May 27. 2024. 9:45

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Agrifood Brief: Just beet it

French farmers do not take to the streets every day. But when they do head to Paris to make their voices heard, it’s hard to go unnoticed.

On Wednesday (8 February), a procession of more than 600 tractors set off from some 30 French regions to converge on the capital, much to the displeasure of motorists returning to their offices.

The meeting point: the esplanade of the Invalides, a masterpiece of the Great Century which contains the tomb of Napoleon.

The place holds significant symbolism when you consider that it was the Emperor who developed beet sugar production in France, which is now the leading producer in Europe and second in the world behind Russia.

Because this is what the farmers took to the streets in force for beetroot.

So, why did they come? Initially, it was the decision of the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) to outlaw the exemptions for the use of neonicotinoids banned in Europe, i.e. four insecticide molecules considered harmful to humans and biodiversity, and especially toxic for bees.

Although France banned all neonicotinoids in 2018 – unlike Europe – derogations allowed beet growers, whose crops were decimated in 2020 by jaundice, to continue using seed treatments.

The neonicotinoid is coated around the seed – like chocolate on the hazelnut in M&Ms – to preventatively provide protection for varying lengths of time during development.

“We risk losses of 10-30% in case of yellows [the virus causing jaundice], like in 2020. They want to ban us from producing. Europe wants to ban us from producing,” beet growers told EURACTIV at the demonstration.

With just a few weeks to go before sowing, farmers feel helpless without this “miracle pesticide” that guarantees effective preventive protection.

If the aphid responsible for yellows invades crops again this year, the tools to deal with it will be limited.

Farmers are now down to one synthetic insecticide in their toolbox; Teppeki, which was last used in 2020 when a particularly bad outbreak decimated 30% of the crop nationwide.

And when it comes to Europe, tempers flare as not everyone in the EU is on the same footing.

“We are always ahead of the game when it comes to phasing out active molecules, so we penalise ourselves even more. Yet we should have the same products,” David Clain, a beet farmer in Hauts de France, told EURACTIV last week during a visit to his farm.

During the visit, he told us that while many countries are still refusing to accept the decision of the ECJ, he had taken the decision to start sowing with new, uncoated seeds, in accordance with the government’s decision, despite the looming threat of the return of the aphid.

Luckily, the farmer had only limited losses two years ago, which is rare in the region. But the question mark over this year still weighs heavy.

In the meantime, the beet farmer is keeping a close eye on the weather and hopes that the return of cold weather will prevent the infernal bug from returning.

He is convinced that a new epidemic would jeopardise the survival of his farm, as well as that of the local sugar factory of which he is a customer.

“Add to that the price of my fertiliser, which has increased by 2.5 times, and the price of fuel oil, which has risen by 30%. With costs rising, we have to ensure a decent yield to get by,” he added.

“If one day an effective alternative is proposed, we will apply it,” Clain said.

In the immortal words of Michael Jackson, if you wanna stay alive, you better do what you can.

But, faced with mounting struggles and uncertain futures, many farmers are deciding that it’s better leave while they can – and just ‘beet’ it.

Farmers gathered in Paris to protest [Hugo Struna | EURACTIV]

By Hugo Struna

Agrifood podcast: EU agri ministers get angsty & agri-trade talks

Agrifood podcast: EU agri ministers get angsty & agri-trade talks

This week, EURACTIV’s agrifood team walks you through all the goings-on of the first meeting of EU agriculture ministers under the Swedish Presidency, including the latest on agri-trade with Ukraine and a push from ministers for more say over environmental …

Agrifood stories of the week

LEAK: European Parliament to push for 80% pesticides reduction target
The Member of the European Parliament leading the revision of the EU’s pesticide framework is pushing for more ambition both in targets and timelines for EU-wide pesticide cuts, according to a draft report seen by EURACTIV. Julia Dahm brings you all the details.

European Parliament: Tax pesticides to fund integrated pest management

A national ‘risk-based tax’ on pesticides to fund more sustainable alternatives has been proposed by the European Parliament lawmaker leading the EU’s plans to slash the use and risk of plant protection products by 2030. Natasha Foote has more.

Commission’s verdict still out on EU court ruling on bee-toxic pesticides
After a recent EU court decision to block the emergency use of bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides, the European Commission is still unclear on what exactly this ruling means in practice. Natasha Foote has more.

EU court exempts gene modification technique from stricter rules
The EU’s highest court has concluded that organisms obtained by in-vitro random mutagenesis, a genetic modification technique, are excluded from the bloc’s rules governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a move welcomed by industry players but lambasted by green groups. Natasha Foote explains all.

EU citizens rally against gene editing deregulation ahead of EU proposal
A coalition of organisations, bolstered by green and socialist MEPs, have presented a petition to the European Commission urging it not to loosen rules on gene editing techniques ahead of the EU executive’s upcoming proposal on the matter. Paula Andres brings you the news from on the ground.

Study: Organic farming saves billions but yields not up to par
Organic farming could save countries billions in environmental and climate costs, a German long-term study has found. However, the picture is soured by organic yields still trailing significantly behind those of conventional agriculture. Julia Dahm has the details.

CAP corner

State of play of CAP plans. EU Agriculture Commissioner gave a short overview of the state of play of the CAP strategic plans implementation on Twitter this week where he maintained that while most member states are not facing any major issues with the implementation of their plans and are underway ‘as expected’, political issues have been flagged for the Belgian region of Flanders. Meanwhile, some “technical issues” have been observed in Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Slovenia, which he said are being “closely monitored”. As things currently stand, Poland is the only member state so far to have formally requested an amendment to its plan.


Plans to slash pesticides. On the sidelines of an event on the EU’s sustainable use of pesticides regulation this week, a Commission official told EURACTIV that the EU executive is looking to do all it can to help provide the data required by member states, adding that there have been “very constructive discussions” now going on in the council Working Party in the past few weeks. The Commission has until the end of March to give its response to member states’ request for a further impact assessment, but this could be brought forward in order to speed up the process and get things underway “as quickly as possible”, the official added.

Strengthening solidarity lanes. In their joint statement following the recent EU-Ukraine Summit held in Kyiv on 3 February, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy underlined the importance of further strengthening the EU-Ukraine solidarity lanes, saying this is “essential” for ensuring continued availability and affordability of food and fertilisers. “We are standing in full solidarity with partners worldwide by stepping up the diplomatic outreach and support for global food security,” the statement added.

Control measures for avian influenza. The list of protection and surveillance zones for highly pathogenic avian influenza has been updated. Check it out here.

New faces, new places. The multi-stakeholder platform, the European Food Forum, has elected MEP Irene Tolleret as its new chair.

Have your (rural) voice heard. If you want to join the CAP network’s thematic group on rural youth employment, now’s your moment – you have until 13 February. More info here.

Agrifood news from the CAPitals


Bulgarian government introduces food price controls. Bulgaria will introduce a mechanism to monitor and control food prices across the entire supply chain, caretaker Prime Minister Galab Donev said after a meeting with ministers and representatives of consumer organisations on Tuesday (7 February). Find out more. (Krassen Nikolov I


Spanish national authorities uncover fraud on EU rural funds. The alleged fraud involves a Spanish farmers’ organisation (COAG) and it could sum up to 400.000 euros. The EU funds were intended to support foreign citizens in Spain in terms of organization and coordination of contracts, advice on socio-labour information and accommodation. However, authorities investigating the case revealed a system of falsification of signatures to justify the funds. COAG responded in a statement that they are ‘surprised and upset’ as they claim they had not been warned about any irregularities in a year and a half of investigation. (EFEAGRO)


Research strategy to focus on genomic techniques. New plant breeding techniques will be one focus of German research policy, according to a “Future Strategy Research and Innovation” published this week by the liberal-led Education and Research Ministry. To help develop more resilient crops, the government “will improve the conditions for breeding research,” the document reads, adding that “Germany can take a special leadership role within Europe in this area.” However, the liberal research minister’s openness to new genomic techniques is at odds with the position of Green environment minister Lemke, who has repeatedly spoken out against deregulating genomic techniques. (Julia Dahm I


Beetroot producers protest pesticide ruling. Beetroot producers took to the streets of Paris on Wednesday (8 February) with a convoy of tractors to protest the European Court of Justice’s recent ruling on bee-toxic pesticides. The Court had decided that EU countries can no longer grant temporary exemptions to allow the use of otherwise banned so-called neonicotinoid pesticides. Find out more from EURACTIV France. (Hugo Struna I


Fruit producers take to the streets. Not only Paris, but also Brussels saw tractors assemble for protests on Wednesday. In the Belgian capital, fruit producers protested to demand a fair share of profits from the sale of fruit. From the producers’ view, supermarkets pass a too small part of profits on to farmers, who are faced with increased production costs due to the large amounts of energy needed for cooling.


Austria to use space tech for CAP subsidies allocation. Austria has decided to mobilise satellite technology to check in detail whether farms are meeting the conditions for receiving billions in EU agriculture subsidies, a task which is often very complex and costly for national authorities. (Julia Dahm I


Minister defends inclusion of fertilisers in carbon tariff. Luxembourgish climate minister Joëlle Welfring has defended the inclusion of fertilisers in the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), effectively a carbon levy on imported goods. In response to a parliamentary question by right-wing lawmaker Jeff Engelen, who warned of negative effects on farmers in the face of already high fertiliser prices, Welfring said the step was necessary to protect domestic fertiliser producers against unfair competition. “In the production of fertilisers, large amounts of emissions occur and large amounts of energy are used,” she added. (Julia Dahm I


Petition against neonicotinoids. A new petition was launched this week to challenge the UK’s governments decision to re-authorise the emergency use of the neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam, to protect sugar beet crops from yellows virus, a move which has had green campaign groups up in arms. (Natasha Foote |


14-17 February | Biofach organics convention (Germany)

16 February | Working Party on International Food & Agricultural Questions

16 February | Debate in the European Parliament’s plenary session on making fertilisers available and affordable in the EU