EU reviews sustainable food plans as Ukraine war disrupts imports

The EU is reviewing the bloc’s sustainable food strategy after a concerted push against the planned reforms by national governments, farmers and the agriculture industry.

Brussels agreed two years ago to reform its farm practices as part of a drive to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen a drop in grain and fertiliser exports from those countries and raised concerns over food security.

The bloc’s agriculture ministers meet on Monday to discuss both short-term measures to alleviate the risk of shortages and price rises and possible changes to its Farm to Fork sustainable food strategy.

“There is a desire to make sure that the objectives we have in our public policy are consistent with the need for food security . . . and sovereignty,” said an EU diplomat.

French president Emmanuel Macron said the sustainable food strategy was “based on a pre-Ukraine war world” and should be reviewed.

The plans would lead to a 13 per cent drop in food production, he said on Friday. Macron needs the votes of the country’s powerful farming lobby in elections next month but similar concerns are being raised in other member states such as Spain and Italy.

The conflict has sent the price of wheat, maize and other staple foods soaring. The EU gets half its maize from Ukraine and a third of its fertiliser from Russia. Fertiliser prices increased 170 per cent last year because of high gas prices.

The EU is likely to face price rises but not shortages, according to recent European Commission assessments.

The €58bn-a-year Common Agricultural Policy, which still consumes more than a third of the bloc’s annual budget, has enabled the EU to become a net food exporter. In recent years subsidies linked to production have been reduced and switched towards payments for environmental schemes. Pesticide use has decreased with more and more substances banned.

Decoupling subsidies entirely from production to help meet the EU’s net zero emissions commitments was deemed too controversial so the commission adopted a series of targets for 2030 under its Farm to Fork strategy. They include cutting fertiliser use by a fifth, halving the use of antibiotics and increasing the amount of land farmed organically from 9 per cent to 25 per cent.

The directive on the sustainable use of pesticides, which aimed to cut their use in half and could increase food prices, was expected to be approved this week but has now been delayed, according to officials.

Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers’ lobby group, has sent a list of demands to Janusz Wojciechowski, the European agriculture commissioner. “A paradigm shift is needed . . . starting with the objectives, targets and timeline of the Farm to Fork strategy,” it said, emphasising the bloc’s need for “strategic autonomy”. 

It wants to increase fertiliser imports, pesticide use and cultivation of crops for animal feed while calling for opt-outs from ecological schemes and climate-linked animal welfare standards.

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, said the best way to reduce carbon emissions was to increase productivity. He wants new technologies permitted that would allow gene editing to improve the output of animals and plants.

“Roughly speaking, two-thirds of the productivity improvements will come from better genetic material, our crops and livestock.”

Civil society groups and non-government organisations are pressing Wojciechowski to resist.

“Watering down the Farm to Fork strategy and its policies will maintain Europe’s dependence on non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels, and will go against what is needed right now to secure food for all,” said a letter from the Food Policy Coalition.

Farm to Fork remained the best long-term strategy, Wojciechowski told the Financial Times in an interview. But he has proposed a temporary four-point plan to agriculture ministers.

To alleviate the steep drop in animal feed imports from Ukraine, for one year only he wants to allow farmers to plant the 2.6 per cent of land “set aside” for environmental benefits with crops for animal feed.

EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has proposed a temporary plan to agriculture ministers © Francisco Seco/Pool/AFP/Getty

Wojciechowski also wants to use the CAP’s €500mn reserve fund to support farmers. Pork producers would be helped with the cost of storing carcasses, for example. And he wants state aid rules changed to permit governments to offer more subsidies to farmers suffering from high costs.

“With these instruments and the CAP we can prevent a further increase in food prices,” he said.

“We need to continue the reforms, using manure, leaving harvest residues on the soil,” Wojciechowski added. “This can reduce the dependence on chemical fertilisers. Intensification is not the solution for the future.”

Jabier Ruiz, of WWF Europe, accepts the need for short-term measures but questions Macron’s 13 per cent reduction figure, taken from a scientific assessment of the Farm to Fork strategy.

He said such assessments only looked at conventional measures, ignoring the role of revitalising soil by using it less intensively, and changing diets.

More than half the EU’s crops are grown to feed animals, he said. The bloc consumes 60kg of soyabeans annually per head, the majority by livestock.

“We don’t have a food crisis, we have a feed crisis,” he said.