April 14. 2024. 6:39

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Agrifood Brief: Spill the milk


A European Parliament resolution to support children’s ‘healthy diets’ – touched by Qatargate and caught in between Farm to Fork disputes – is slowly taking shape as the Commission’s clock to close food flagship files keeps ticking.

It might have slipped under the radar that last week EU lawmakers at the agriculture committee (AGRI) overwhelmingly voted in favour of socialist Carmen Avram’s own-initiative report on the EU’s programme to subsidise fruit, vegetables, and milk in schools and public canteens.

The EU School Scheme was launched in 2017 and aims to support the distribution of selected agricultural products to schoolchildren while promoting ‘healthy diets’ in public canteens.

But as part of the EU’s flagship Farm to Fork strategy, the EU executive tabled a revision of the scheme expected by the end of this year.

Avram, who took the reins of the file after her colleague Marc Tarabella was arrested by the Belgian authorities in connection with the Qatargate corruption scandal, said that she was thankful that “everybody had a clear understanding of the fact that this compromise should be beneficial to our children, and a better contribution to their well-being”.

With only two votes against – from green and left groups – MEPs called for the Commission to increase the scheme’s budget, emphasise the promotion of regional and local products, and include only ‘unprocessed’ products without added fats or sugars.

While this latter point may sound uncontroversial, it has been a point of contention as it means plant-based drinks are left off the menu.

According to the Commission’s evaluation presented last November, interest in the milk side of the scheme is declining, while one in every four citizens would like to see alternatives to cow’s milk included.

Despite the agriculture’s executive curbing expectations of including plant-based alternatives in the scheme last year, Commission’s Wim Debeuckelaere, Head of Sector on Food Additives at Directorate-General for Health and Consumers, told EURACTIV that the school scheme “can also be used to introduce sustainability, and then it should come with alternatives”.

According to Debeuckelaere, the discussion to include alternatives for dairy products is ‘ongoing’.

“It is not yet decided but why not, in fact?” he said on the sidelines of an event on the upcoming Sustainable Food Systems Law.

This has become a highly politicised topic, and divisions are not limited to the EU institutions.

EU farmers’ organisation COPA-COGECA and the European Dairy Association issued warnings about the scheme “falling into ideology” and welcomed Avram’s report.

According to the organisations, plant-based products are “not comparable in any way to dairy products” and they oppose “any nebulous wording where plant-based drinks would find an ‘escamotage’ and access to the scheme”.

NGOs and animal rights groups, however, regret that lawmakers ‘downplayed’ the need to change eating habits.

Olga Kikkou, Head of Compassion in World Farming, said that “we can’t have our kids overeat on animal products in school, and then expect them to grow up with healthy eating habits and live within the planetary boundaries, in a planet that is already burning.”

Likewise, Joanna Swabe, Director of public affairs at Humane Society International/Europe, argued that “the hostility to giving kids the option of plant-based milks seems to be deeply rooted in protectionism towards dairy farmers and their incomes, as well as a reluctance to accept that not everyone wants to, or can consume animal products.”

But there is still time to spill the tea – or should we say the milk – as the AGRI committee’s report is set to be voted in plenary in May. The resolution is not, however, binding for the EU executive which, however, should come with a reply to MEPs in three months.

Please note that there will be no agrifood brief or podcast next week. We’ll be back with our normal scheduling on the 14 April.


EHPM Conference on Quality and Safety in Food Supplements

On 20 April, EHPM is holding a Conference on Quality and Safety in Food Supplements in Brussels, with the participation of DG SANTE officials (Units A.1 & E.2) and representatives from the industry and technical experts.

Register here >>


Agrifood podcast: Belarus fertiliser, Ukraine grain influx

Agrifood podcast: Belarus fertiliser, Ukraine grain influx

This week, EURACTIV’s Agrifood team brings you the latest from the European Council where UN Secretary-General António Guterres asked EU leaders to lift sanctions on Belarus fertiliser potash. We also talked about the Commission’s decision to trigger the agriculture reserve …

Agrifood stories this week

Berlin gears up to leave its mark on future EU farm funds
Germany is already preparing to campaign on its vision for the future Common Agriculture Policy (CAP): moving away from area-based payments and towards remuneration for providing public goods. Julia Dahm has more.

EU food agency sounds alarm over cancer-causing food substances
A new opinion from the EU food safety agency (EFSA) has found 10 nitrosamine substances, found in many processed foods, to be carcinogenic, concluding current exposure levels are a ‘health concern’ for all ages. Natasha Foote has the story.

Ukrainian farmers sound alarm ahead of sowing season
Ukrainian farmers have sounded the alarm ahead of the upcoming Spring sowing season, asking for support to de-mine fields and help smooth out logistical problems, according to a representative from the Ukrainian farmers’ association. Olha Lyshen has the details.

Polish, Romanian PMs ask EU for mechanism to trace Ukraine grain exports
Romania and Poland are in talks with the European Commission over export tracing mechanisms for Ukrainian grains to ensure local farmers are not hurt by a flood of cheap imports, the Polish and Romanian prime ministers said on Tuesday (28 March). Learn more.

In case you missed it

Women in the agriculture sector. To mark the month of March, which celebrates International Women’s Day on the 8th, EURACTIV’s network took a look at the situation for women in the agricultural sector across 9 member states in this special CAPitals edition of the agrifood brief.

Agri-bites

MEPs: Key Farm to Fork files being ‘delayed and blocked’. A group of MEPs wrote to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides at the end of last week to express concerns over the “most ambitious reforms” announced by the Farm to Fork Strategy being “delayed or entirely blocked by political conflicts”. This includes the revision of legislation on Food Contact Materials; legislating for higher animal welfare standards; or setting the ‘nutrient profiles’ for the amount of sugar or fat content. “Everything that is necessary to implement the Farm to Fork objectives on the consumption side is lacking,” the letter warns, adding that the signatories are “particularly concerned” about the delay of the revision of the food information to consumers regulation and that the debate around front-of-pack nutritional labelling has become “less grounded in scientific evidence or public health concerns”.

Two highly toxic pesticides to be banned in Europe from 2024. EU member states agreed to ban the fungicide ‘Ipconazole’, which was classified as toxic to the development of unborn children back in 2018, and the insecticide ‘Oxamyl’, due to concerns over their high toxicity to human health and the environment.

How has the food security narrative impacted progress on key files? In a new report, the Jacques Delors institute explores how food security concerns raised in the context of the war in Ukraine have affected political positions and narratives. To illustrate this, the institute presents an analysis of the debates around the CAP, the fertiliser crisis, the pesticide regulation as well as the decarbonisation of the agri-food sector and the new regulatory framework for the use of New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). Check it out here.

‘Totally pathetic’ food security vs. climate change narrative. Speaking at an event in Spain this week on the European livestock sector, former director of strategy and policy analysis at the European Commission’s DG AGRI Tassos Haniotis slammed the “totally pathetic polarisation” of the food security vs climate change narrative. He also stressed that the EU “lacked the tools” to address the current crisis in the agrifood sector adequately. Check out his talking points and the rest of the event here.

Timmermans v. agroindustry. Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans went after agroindustry in a speech he delivered at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) on Tuesday (28 March). “[Money] should be going in the pockets of the farmers, not in the pockets of someone in the agroindustry,” he said. He added that some agri-businesses want only increasing intensive farming and intense use of inputs. “Let’s rethink that model. It’s not about degrowth; it’s not about going to the past; it’s embracing the opportunities in the future,” he concluded.

Protests at the FFA. Meanwhile, a group of activists and small farmers tried to block the entrances at the event where Timmermans was delivering his speech – the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA), organized by the seed-giant Syngenta, the European Landowners’ Organization (ELO), alongside the WWF. The action aimed to denounce the intense lobbying deployed by the FFA organizers to delay any European regulations arising from the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy.

Agroecology goes global. On Tuesday (28 March), the EU and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) signed two agreements today for a total of €70.7 million to boost the sustainable production of nutritious and locally grown food and build small-scale farmers’ resilience to climate and economic shocks in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. Both agreements will promote agroecology and sustainable agricultural practices aimed at improving and sustaining soil fertility. “We will continue to support partners to boost their local food production, and decrease their dependence on expensive and unsustainable agricultural inputs,” Commissioner for international partnership Jutta Urpilainen told reporters.

Do you really think that? Experienced socialist MEP Paolo De Castro filed a parliamentary question to the EU executive asking if they agree with a statement from a Commission representative delivered last week in a European Parliament hearing. The Commission’s representative said that “scientists have concluded that our food production system in Europe is no longer sustainable, neither from an economical point of view, nor from a social point of view, nor from an environmental perspective.”

Short-term outlook on food inflation and prices. The negative impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the ensuing high input costs and food inflation, continue to weigh on agricultural markets and consumers’ purchasing decisions, according to a new short-term outlook report. In addition, the winter droughts which were felt across the EU after the hot and dry summer of last year may push farmers to substitute away from more water-intensive crop cultures. Learn more.

Avian flu funding to compensate Italian farmers. The Commission will provide €27.2 million to Italy to help compensate farmers in areas affected by outbreaks of avian flu. Financed by the agricultural reserve, the payments must be made to farmers by 30 September 2023.

Prices drop in Q4. Eurostat data showed sharp price increases for agriculture in all quarters of 2022, peaking in the second and third quarters (Q2 and Q3). However, during Q4, a slight deceleration of price increases was observed for both agricultural products and inputs, according to new data.

New animal welfare advice. Veal calves should be housed in small groups during their first weeks of life and the use of individual pens should be avoided to improve their welfare, according to a new scientific opinion from the EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which added that calves also need sufficient space to rest and play and access to comfortable bedding. Learn more.

Helping hand for Polish farmers. The European Commission approved an approximately €126 million (PLN 600 million) Polish scheme to support the wheat and maize production sector in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine this week. The scheme was approved under the State aid Temporary Crisis and Transition Framework.

Could you be the winner of the second EU organic awards? Commission launches call for applications for the second edition of EU Organic Awards. Following the success of the first edition of the EU Organic Awards, a call for applications for the second EU Organic Awards opens today until 14 May 2023. Apply here.

Geographical indications. The Commission approved a number of new Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) this week, including: ‘Plăcintă dobrogeană’, a Romanian pastry; ‘Kangra tea’, is a type of tea grown in Kangra Valley, India; and ‘Komiški rogač’, the fruit of the carob tree Komiški krupni, grown exclusively on the territory of the island of Vis, in Croatia. Also, the first Turkish Cypriot ‘Χαλλουμι’ (Halloumi)/‘Hellim’ cheese producer was awarded the protected designation of origin (PDO) certificate under the EU quality scheme this week – we spoke about the ‘geopolitical’ power of halloumi here.

Agrifood news from the CAPitals

PORTUGAL

Portugal spends €600 million to reduce basic food prices. Scrapping VAT on essential food products while also helping producers in the process will cost Portugal around €600 million, Prime Minister António Costa said after his government signed a deal with retailers and farmers in Lisbon on Monday. Find out more. (Lucília Tiago I Lusa.pt)

GERMANY

Germany pledges billions for agriculture, forestry carbon sinks. A programme on nature-based climate action worth €4 billion was approved by Germany’s government cabinet on Wednesday. The funds are set to be disbursed over four years and support measures to boost the storage of carbon in soils, forests, moors and oceans. Among other things, the programme is set to help farmers protect moorlands while still being able to produce on them through so-called paludicultures. While environmentalists welcomed the step, the German farmers’ association said measures must be taken to ensure it does not lead to agricultural production moving abroad. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

ATHENS

Next step in CAP implementation. Greece has taken another step towards implementing its National Strategic Plan for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Deputy food minister George Stylios appointed two new directorates on Monday (27 March) set to establish a functional framework to guarantee the achievement of the country’s policy goals. The newly created Directorate of Quality Systems and Organic Agriculture will be responsible for implementing aid for the conversion to organic farming. Meanwhile, the Directorate for Planning and Operational Programmes is responsible, among other things, for investment aid. (Marianthi Pelekanaki| EURACTIV.gr)

ITALY

ROMANIA

Cohesion funding earmarked for water project. The Commission has approved a contribution of more than €166 million from the EU Cohesion Fund 2014-2020 to upgrade water and wastewater networks in the Călărași, Giurgiu, Ialomița and Ilfov counties, in Romania. The investments refer to two projects that will improve quality and access to drinking water, as well as wastewater treatment in the area. Learn more.

SLOVENIA

Slovenian farmers up in arms over environmental restrictions. About 5,000 Slovenian farmers took to the streets in their tractors across nearly two dozen cities and towns Friday to protest conditions they say are making it near impossible to work with. Read more. (Sebastijan R. Maček I sta.si)

SPAIN

Cooperatives call for crackdown on olive oil fraud. Spanish farmers’ cooperatives have called on the government to improve control systems to guarantee the quality of olive oil and curb fraud. Find out more from EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro.

FRANCE

Mega basin opponents warn of dispute with Brussels. The construction of a new large-size water basin to help secure water supplies for farmers could lead to disputes between France and the EU, opponents warn after fresh protests against the project were held on Sunday (26 March). EURACTIV France has more. (Hugo Struna I EURACTIV.fr)

Events

3-4 April | Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA)

3-13 April | #STOPGlyphosate Week

5 April | EIT Food’s All you can learn #1 – Nutrition for Health and Sustainability