliament’s Agriculture Committee voted in favour of a resolution calling for a ban on cages for farmed animals on Friday (21 May). The resolution is due to be voted on by Parliament during the first plenary session in June.

Fishy business: NGOs sent a letter this week to Environment Commissioner Sinkevičius in response to  a European Commission representative who stated that “when you as consumers go to your local fishmonger or retailer, and you choose a certain fish, you have a 99% chance that the fish you have bought on that day actually comes from a sustainable source”. The letter argues that this statement is “not only misleading, but far from the truth” and represents a hurdle on the path to improving the sustainability of fisheries in the EU. “How can we ever end overfishing if the Commission acts like this has already been achieved, when according to the STECF the progress is too slow or in some cases even regressing?” the letter questions.


World bee day – On the occasion of International Bee Day, EFSA has upped its efforts to help reverse the decline of insect pollinators in Europe by proposing a new approach to the environmental risk assessment (ERA) of honey bees. A new scientific opinion, requested by the European Parliament’s Committee for the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), sets out an integrated, holistic framework for assessing the combined effects of multiple stressors on honey bees, known as MUST-B.

A buzz about nothing? Commenting on the International Bee Day, Green MEP and pharmacist Jutta Paulus said that the European Commission and EU member states “must finally implement the recommendations of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for the protection of pollinators”. Nearly four-fifths of wildflowers and crops in the European Union rely on insect pollination, she pointed out, adding that just last summer, the European Court of Auditors sounded the alarm that current EU measures to protect bees and other wild pollinators have been largely ineffective. But nothing has happened since then, Paulus said. “Misguided agricultural policies and inactive EU member states, including Germany, continue to drive the extinction of our bees,” she stressed.

Gene-editing research: Researchers in the UK have applied to the government for a licence to carry out field trials of gene edited (GE) wheat, according to Farming UK. The plan is for a five-year project ending in 2026, with plants being sown in September or October each year and harvested the following September. The new project involves wheat in which the concentration of an amino acid called asparagine has been reduced in the grain using CRISPR, a GE technique. The move comes amid heated debate over the future of the technology in the EU.

On the same topic, a new report was released this week on the socio-economic and environmental values of plant breeding in the EU and for selected EU member states.

Illegal deforestation: A new study released this week found that at least 69% of the tropical forests destroyed for agricultural commodities between 2013 and 2019 was done so illicitly, in violation of national laws and regulations. This marks an increase by one-third in the unlawful clearing of tropical forests for commercial agriculture since Forest Trends first quantified the crisis in 2014.

Geographical indications: The European Commission has approved the registration of “Pesca di Delia” from Italy and “Nagykun Rizs” from Hungary in the register of protected geographical indications (PGI).

 

Agrifood news from the Capitals

SPAIN
The Spanish agriculture minister, Luis Planas, has called next week’s AGRIFISH Council “decisive” in closing the CAP reform negotiations. EURACTIV’s partner EFEAgro reports.

GERMANY
The German government has agreed on a draft for a new climate law, including more ambitious new sectoral targets for agriculture and forestry. According to the proposal, the agricultural sector would have to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to 56 million tons by 2030, compared to 58 million foreseen in the current legislation. “The new sectoral targets for agriculture are ambitious, but I think they are feasible,” agricultural minister Julia Klöckner said. “To reach the goals, appropriate supporting measures and financial aids will be necessary,” she added. Stakeholders’ reactions to the plans were mixed: Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers’ Association, said the proposed changes “put into question the role of food security and exacerbate Germany’s import dependency”. Environmental NGO BUND, on the other hand, called for more ambitious GHG reduction targets in agriculture. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

ROMANIA
More than 800,000 Romanian farmers have asked for EU support for 9.82 million hectares, an area slightly higher than in the previous year. However, the number of aid applications declined by 24,000 to about 803,000. “Thus, we have confirmation that farmers are more and more aware of the significance of land consolidation to increase productivity and competitiveness,” the Romanian farming payments agency APIA said in a news release. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

FRANCE
Food sovereignty remains high on France’s political agenda. During an online event on food sovereignty this Tuesday (May 18th), the French minister of Agriculture and Food, Julien Denormandie, stressed the importance of extricating the country from a number of “dependencies”. “There is no strong nation without a strong agrifood chain”, he stressed. Food sovereignty is a question of independence from imports, of protection from lesser production standards and finally, of national identity, the minister stated. A stronger competitiveness of the French agrifood sector, scientific research to tackle the challenges of climate change and a better pay for farmers are essential, according to Denormandie, to guarantee a generational renewal and thus the continuity of French agrifood production and autonomy. (Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)

IRELAND
Food waste reduction projects are in line to receive almost €180,000 of funding under the Rural Innovation and Development Fund, according to agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue in an attempt to reduce food waste generated by food businesses, retailer/wholesalers, or suppliers. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

ITALY
On Thursday (20 May), Italy’s Senate approved a draft law on organic farming with 195 votes in favour, 1 against and 1 abstained. The new national framework for organic production now needs the final go-ahead from the Lower House. According to the chair of the Senate’s agriculture committee, the law does not offer a privileged status organic farming, but is complementary to the so-called integrated agriculture. The new framework also will establish a label for Italian organic production as well as creating degree programmes for this agricultural practice. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

UK
The UK government has launched its consultation into the administration of direct payments and a lump sum exit payment for farmers who may be looking to leave the industry, effectively incentivising the retirement of older farmers to bring new blood into the profession. Speaking about the plans, National Farmers Union (NFU) Vice President Tom Bradshaw highlighted the “push” also required a “pull”. “Any discussion around people exiting the industry must be coupled with how we attract new people into agriculture,” he said, adding that it is “crucial” that the schemes announced today work in a coherent way with schemes such as the New Entrant Scheme and Future Farm Resilience Fund to ensure British farming has a thriving workforce for generations to come. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

BELGIUM
There are about 1700 urgent vacancies at the moment for harvesting fruit and vegetables, according to the Flemish Employment and Vocational Training Service, VDAB, who highlighted the need for people to help our farmers and horticulturists overcome the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic. “This way, the food supply is not compromised, you gain extra experience and you earn a little extra,” they said, highlighting that help is needed for planting, harvesting and sorting. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

NETHERLANDS
Dutch vegetable seed breeder Bejo has entered into a non-exclusive research and commercial license agreement with global agriculture company Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a U.S.-based biomedical and genomic research centre, to allow access to CRISPR-Cas9 intellectual property for genome editing for agricultural use. This will allow research work and programmes as well as potential future commercial applications. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

Events

Starting 24 May – A new e-learning course on best practices in short food supply chain innovations will begin

25-26 May – There is the ‘jumbo’ trilogue on the CAP reform

26-27 May – The AGRIFISH Council will take place

27 May – There is a webinar on technological innovations for the agroecological transition

28 May – There is an event “Tradition and transition: sustainability at the heart of geographical indications”.

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