March 5. 2024. 3:17

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Agrifood Brief: The cows’ days are over


As Agatha Christie once put it, two clues do not make proof – but two things that happened this week suggest that agriculture’s relevance in the EU policy sphere is diminishing.

Remember the old days when stakeholders and policymakers from other sectors used to treat agriculture with a bit of envy, complaining about not having the same space (but mostly the same money) reserved for this topic in the Brussels halls of power?

“In Brussels, they see only economic issues. Cows are more important than people’s health. Ministers of agriculture are gathering every month,” said former food safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said in a recent interview with EURACTIV.

Well, it seems that the cows’ days are over – to paraphrase the song by Florence + The Machine.

This week, Julia reported on a letter signed by 16 EU agriculture ministers and sent to the Swedish EU presidency complaining about a serious risk of marginalisation.

The reason? Too many legislative files that affect directly both the agriculture and forestry sector are handled by environment ministers.

The increased space devoted to crucial climate and environmental challenges is depriving the highly specialised agriculture ministers of a say on cross-sectoral policy aspects, leaving them feeling as though they are being bypassed by their counterparts even in areas that are more relevant for their policy area.

MEPs, who represent the other side of the EU law-making system, suffer from the same affliction, as they have had to fight to play a role in the revisions of the EU’s pesticide rules and of the reduction of livestock industrial emissions – both managed by lawmakers in the European Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI).

Another hint of the fact that agriculture ministers are becoming less relevant is the decision of the Swedish presidency to cancel the Agrifish Council – the monthly gathering of EU agriculture ministers – for February.

A source from the Swedish presidency told Natasha that there’s simply “not enough on the agenda and we only want to call meetings with enough content.”

While it’s true that this kind of thing has happened in the past, it is definitely not a common occurrence.

The decision is also surprising considering that food inflation is on the rise – check EURACTIV network’s story on this, in case you’ve missed it – and farmers are facing some of the toughest times in recent history, squeezed between skyrocketing feed, input and energy costs.

It is also true that the area of competence of agriculture lawmakers has been shrinking since the unveiling of the EU’s flagship environmental policy, the Green Deal.

In this regard, the absence of the EU’s agriculture chief Janusz Wojciechowski when the food part of the Green Deal – aka, the Farm to Fork strategy – was presented was also quite striking.

We already wrote about the risk when agriculture lawmakers are downgraded to just dealing with Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – which would become the only tool in the toolbox, as Natasha recently wrote.

But the changes in the EU’s priorities have the potential to affect the CAP as well, as we are approaching the discussion on the EU budget for the 2028-2034 programme – and despite the push of the agriculture Commissioner, a bigger EU farming budget in the next multi-financial framework (MFF) seems unlikely.

It is time to embrace (again) the debate on how agriculture and food should be treated at the EU level, as the traditional way is no longer bearing fruit.

Perhaps it could be an option to consider the opportunity of a new enhanced DG Food, merging competencies of both DG AGRI and DG SANTE (its food safety part), which could also increase the role of the commissioner tasked with this portfolio.

It was also interesting to observe the comments made in an interview published this week on EURACTIV with a representative of the coal lobby.

Talking about coal and other fossil fuels, the interviewee said they are “afraid we will end up with a situation similar to European agriculture” – which speaks volumes to how the agriculture sector is viewed.

This is another hint that we should roll up our sleeves if we don’t want agriculture to become a fossil.

Agrifood Podcast: Ukraine trade liberalisation, Chinese fisheries, save the bees

Agrifood Podcast: Ukraine trade liberalisation, Chinese fisheries, save the bees

The one-year scheme to suspend import duty on all agricultural products from Ukraine is coming to an end. Now, the Commission is reconsidering the arrangement. EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna spoke to agriculture Director General Wolfgang Burtscher about this to learn more. …

Agrifood stories this week

EU ministers step up fight against animal transport ban
A coalition of EU agriculture ministers have joined forces to push back against a potential ban on live animal transport to third countries, but the Commission stressed the need to be ambitious on animal welfare. Paula Andrés has more.

EU agri ministers push for more power in environmental matters
Agriculture ministers from 16 EU countries have demanded more of a say, relative to environmental ministers, on sustainable measures that have ramifications for the farming sector. Julia Dahm has the details.

Ukrainian agri exports set to continue despite disruption for EU farmers
The European Commission has vowed to continue Ukrainian agricultural exports, intending to address the mounting reports of market disruption at the war-torn country’s borders through Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support measures. Natasha Foote has the story.

Ireland ‘surprised’ to receive EU green light on alcohol health label
The Irish government is “grateful and somewhat surprised” that the European Commission did not reject their draft regulation for health warning labels on alcohol, despite renewed attempts by other member states to block the proposal. Gerardo Fortuna has more.

German agri minister slammed for leaving livestock measures up to EU
Germany’s agriculture ministry is not doing enough to restructure animal husbandry and relies too much on possible EU-level steps, Socialist agriculture lawmakers wrote in a joint paper released Tuesday (31 January). Julia Dahm has the story.

EU ministers relaunch call to improve honey labelling
EU agriculture ministers have reiterated their call on the European Commission to revise legislation on the labelling of honey blends and protect producers and consumers when choosing the honey of their liking. Hugo Struna has the details.

EU ministers to curb Commission’s ambition on curbing livestock emissions
EU agriculture ministers want fewer farms to abide by the Commission’s proposed emission reduction rules, suggesting a higher threshold for their application which will keep family and small farms off the count. Julia Dahm has all you need to know.

Pack of EU ministers urge Commission to uphold wolves’ protection status
Environment ministers of 12 EU member states have written to the European Commission stressing the need to uphold wolves’ protection status on the back of increasing tension between the farming community and the predator. Natasha Foote has the story.

In case you missed it

Pressure on EU to sanction Chinese fisheries mounts
In light of increasing evidence of infractions by Chinese vessels, wake-up calls from multiple stakeholders and policymakers are piling up at the Commission’s door, asking to enforce EU rules on China over illegal fishing and human rights abuses. Paula Andrés explores the issue.

CAP corner

‘Social’ CAP pillar kicks off amid concerns over sanctions
Starting in 2023, some member states will – for the first time – begin linking EU farming subsidies to social and labour standards, with the rest due to follow in 2025. However, the lack of a harmonised sanctioning system is raising eyebrows. Paula Andrés brings you all you need to know.

Agri-bites

New residue limits. The Commission adopted new rules this week which will lower the maximum residues levels – aka the highest level of pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in or on food or feed – of two neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, to the lowest level that can currently be measured.

‘Not enough to talk about’. February’s meeting of EU agriculture ministers has been cancelled because there is “not enough on the agenda” to warrant it. There will however still be a preparatory meeting as usual on the 20 February.

EU ‘actively engaging’ in Ukraine’s request for support. Speaking from Kyiv this week, where Commissioners are meeting for a College-to-Government meeting with the Government of Ukraine, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski lambasted Russia for targeting Ukraine’s agricultural sector and thanked farmers for their “heroic work” in securing food security. He also said that the EU executive was “actively engaging” with member states, authorities and stakeholders to respond positively to Ukraine’s requests for seeds and generators for agricultural holdings.

Who will pay for better animal welfare? That was a key question during a debate of the EU Parliament’s agriculture committee on the Commission’s “fitness check” of current animal welfare legislation. The European Commission’s Christian Juliusson, who presented the results, argue investments in better husbandry conditions can be financially viable given that consumers were shown to be willing to pay more in return for better animal welfare. However, several MEPs raised concerns given the current rise in food prices. Juliusson conceded that the investigation was based on data collected before the start of the Ukraine war and promised that the Commission will conduct an in-depth impact assessment before tabling any new legislation on the matter.

Not ‘either or’. MEPs in the European Parliament’s agriculture committee debated biodiversity targets and food security during a session with the Commission this week, in which it stressed the issue is “not either or” and that both issues are “intrinsically linked.” Conservative MEPs called for more ‘flexibility’ in the short term to address food security concerns. At the same time, Left and Green MEPs argued that the availability of food in the EU is not at risk but will be if we reach the ‘ecosystem collapse’.

New numbers. In 2021, households in the EU spent over €1.035 billion – 7.1% of total EU GDP – on food and non-alcoholic beverages, according to new research from Eurostat. This represents a share of 14.3% of total household expenditure and, compared with 2020, this represents a decrease of 0.5% points.

State aid. The European Commission has approved a €60 million Greek scheme to support the primary agricultural production sector in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Agri-trade reaches record heights. The monthly EU trade flows of agricultural and food products reached a record value of €36.5 billion in October 2022, according to the latest monthly agrifood trade report published by the Commission this week. The share of EU agri-food imports has increased, reaching €15.7 billion that month, representing a 3% difference from the previous month.

Agrifood news from the CAPitals

NETHERLANDS

Mad cow disease case detected. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, has been detected in one cow on a Dutch farm, agriculture minister Piet Adema confirmed on Wednesday. Humans can be infected by the disease by consuming meat and other products from infected cows. The case detected in the Netherlands, however, did “not pose a risk to food safety” since the cow in question had “not entered the food chain,” Adema said in a statement. (Julia Dahm) | EURACTIV.de)

ALBANIA

Olive oil industry struggles with overproduction, EU solution on horizon. The amount of olive oil in Albania is increasing significantly, but supply is far outstripping demand, leaving farmers and producers in a difficult position. Meanwhile, EU funding could be set to give a helping hand. Read the full story. (Alice Taylor I Exit.al)

SPAIN

Spain to approve direct financial aid to farmers. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced that a direct aid package to help farmers cope with soaring energy prices following the war in Ukraine will be approved by the government. Find out more. (Fernando Heller | EuroEFE)

GERMANY

Auditors call to end farm vehicle tax break. Germany’s court of auditors has called on the finance ministry to end tax breaks for farm vehicles, which it called “outdated.” Currently, reduced vehicle tax rates for agricultural vehicles are costing the state more than €1 billion per year, according to the auditors. Already in 2019, a study commissioned by the finance ministry concluded that such rebates for combustion vehicles are no longer appropriate with a view to sustainability goals. However, this did not lead the ministry to change course. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

AUSTRIA

Parliament votes down citizen initiative on live animal transport. A citizen initiative with the title “Stop Live Transport Suffering” was rejected by the Austrian parliament on Wednesday (1 February). The initiative, which amassed collected over 400,000 signatures, called to restrict live animal transports to a bare minimum – that is, from the farm to the nearest abattoir. However, the initiative did not find a majority in parliament. Among others, the Green and conservative government parties voted against it, arguing that the legal package on animal welfare passed in the summer of last year already goes far enough in terms of animal protection. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

ITALY

FINLAND

Bad grades for agri-environmental policy. Agri-environmental policy in Finland has not resulted in any reduction in greenhouse gases, the Finnish Economic Policy Council concluded in a recent report, which calls for more targeted action towards reaching the country’s climate targets. The council also found that “forestry and land use policy have contributed to collapsing carbon sinks,” rather than to the storage of additional carbon, meaning that the country needs to move away from its current reliance on carbon sinks on its path towards climate targets.

GREECE

Harnessing frost predictions for farmers. Greece’s agriculture ministry, together with the National Weather Service, has presented a new application capable of warning of upcoming frost in advance. The app is set to be a useful tool for farmers and provide them with the necessary information to prepare for upcoming frost events in time. A goal of the application will be to prevent frost damage to crops in winter and spring. The application is set to be ready for operation on mobile phones by the end of next month. (Marianthi Pelekanaki| EURACTIV.gr)

FRANCE

Farmers’ pensions contention. As France is rocked by a wave of strikes protesting president Macron’s pension reform plans, one contentious aspect are proposed changes to the special pension scheme for farmers. In an interview with EURACTIV France, Julien Dive, a lawmaker for the French Republicans, calls to eradicate what he finds are disadvantages for farmers compared to others in the pension system. You can read the full interview here. French speakers can also listen to EURACTIV France’s podcast on the topic here. (Hugo Struna I EURACTIV.fr)

LUXEMBOURG

Food safety legislation update. A reform of Luxembourg’s food safety legislation is set to make the legal framework on safety controls easier and more effective, according to the government, which approved the proposal on Friday (17 January). “The high level of food safety that we aim to achieve in the Grand Duchy requires a harmonised and simplified legal framework,” agriculture minister Claude Haagen stressed in a statement. The new legislation should ensure smoother cooperation between the different authorities involved in controlling food safety standards in Luxembourg, he added. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

Events

6 February | PECH Committee meeting

6 February | EURACTIV conference on the CAP (in French)

7 February | Empowering consumers for a green transition

7 February | Handover of petition to keep GMOs regulated outside the European Parliament

7 February | Conference on carbon farming

7 February | The Revision of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive: Challenges and Opportunities

8 February | EU reform of seed marketing rules

9 February | ENVI Committee meeting

10-12 February | The European Commission’s third and final session of the EU Citizens’ Panel on Food Waste