“A sustainable agri-food system forged in crises”. It’s under this promising slogan that, on Thursday and Friday (8-9 December) in Brussels, agricultural stakeholders and EU representatives will discuss the future of food and farming.
But given the policy developments on the table right now, the EU Commission’s yearly agricultural conference might recommend sticking plasters, which backpedal on environmental progress, rather than look at long-term solutions to master the crises.
The future of European agriculture has been both highly and controversially debated since the invasion of Ukraine started.
Agribusiness and rightwing political allies are having a field day, using the war to argue global food security is under threat and increasing food production is the solution, particularly through a heightened use of synthetic agricultural inputs.
But there is no problem of food production nor availability on the EU market.
For grains and wheat, the most important food exports from Ukraine and Russia, global production is actually very high and no global food supply shortage is in sight. In reality, the invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the already existing fragilities of the current farming system and exacerbated the food price crisis.
The agribusiness narrative is a masquerade. A smokescreen to water down environmentally-friendly reforms and maintain industrial agriculture. A smokescreen to which a majority of European policy-makers, including member states, are dangerously buying into.
This is especially clear with the fertiliser and pesticide files, two key areas of the EU’s flagship Farm to Fork policy.
The policy sets the objective of reducing fertilisers use by 20 percent by 2030. Each year it represents 30 percent of the European agriculture sector’s carbon emissions. Their production, transport and application cost five percent of the European energy consumption.
Because fertilisers are fossil-fuel dependent, the industry has been lobbying hard to ensure they have “affordable” access to natural gas at a time when supplies within Europe are severely constrained.
When all efforts should be made to decrease agriculture’s dependency on fossil fuels, the top measures suggested by the commission would ensure undisrupted access to natural gas for fertiliser producers, provide financial support for farmers to buy fertilisers and even tip into counterproductive ‘solutions’ like ‘renewable hydrogen’.
For industry, not for the farmers
Farmers won’t benefit from this continued dependence, but the industry definitely will.
According to company filings compiled in a report from Grain, the combined profits of nine of the world’s biggest fertiliser companies were just under $13bn [€12.4bn] in 2020.
If their reported profit levels in the first half of 2022 are maintained, they will earn more than $57bn in profits over the whole year, 440 percent of their 2020 profits.
The same goes with the pesticide file.
The commission published in June its proposal for a new regulation (SUR) to halve the use of pesticides by 2030. While the proposal has some flaws, it remains a crucial step towards toxic-free farming systems. But this regulation is now also under fierce attack from European agriculture ministers and rightwing political groups.
Their key tactic? Requesting a second impact assessment to further delay the proposal adoption, arguing the current one “does not take into account the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food security and the resulting threats to the European Union” — mirroring industry demands.
Actually, an investigation by Corporate Europe Observatory has shown that “following the Farm to Fork launch in 2020, the pesticide lobby and its allies flooded the European Commission with calls for ‘cumulative’ impact assessments of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Biodiversity Strategy and other Green Deal initiatives together”.
There is no time to lose anymore. As this commission’s mandate ends in 2024, it is key to finalise the adoption of the regulation by then.
Agribusiness’ capture of EU policies prevents decision-makers from addressing the true causes of food insecurity. There is no production deficit but there is a problem of food poverty, unequal accessibility, diets, market concentration and financial speculation that artificially raises prices.
So, what now?
We need to reform EU agriculture towards low-input agro-ecological farming, more resistant to geopolitical shocks and the climate emergency. We need to put local food systems, environment protection and human rights back at the centre. We need the EU to stand its ground and uphold the Farm to Fork ambition. Scaling back on the objectives will only profit big agribusiness and deepen the already existing drivers of food insecurity.