This article is part of our special report The future EU livestock sector.
A lively but polarised debate between farmers and an environmental organisation exposed barely-concealed tensions between stakeholders over livestock farming, which could colour the political agenda of the next EU legislative term.
The place of meat in our diets and the public opinion’s involvement in understanding modern livestock farming were at the core of this year’s conference of the association AnimalhealthEurope, which represents the European animal medicines industry.
The ‘Food & Farming: well-fed or fed up?’ conference offered a hint of potentially heated conflict among stakeholders just before the kick-off of a new EU legislative term.
It started when panellist Ariel Brunner, head of policy at BirdLife Europe, spoke in favour of a revolution in the sustainability of farming.
“We’ve gone so far on the consumption and production side that the only way forward is to eat less but better,” he said, repeating a key mantra of the agroecology approach to the livestock sector.
But the charges he levelled against the “world’s biggest system of farm subsidies”, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), triggered a harsh reaction from the farmers’ lobby COPA-COGECA.
“We have to admit we have a system that it is a failure and it is literally killing the planet,” Brunner said, also criticising how farmers are lobbying their arguments in the post-2020 CAP talks.
COPA-COGECA’s panellist Paula de Vera replied that farmers are aware of the climate change and are also committed to helping fight it.
She said that farmers are the first ones affected by the climate crisis. “We are losing crops availability, as well as waters and quality feeds for animals”.
COPA-COGECA’s main message was that farmers are part of the solution and not the problem, and that they could help make farming more sustainable.
From the audience, another COPA-COGECA representative agreed on the need for a revolution in the sector but asked Brunner when NGOs were going to recognise the hard work done by farmers.
Birdlife’s Brunner pointed out that the problem is not with farmers but with the current EU policy and added that the next CAP could actually be a driver of change in the ecological transition.
Sustainability and role of consumers
At the conference, Henning Steinfeld from FAO, the UN agency for food, delivered a speech on how livestock can make a wider contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
According to him, the world is experiencing a mismatch between growing demand and environmental degradation, whose symptoms are climate change and biodiversity loss.
The FAO is encouraging the production and consumption of low-carbon foods and reducing emission intensities by better-integrating livestock into the circular bio-economy concept.
Europe is, however, considered in a different way by the UN agency, said Steinfield, as there is a stable demand, strong consumer awareness but also robust animal health and a working EU traceability framework.
Steinfeld added that good animal health, in particular, can have a positive impact on sustainability both in reducing climate change and the use of antimicrobials, which is causing a growing threat of superbugs.
The secretary-general of Euro Coop, an association of consumers’ cooperatives, Todor Ivanov, raised the idea of a Common Food Policy with a focus on the quality of the food we eat as well as on how to educate and nudge consumers towards a healthier and more balanced diet.
“Consumers need to look at their actions, as half of the food is thrown away at home,” he said speaking about the plague of food waste that could be addressed through greater awareness.
The issue of livestock will be an important issue in the next legislative term as the EU-policymakers are called to negotiate and close the file of the next Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), possibly before the end of the current programmatic period in 2020.
On 14 February, the European Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) voted an opinion on CAP reforms supporting more funding for ecological farming and more cuts for intensive animal farms, asking to put the criteria of livestock density among the conditions for granting subsidies.
The appointment of the next Agriculture Commissioner and the composition of the next AGRI parliamentary committee will be crucial in this sense.
While it is too early to discuss the Agriculture Commissioner, the newly-formed nationalist group Identity and Democracy (ID) has already claimed the char of the Agriculture committee.
However, in the past, pro-European political groups have tended to unite against far-right groups that will keep them away from any high-level roles in the Parliament, AGRI could be chaired by a socialist, as liberals, Christian-democrats, conservatives and greens will already each have a vice-chair.
In that case, everything points to two experienced MEPs; the Italian Paolo De Castro, who already chaired the committee, or the French Eric Andrieu.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]