Sustainability goals in the agrifood sector are achievable but risk being undermined by weak trade policies, a new assessment by the European Commission’s in-house scientists has found.
The long-awaited report, carried out by researchers from the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and published 11 August, explored the potential impact of the reform of the EU’s farming subsidy programme, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), on the sector with respect to selected environmental indicators, production, income, prices and trade.
Specifically, it focused on the impact of four selected targets of two flagship EU policies, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy and the Biodiversity strategy, deemed to have the greatest potential to affect agricultural environment and production.
While it highlighted the “magnitude” of the challenge the sector will face in the environmental transition, the report found that sustainability targets, including boosting organic farming and reducing the use of agrochemicals, are within reach.
These strategies, coupled with the new CAP, the report concluded, could see a 28.4% reduction in GHG emissions from the agricultural sector by 2030.
It also stressed that the design of member states’ national CAP strategic plans underpins the scale of the success of the sustainable transition.
Through these national plans, countries will set out how they intend to meet the nine EU-wide objectives using CAP instruments as part of an attempt to facilitate a more flexible and targeted approach to the CAP.
“Although the new CAP proposed by the Commission has the potential to drive forward the Green Deal, due attention needs to be paid to safeguards in the final co-decision and to how the implementation of legislation is undertaken both by the Commission and the member states,” the report warned.
It added that the efficiency of the payments and appropriately developed strategic plans for the member states will become “decisive factors in the success rates of the strategies”.
Jabier Ruiz, senior agricultural policy officer at WWF’s European office, said the report “puts the ball back in the member states’ court”, adding that the study “clearly demonstrates that the Farm to Fork targets are realistic, provided that the political will is there to make them happen.”
While stressing that it is not an official impact assessment but a ‘technical report’, the report comes on the back of mounting calls from stakeholders for a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the EU’s green goals, some of whom warn that these may imperil the food and economic security of the sector.
EU farmer’s association COPA-COGECA, for example, flagged concern over the report’s conclusions for the future of agricultural production in the EU.
Pointing to the conclusions that, whatever the scenario, the achievement of sustainability goals would result in declines in production ranging from 5-15% across all sectors, with the livestock sectors being hit the hardest, the association warned this would result in an “unprecedented reduction of EU production capacity and of its farmers’ income”.
It added that this also runs the risk of so-called ‘carbon leakage’.
“The largest part of the reduction in agricultural emissions achieved through these strategies will be erased by a sustainability leakage to third countries resulting from this loss in production,” the association said.
The secretary-general of COPA-COGECA, Pekka Pesonen, stressed that if the EU does not want to organise the relocation of part of its agriculture to third countries, it must be “as ambitious in its trade policy as it is with its in-house strategies”.
“This great discrepancy will be unbearable for our farmers and cooperatives in the long run,” he said, warning of an “ever-widening gap in practices and competitiveness with our international competitors”.
The report conceded that a significant part of the gains in terms of emissions in the EU is leaked to other world regions, and called for further analysis on the targets and the models which take international agreements and non-EU countries commitments to reduce GHG emissions into account.
However, it also pointed out that leakage could be further reduced if lower demand for meats was achieved with changes in diets or with reduced food waste that would limit the need for imports to substitute the reduced domestic production.
“Let’s remember that one-fifth of EU food goes to waste and two-thirds of our cereal production is used for animal feed, so this trade-off could be easily absorbed without significant impacts on the food system,” WWF’s Ruiz said, adding that any reduction in yields would be “negligible” in the context of the EU’s overall consumption and production.
CropLife Europe, representing the crop industry, warned that the sector “continues to lack good data around the choices involved in making [sustainability goals] happen”.
The association, alongside several others in the agri-food chain, has commissioned Wageningen University to conduct an impact assessment on the F2F reduction targets and the results are expected later this year.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]