Ukraine war puts EU food security into spotlight, agri sector told to brace for impact

“The consequences of this Russian aggression will have a major impact on our agri-food sector. And it will be painful, but we have to suffer that pain,” a Commission representative said. [Shutterstock]

The war in Ukraine has thrown the thorny issue of food security in the EU to the fore as the European Commission warns the EU agri-food sector to brace itself for impact, both now and in the long term.

Between the two, Ukraine and Russia account for 30% of world trade in wheat, 32% of barley, 17% corn and over 50% of sunflower oil and seeds, Michael Scannell from Commission’s DG AGRI explained during a meeting of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee on Monday (28 February).

He warned that this heavy reliance on such a turbulent part of the world would carry severe consequences for the EU’s agri-food sector.

Besides skyrocketing commodity prices for grains such as wheat, the war will also heavily impact trade in animal products, given that there is a strong bilateral trade between the EU and both countries for pig and poultry meat. 

Meanwhile, with Russia, which remains the EU’s sixth-largest trade partner, agri-food trade is focused on higher value-added processed products, such as confectionery, wines, spirits and biscuits.

“The consequences of this Russian aggression will have a major impact on our agri-food sector. And it will be painful, but we have to suffer that pain,” he concluded, standing in solidarity with Ukraine and with the decisions taken by the EU to impose sanctions on Russia

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Top European Union officials announced new EU sanctions against the central bank of Russia (CBR) on Sunday (28 February), which will severely limit the central bank’s ability to access its reserves and thus destabilise the Russian ruble.

The sentiment was echoed by MEPs, who were quick to support the Ukrainian people. 

For example, Renew Europe’s Ulrike Müller pointed out that while the EU might pay for potential consequences in euros, Ukrainians will pay with their lives. “[The EU] must be prepared to pay the price for democracy,” she stressed.

Likewise,  socialist MEP Clara Aguilera stressed that, regardless of the impact on agricultural markets, the most important thing is to “ensure that we win the battle of democracy in Europe and in Ukraine.”

However, the Commission also warned that this impact could have far-reaching consequences.

Besides the fact that it remains doubtful that trade will resume any time soon, Scannell pointed out that the war will also disrupt the sowing of crops. 

This means that the crisis is expected to “continue into the medium term,” impacting next year’s harvest, he explained. 

For members of the agriculture committee, this exemplifies the need to place a stronger emphasis on the thorny issue of food security, despite claims to the contrary.

Food security is no longer an issue in the EU, says Commissioner

Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius has cast doubt on the long-standing primacy of food security over environmental aspects in the current EU food system, suggesting that traditional concerns might give way to issues like climate change, sustainability, or biodiversity.

“In the long term, we must concentrate on food security in Europe being strengthened and reducing our dependence on Russian oil and gas,” liberal MEP Müller said.

Green MEP Martin Häusling added that the EU needs to become “independent of Russia in the years ahead, irrespective of how quickly this conflict ends and the food sector is affected.”

Meanwhile, right-wing Bert-Jan Ruissen went a step further, questioning adding fears that the EU’s flagship food and farming policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, must be rethought to ensure it will not “worsen our dependencies.”

“Isn’t it time to to take a fresh look at the Farm to Fork strategy because, in recent days, we’ve seen the will lead to more dependency in particular in foodstuffs,” he questioned.  

While the Commission’s Scannell conceded there are several ‘weak links’ in the EU’s agricultural sector, including its reliance on imported gas and fertilisers, he stressed that the Commission is taking action with key stakeholders to address these. 

He also stressed the need to recognise the sector’s strengths, highlighting that it is “hugely resilient and powerful” and has “already proven very successful in the COVID pandemic, and keeping safe, high quality, affordable food on our citizens’ tables”.

The Commission will now follow with further updates during an informal gathering of EU ministers on the same matter convened on Wednesday (2 March). 

Level of food security in the EU is not uniform, report shows

European countries performed differently in a study that measures the state of global food security, showing an internal discrepancy within the bloc that put Europe behind North America in the ranking of regions.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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