The Green Deal must remain a key priority of the agricultural sector in spite of the war in Ukraine, according to Czech agriculture minister Zdeněk Nekula, who is preparing to take over the reins as chair of the EU Agrifish Council in July.
“We cannot focus all the time on increasing the production but we have to add other aspects, the environment and other areas,” the minister told journalists in a press briefing on Wednesday (25 May).
As the Czech Republic takes over the rotating EU Council presidency in July, Nekula will chair meetings of the agriculture ministers until the end of the year.
“Basically speaking, we cannot resign from the Green Deal. The Green Deal is not dead,” he emphasised, adding that “if we want to eat healthy food, if we want to drink pure water, we have to change our approach and the way we perceive our nature, our landscape”.
The Green Deal is a sweeping set of policy initiatives that aims to make the EU climate neutral in 2050.
For example, the minister, who is also an avid beekeeper, said he was a strong supporter of the EU’s ambition to see 25% of agricultural land farmed organically by 2030, adding that the Czech Republic will focus on tools that help increase demand for organic produce, such as via green procurement for schools and public canteens.
However, he conceded that although the goals of the Green Deal must remain unchanged in the long term, it is “nevertheless of imminent importance to react to certain things”.
“We have to see what is the current situation, we have to see the war in Ukraine related to the impact of, for instance, soaring prices of energy of fertilisers and other commodities,” he said.
For Nekula, a good example of tackling both food security and nature management aspects come from precision farming, through which farmers would be able to reduce the volume of inputs such as pesticides and maintain production levels.
“Precision farming is the future of European agriculture and a topic I would like to push forward [during the Czech EU presidency],” he said, adding that this concept address both short-term and long-term approaches.
Cancel Babiš’s heritage
Nekula was appointed as farm minister in January in the centre-right Petr Fiala’s cabinet, which stressed from the very beginning its aim to “get away from the previous government, which applied to a large extent highly populist approach – sometimes even not clever enough from the economic point of view.”
According to the new Czech minister, this populist approach was mainly reflected in the way the country dealt with farming subsidies at the national and European levels.
The previous government was headed by the controversial Andrej Babiš, an agri-food tycoon whose Agrofert Holding is a major recipient of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds, the EU’s farming subsidies programme.
Nekula called for a ‘new style’ in agricultural issues “to swing the pendulum in another direction,” moving away from the previous approach that favoured larger companies and larger businessmen over the smaller ones.
The current version of Czechia’s national strategic plan – which also influences the EU’s agricultural subsidies distribution in the countries for the coming years – was drafted by the Babiš government.
The new government’s intention is to align the plan with its own coalition agreement, which included reducing subsidies for large agricultural companies among its priorities.
Targeted action needed on food prices
Despite reserving staunch criticism for the EU’s focus on food production in the face of the Ukraine war, the minister said he did not support the idea of slashing VAT rates on foodstuffs.
This idea was put forward by the Commission in its communication on food security as a way to help people cope with skyrocketing food prices.
“Right now we should not move the VAT around foodstuffs too much to ensure the stability of budgets,” the minister said.
Instead, EU countries should focus on providing “targeted assistance” to help the most vulnerable populations, he said.
This includes pensioners and the elderly, Nekula explained, citing examples from the Czech Republic which has recently increased pensions and offered a one-off payment to support families with children below the age of 18.
No support for Nutri-score
While the priorities of the Czech EU Council Presidency are yet to be officially presented, the minister gave an indication of some of the key themes during his time at the helm of the AGRIFISH Council, which will coincide with the European Commission’s proposal on front-of-pack labelling, expected towards the end of the year.
Asked for his opinion on the controversial issue, Nekula reserved strong criticism for the currently most widespread system, known as the ‘Nutri-score’.
“I am not enthusiastic about the traffic light system of the Nutri-score,” he said, adding that he instead prefers the ‘Nutri-inform’ approach taken by Italy, which he called “much better”.
The Nutri-Score is a nutrition label that converts the nutritional value of products into a code consisting of five letters, from A to E, each with its own colour.
It has proven controversial, particularly in Europe’s South, which has put forward an alternative, battery-shaped system known as the ‘Nutri-inform’.
Asked about this stance, the minister voiced some criticism that echoed Italy’s main stance and mentioned, for example, that if you “compare olive oil and coke applying this Nutri-score approach, paradoxically, coke would be more healthy than olive oil.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]