In light of Brexit, there is no doubt that the future of the EU agricultural policy will dominate discussions in Brussels in 2018. But the need for innovation and the introduction of new technologies in the sector will spark intense debates and trigger strong reactions from green NGOs.
On 29 November, the European Commission released its communication on the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
For the executive, the post-2020 CAP should provide simpler rules and a more flexible, tailor-made approach for member states and regions.
“Allowing member states greater responsibilities to choose how and where to invest their CAP funding in order to meet ambitious common goals on the environment, climate change and sustainability is the flagship initiative,” the Commission said in November.
Through this approach, the Commission says, the CAP will be able to both continue backing farmers’ income and contribute to a more sustainable development of EU agriculture.
A long-term and effective CAP
EU farmers highlight the need for sustainable and long-term policies, considering the challenging political situation both in the EU and internationally.
The lack of long-term perspective of EU policies irritates EU farmers. A recent example was the Commission’s U-turn on biofuels policy. Farmers say the constant changes in EU policies damage investors’ confidence and put their own long-term economic viability to the test.
For Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, the association of European farmers and agri-cooperatives, given the new challenges linked to the environment, security and competitiveness of the EU economy, it is clear that resourcing needs to be reviewed.
“We have strongly supported a higher level of EU budget and we welcomed the recent statement of Commissioner Günther Oettinger in this respect. Also in the CAP, we must ensure in line with the recent Commission communication that this common policy could become more effective,” Pesonen told EURACTIV.
He pointed out that the farming sector could bring substantial added value to the climate challenges, but first economic viability should be ensured.
“Application of new technologies, better functioning agri-food value chains and crucial investments to ensure the competitiveness of the sector in the eyes of the young are just some elements that we are focusing on in this field. Concretely, the Commission proposals in early summer on the CAP and MFF are of major significance,” he emphasised.
Pesonen also raised the issue of ongoing international trade negotiations, saying that Copa is supportive, provided that farmers receive fair and balanced opportunities.
“We strongly believe in our high European standards and they must be defended. This process certainly has its challenges and our farmers surely have some major concerns, for instance in the ongoing talks with Mercosur countries.”
“Luckily for us, consumers are increasingly interested in the origins of the foodstuffs they consume and in particular in how the food is produced. In the coming year, we would strengthen our communication on farmers being truly the first producers of food,” he concluded.
Another important element is the boost of smart or precision farming in order to produce more with less input, while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s impact on the environment. The executive has noted that technology will also improve food quality as well as farmers’ income.
According to the Young Farmers’ Association (CEJA), around 6% of EU farmers are aged under 35 and precision farming is seen as a good chance to attract young people and help achieve a much-needed generational renewal in the sector.
The European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA) calls for a CAP open to precision farming technologies for all, no matter the size of their operation.
“The current industry business climate shows investments in new farm equipment have been recovering in most European countries. Farmers have indeed a clear interest in accessing modern equipment with smart technologies, but it remains crucial that European farmers of all sizes have the opportunity to be profitable on a competitive world stage,” CEMA President, Richard Markwell said.
In emailed comments, Yara, a multinational fertiliser and crop nutrition company, noted that there are expectations for precision farming to be included in the ‘greening’ measures of the new CAP.
The company said that in 2018, EU member states are preparing plans to reach the targets to fulfil their commitments to the Paris agreement, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and comply with the Air Quality Directive, aiming to reduce emissions of ammonia.
“As a result of this, and in relation to fertilisers, we expect a significant push from authorities for nitrate-based fertilisers, especially the ones produced with the best available technologies, with the latest catalyst technologies,” Yara explained.
“We also see the fertiliser regulations evolving to give more flexibility to farmers using smart solutions which are environmentally friendly (i.e. the farmer can apply fertilisers in a smart way based on crop needs, following the recommendation of a precision farming solution, which will be better for the environment than just applying blindly a standardised fix nutrient amount).”
The issue of innovation in the agriculture sector will also heat up in 2018.
An EU Court decision expected by May will most likely pave the way for the legal framework of the so-called “New Plant Breeding Techniques” (NBTs).
New plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering.
For the biotech industry, the plants resulting from the new breeding techniques should not be considered genetically modified because no foreign DNA is present in their genes. They argue that these genes may just as well have developed naturally through evolution.
To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling ‘hidden’ GMOs to European farmers, one which may cost them the right to use their own seeds. Their basic argument is that all these techniques should fall under the strict GMO approval process.
The agri-food industry has urged the Commission to “show leadership” in the case. For its part, the EU executive has said that it will be waiting for the decision by the European Court of Justice, but warned that innovation in agriculture should not always be linked to the GMO discussion.