The European Commission’s latest efforts to make the European food system more sustainable may risk inadvertently encouraging unsustainable farming practices elsewhere, EU agriculture ministers stressed on Monday (8 June).
Speaking via videoconference at an informal Agrifish Council hosted by the Croatian rotating presidency, farm ministers offered their views on the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, two core elements of the European Green Deal.
Several member states voiced concerns about the risk of asymmetries between the new high demands on EU producers and lower standards of imported products.
According to the Spanish minister Luis Planas, the compliance with the strategy’s goals may imply other costs for member states related to imports from third countries, whose production is not subjected to these sustainable requirements.
“We are confident that reciprocity will apply,” Planas added.
Likewise, Italy’s representative asked the Commission how it intends to ensure the harmonisation of sustainability standards at the international level in order to avoid a dangerous externalisation of unsustainable practices.
If the implementation of the strategy should cause an increase in the costs of products, this will affect competitiveness for EU foodstuff on the global stage and in the EU Single Market itself, Italy stressed.
Germany, which will hold the next EU presidency starting from July, highlighted the ambition of making the F2F a global standard to cope with these risks.
“We must avoid that production moves to other regions whose environmental standards don’t comply with our requirements,” said German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner, mentioning the deforestation linked to farming practices in non-EU countries.
Presented on 20 May, the two blueprints form the bloc’s landmark food policy aiming at radically transforming the European way of producing, distributing and consuming food by 2030.
In the informal meeting, the EU-27 ministers welcomed the overall level of ambition contained in both plans but asked the Commission for more information on how to measure results and implement the general goals.
As summarised by the Dutch representative, member states want to know more about methodology, benchmarking, baselines and financial resources in order to set their specific reduction targets.
The two strategies propose an ambitious 50% cut for the use and risk of pesticides, as well as a 50% reduction of highly hazardous pesticides, a 20% cut in fertiliser use and a 50% reduction of antibiotic use in farming and aquaculture, all by 2030 and compared to the EU’s current level.
The right balance
Ministers also raised the issue of finding the right balance between sustainability and competitiveness, ensuring that new requirements are economically valuable and feasible for farmers, as well as in line with their practical needs.
“Our farmers provide us with food security, our obligation is to provide them with economic security,” Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski told ministers on the matter.
Asked by EURACTIV in a press conference after the meeting, he recognised that the F2F goals constitute a big challenge for farmers.
“We should protect food security and farmers competitiveness, but at the same time we need more sustainable agriculture,” he added.
Wojciechowski also presented to ministers the new ‘reinforced’ Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) proposal, which included a top-up of overall €9 billion in 2018 prices for the bloc’s farming subsidies programme, together with an additional €15 billion allocated to the rural development fund in the framework of the ‘Next Generation EU’, the Commission’s €750 billion Recovery Fund.
However, according to Polish farming minister Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski, the question if this increase could meet the new environmental ambition remains, as well as the issue of lack of convergence in direct payments between Eastern and Western EU countries.
“If we continue with different support, those disparities will grow deeper after COVID-19,” he said.
Other countries expressed doubts on how the additional resources in the ‘Next Generation EU’ will be used, as they will be concentrated only in three years and are linked to the recovery from the pandemic but also to the targets set in the Green Deal.
‘Obliged’ to cope with meat
Spanish minister Luis Planas also highlighted the key social-economic role that livestock farming plays in rural areas.
“We must avoid that a very general critical voice without nuances creates problems to such a sensitive sector,” he warned.
On intensive livestock farming, Wojciechowski said the Commission’s intention is to support alternative methods of livestock and farmers who voluntarily introduce high standards of animal welfare.
He added that the Commission was obliged to propose something to reduce the level of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in livestock as a part of the Green Deal and that it will be an important topic of discussion with member states, as much as the use of pesticides and of fertilisers.
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]