The brutal war in Ukraine has already had a significant effect on food supplies and an even greater effect on world markets, requiring an urgent response. As confirmed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and others, the greatest food needs are in Ukraine itself and in the low-income countries most dependent on imports. wheat, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Measures to increase and target aid, for example through the World Food Programme, and to avoid aggravating the situation through unnecessary trade restrictions (as introduced by at least one EU country) , require priority. EU Member States also have a responsibility towards their citizens who are most vulnerable to an increase in the cost of living, attributable to rising energy, food and other prices. The EU could help organize and fund such a response.
It is therefore amazing to see that so many responses from the EU agricultural establishment, including EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski and some prominent EU politicians, point in a completely different direction. Member States and parliamentarians issue statements or respond to early drafts of the Commission's impending food safety document1 focused disproportionately on supporting the pig sector, increasing protein production in the EU and the demand for delays, even revisions, of the farm-to-table strategy. Several agricultural ministries are pushing for a weakening of environmental requirements in their CAP strategic plans, which are about to be approved, which would have substantial consequences over five years, going well beyond the crisis. current.
Many assume, with little evidence presented, that an immediate increase in EU production is needed. Support measures for farmers, since they are large consumers of cereals and proteins, are also important. Particular haste in the launch of aid to the pig sector is required, even if prices increase. These very immediate concerns, particularly in relation to feed supply, have stifled a more strategic search for synergies with the sustainability agenda, as is the case in the energy sector. We can see quite the opposite in agriculture, where Commissioner Wojciechowski and the main political voices call for a return to the fundamental program for a more sustainable agriculture in Europe: the farm to fork strategy. This is despite the fact that most of the key measures of the Strategy have not yet been proposed and discussed and that one of its main objectives is to increase resource efficiency and reduce dependence on inputs derived from fossil fuels. To top it off, there is a movement of Member States demanding permission to grow protein crops on rare plots of agricultural land with environmental value, generally known for their lack of productive potential.
The food crisis ignores more fundamental concerns, such as high levels of reliance on increasingly expensive nitrogen fertilizers made from gas and the increasing diversion of grain crops to biofuels.
It is essential that Commission and Member State leaders reconsider this biased approach urgently and before strategic decisions are taken in the Commission this week. A first package of agricultural policy proposals has already been presented to the European Parliament, and Ursula von der Leyen is expected to examine the big picture, including the possible reduction of the farm-to-table strategy, before the end of the week. .
More EU production?
Rapidly increasing production in the world's wealthier regions, such as the EU, was not on FAO's list of urgent responses needed in the global food system. Most academics agree, pointing out that the solutions to tackling hunger and supply shortages lie elsewhere. A growing number argue that dietary change and lower animal production in Europe is a better solution. However, this has not prevented the increase in supply from being at the forefront of the thinking of agricultural policy makers in the EU. For example, Norbert Lins, chair of Parliament's agri committee to the agriculture commissioner, stressed in a 7 March letter the importance of increasing EU protein production for livestock feed. More generally, he proposes that "although increasing production has become our most important priority, national strategic plans [under the CAP] should be evaluated in order to make the necessary adaptations to new circumstances, including the use of relevant flexibilities to increase the area of land in production”. The long-standing trend of increasing EU production regardless of other concerns is taken for granted, rather than based on compelling justification. It is also in direct conflict with efforts to increase resource efficiency in agriculture (which is unchallenged in the energy sector) and to reduce pressures on the agricultural environment that impede achieving EU climate and biodiversity targets.
In contrast, some of the obvious drawbacks of increased EU production have not received airtime. For example, European agriculture is particularly dependent on inorganic (manufactured) fertilisers, with the EU consuming around 10% of the world's supply . Supplies have tightened and prices have increased significantly since the introduction of a ban on Russian exports of nitrogen, potash and phosphate fertilizers.
The Nitrogen Question
The primary feedstock for the most important component of this input, nitrogen fertilizers, is natural gas, which accounts for a large portion of the cost of production and explains why ammonium nitrate costs have largely doubled since September 2021. Given the low gas price in the country, it is not surprising that imports of nitrogen-based fertilizers come mainly from Russia (50% of total EU imports on average since 2010).
Therefore, as the EU develops strategies to reduce dependence on gas, increase energy efficiency and accelerate the deployment of renewable energy in response to the Ukrainian crisis, it must integrate fertilizers into the framework and also reduce this manifestation of gas dependence. Fortunately, the Farm to Fork Strategy already includes measures to reduce nitrogen use by 2030. Today, these must be accelerated rapidly, both by setting a more ambitious target and more urgent reduction in nitrogen use and through specific measures such as free advice on nutrient management for farmers and accelerated investment support to improve efficiency, covering the management of slurry and inorganic fertilizers. This is an area where a rapid modification of Member States' draft CAP strategic plans would be particularly useful and timely.
It's a great example of why the farm-to-table strategy should be leveraged to ensure a cohesive plan rather than pushing it back.
The livestock issue
Livestock consume about 60% of the cereals produced in Europe as well as most oilseeds in the form of concentrate feed. Although there is considerable scientific consensus that the average consumption of animal products in Europe is too high from a health point of view and is also a main cause of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution, production remains broadly unchanged. Poultry meat production, based almost exclusively on feed concentrates, has increased by around 30% since 2010 .
World market prices for grains and oilseeds have increased for a number of reasons, including drought in some supply regions, now exacerbated by disruptions in imports from Ukraine, particularly maize and oilseed. This creates pressures on the incomes of many livestock keepers, especially those dependent on purchased feed. However, it is also a signal of strong demand for cereals for other purposes, especially for direct human consumption. Initial calculations based on the GlobAgri 2 model suggest that potentially 7 million hectares of land and 23 million tonnes of grain could be freed up by reducing production of the most grain-dependent livestock (pig and poultry) by 15%. ) and production of other animals (beef and milk) by 5%. This is a new incentive to think about the future of the livestock sector, alongside other established needs to: reduce greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions, reduce dependence on unsustainable food sources, improve farm animal welfare and reduce the extent of antimicrobial consumption.
The cost of prioritizing intensive livestock feeding schemes is underscored by the flurry of petitions from Member States to allow their large farmers to abandon one of their key environmental commitments under the the CAP and plant protein crops. The lands concerned by this debate so far are mainly small segments of large arable areas that are not cultivated (fallow), which are part of the areas of ecological interest (EPT) with the most positive impact on biodiversity. . Moreover, if planting were to be practical and profitable (which is not a trivial assumption), the yields would always be below average and the contribution to supply modest, since fallows have low productivity. The choice between marginal benefits to livestock keepers and production (versus reduced feed demand, as illustrated above) and increased environmental damage is a difficult one.
The Farm to Fork Strategy is a framework for addressing these challenges. In some cases, herd reduction will be necessary, as is currently being discussed in the Netherlands, with generous compensation payments on the agenda. Moving this debate forward at EU level rather than postponing it should be the way forward now. At the same time, a bolder approach to planning for a just transition in EU agriculture would give more confidence to Member States and farms worried about the costs of adjustment . Short-term measures to support high-input farming systems are no substitute for accelerated planning for a more sustainable approach to meat and dairy production in Europe. Moreover, it is very appropriate to direct CAP funds towards this objective. Before the draft CAP strategic plans are finalized over the next few months, it is now possible to integrate additional transitional support measures for livestock farms adopting more ambitious forms of sustainability. This seems more appropriate than channeling increasing amounts of production subsidies into the livestock sector: recent Commission figures show that almost all Member States have high levels of direct income support in their plans under the CAP and that about 70 % of these funds are dedicated to the livestock sector .3
Some of the proposals in the Commission's first draft document on food security, to be published on Wednesday 23 March, would focus on well-founded objectives, such as getting food to where it is needed. However, the agricultural sector needs a more strategic approach, advancing a transition, re-examining the role of livestock systems, reducing the level of nitrogen inputs (and therefore dependence) and adopting rather than 'by watering down key measures under the Green Deal. Across Europe, it is understood that the status quo will have to change after the war in Ukraine. And agriculture is no exception
1 Agra Facts No 24-22
2 Calculations by IDDRI – contact Pierre-Marie Aubert at email@example.com
3 Nineteen Member States plan implementation above 10% of the direct payments and mostly close to their ceiling, two Member States plan about 10% and four Member States below 5% of their direct payments envelopes. The total budget for the direct payments to 2027 is EUR 291 billion. Figures on the overall level of CAP spending on coupled support are not published.
- IEEP (Institut for European Environmental Policy)