Sustainable food production concerns us all

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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Ricardo Gomez Angel [@ripato]

The recent COVID-19 crisis has significantly changed the way we all work and live. As we’ve all been restricted to a life of lockdown and quarantine, it has reminded us that we still live in an unpredictable world and how challenging it has been to find some stability in our lives.

During this crisis, farmers did not fail us. They have continued to work despite the pandemic and have provided us with healthy, affordable food. I have often heard that COVID-19 exposed the fragility of our agriculture production and I could not disagree more.

The farming sector has proved to be resilient even when the odds were stacked against it. Supermarket shelves in Europe have been replenished and citizens have still had access to food. And we should all be thankful for this.

What COVID-19 has allowed us to understand is that cooperation, solidarity and working together makes us stronger. What is clearer to me more than ever is that we need to unite behind a common goal.

When looking at food production we need to work with all relevant stakeholders if we want to produce enough food sustainably. We cannot continue to meet our future challenges by relying on our past practices. We need to find innovative solutions together, leaving no one behind.

Farm to Fork and the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy give us that opportunity. Our industry welcomes the recently published strategies. We will support measures that would be based on science, embracing new technologies and digitalization, and that will, hopefully, not put any unnecessary pressure on Europe’s food supply or jeopardise food security.

Concretely what does that mean for the sector that I represent? Our industry is open and ready to discuss reduction targets that are realistic, based on pragmatism, proportionality and scientific evidence. We cannot and should not compromise our food security and the viability of European agriculture by imposing targets on our producers that are unattainable.

Innovation is a key part of the solution

We are a sector rooted in science and driven by innovation. Over the past decades our sector has continuously evolved by setting ambitious objectives, from individual commitments by some of our members to decrease their carbon footprint on manufacturing sites, to spearheading an industry-wide transparency initiative providing access to our safety studies submitted during the approval process, not to mention the core of our research into ever-greener pesticides and substances of natural origin.

To stay one step ahead of pests, weeds and diseases is a perennial challenge for any farmer and it is at the core of our business. For instance, thanks to advances in crop protection products, today it takes an average of just 75 grams of active ingredient or less to protect an entire hectare of crops from weeds. On average, that is a 97% reduction compared to the 1960s.

We have also advanced in developing biopesticide solutions. With nature as a starting point we have a great opportunity to innovate with products of favourable toxicological, safety profiles, with low residue levels and rapid degradation. Whilst these products can reduce the need for chemical pesticides, they are not likely to completely replace conventional chemistry.

This is not to say that our job is finished, we will continue to progress and offer even more innovative biological and chemical crop protection tools. We are already seeing how new technologies like digital farming are lessening agriculture’s ecological footprint.

Of course, we must be cautious of promising over-simplified solutions to problems that are inevitably complex. Innovation, however, takes time. It is a long journey. One that goes beyond a target of 2030.

That is why I believe that targets alone are not the solution. For instance, one of the Commission’s proposals includes an increase of land set aside for organic cultivation. We support the Commission’s aim to increase organic production in order to meet growing consumer demand.

However, we consider that a specific target should only be set after an impact assessment has taken place as it is important to balance the ecological trade-offs, such as lower yields and their impact on land-use inside and outside the European Union. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Stimulating sustainability in farming should be focused on farm performance rather than on farm type. We must help farmers big and small meet consumer demand while protecting and using less of the Earth’s limited natural resources.

We believe that a truly holistic approach is needed to balance these tensions and achieve the required climate action whilst preserving farmers’ capacity to produce enough safe and healthy food in a sustainable manner. Rather than focusing on isolated targets, let’s establish the biodiversity and food systems objectives that, collectively, we really want to achieve.

#StrongerTogether

Therefore, when speaking about farming sustainably, as set out in the Farm to Fork strategy we must look for solutions that would embrace the best of what agricultural and ecological science has to offer while not leaving anyone behind and taking collective responsibility for the outcome.

Farming’s future belongs to all of us. We all share the same goal – a more sustainable agriculture – for our planet, for our children. The new strategy should bring us together to look for innovative solutions and not set us apart with arbitrary targets. This requires an open and trustful dialog and co-operation among all stakeholders.

We are ready to play our part and invest in providing sustainable solutions to protect crops. One thing that doesn’t change is the presence of pests, weeds and diseases – regardless of the farming method or dare I say it, political pressure– they won’t just go away.

Géraldine Kutas

Director-General, European Crop Protection Association

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