The new European Commission, which took office on Dec. 1, 2019, under the presidency of German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen, intends to change the European economy totally, in a way that will mean big changes for agriculture, with a greater focus on environmental performance, reduced use of chemical inputs and a sharp increase in organic area.

At the same time, the EU-27 farm ministers are wrangling over proposals for the reform of the Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, based on a Commission proposal that builds a new structure around national plans with a greatly increased focus on environmental and climate action.

To add uncertainty to a time of enormous change for Europe’s grain and oilseed producers and processors, the EU is renegotiating its budget. A new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) was, in any case, needed, as the previous mandate expires. There’s the added complication of reshaping EU spending to take account of the UK’s having left the Union on Jan. 31, with no certainty yet about any future relationship.

Added to all that is the effect of COVID-19, which has shut down most of the European economy throughout the second quarter of 2020. The Commission and Member State governments moved fast to secure the supply of food, and apart from initial bottlenecks, there was little disruption to supply to consumers, but the pattern of consumption has changed dramatically. The closing of hotel, restaurant and catering outlets, for example, has meant a sharp fall in demand for cuts of meat like steak and disrupted the wine market. The von der Leyen Commission has come forward with big plans to stimulate the economy, in the aftermath of the crisis.

European Green Deal

Presenting the European Green Deal on Dec. 11, 2019, von der Leyen called the plan “our new growth strategy, for a growth that gives back more than it takes away.”

“It shows how to transform our way of living and working, of producing and consuming so that we live healthier and make our businesses innovative,” she said. “We will help our economy to be a global leader by moving first and moving fast.” Von der Leyen also expressed the view that “by showing the rest of the world how to be sustainable and competitive, we can convince other countries to move with us.”

Work on the Green Deal is being led by Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans.

“Our plan sets out how to cut emissions, restore the health of our natural environment, protect our wildlife, create new economic opportunities, and improve the quality of life of our citizens,” he said. “Our responsibility is to make sure that this transition is a just transition, and that nobody is left behind as we deliver the European Green Deal.”

Central to the detail is a target to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050, with the 2030 greenhouse gas emissions target increased to at least 50% for 2030. If the rest of the world doesn’t share the EU’s ambition on emissions, the Commission will propose a carbon border adjustment mechanism, to ensure that the price of imports reflects their carbon content. The measure will be designed to comply with WTO rules.

The Commission stresses the key role played by agriculture. Its proposals for the Common Agricultural Policy for 2021-2027 call for 40% of the CAP budget to contribute to climate action.

The CAP proposal is based around having national strategic plans, to make the policy more suited to local conditions. The actual introduction of the new policy is likely to be delayed until the beginning of 2022, and the Commission has said it will work with Member States to make sure their plans reflect the ambition of the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy. The idea is to introduce measures such as eco-schemes, rewarding farmers for improved environmental and climate performance, as well as to reduce the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics.

Farm to Fork Strategy

The Farm to Fork Strategy, unveiled on May 20, includes a commitment for the Commission to act to reduce the overall use of chemical pesticides by 50% with the use of more hazardous pesticides cut by 50% by 2030. To do it, the Commission will promote changes in agricultural practices, including the use of alternative control methods, such as crop rotation and mechanical weeding. It also will facilitate the placing on the market of biological controls.

It also plans to reduce soil nutrient losses by 50% without any deterioration in soil fertility, something it says will reduce the use of fertilizers by at least 20% by 2030.

A further concern is antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The Commission will aim to cut overall EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and aquaculture by 50% by 2030.

An action plan on organic farming is to be drawn up, to increase the proportion of EU farmland that is organic to 25% by 2030.

The plan also means reshaping food processing and retailing.

“Food processors, foodservice operators and retailers shape the market and influence consumers’ dietary choices through the types and nutritional composition of the food they produce, their choice of suppliers, production methods and packaging, transport, merchandising and marketing practices,” the Commission’s communication on the strategy said. “As the biggest global food importer and exporter, the EU food and drink industry also affects the environmental and social footprint of global trade.”

The Commission makes a lot of claims for the good its vision can do for the industry.

“Strengthening the sustainability of our food systems can help further build the reputation of businesses and products, create shareholder value, improve working conditions, attract employees and investors, and confer competitive advantage, productivity gains and reduced costs for companies,” the Commission said.

It plans a code of practice for business and marketing and wants companies to commit to action on health and sustainability, reformulating products, becoming more energy efficient and adapting marketing campaigns. They also want the industry to ensure that “food price campaigns do not undermine citizens’ perception of the value of food,” giving as an example that, “marketing campaigns advertising meat at very low prices must be avoided.”

A further call is for reduced packaging, and the Commission is planning to revise packaging legislation, support sustainable solutions, as well as to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in packaging.

The Commission is promising farmers it will make their lives better. In a fact sheet issued on the same day as the publication of the Farm to Fork Strategy, it held out the prospect of higher returns for farmers and food producers, from production linked to premium consumer demand. The changes will improve farmers’ position in the food chain, create a closer link between them and consumers and reduce costs, it said.

Agriculture lobby weakened

One feature of the Green Deal process is that it appears to some extent to have sidelined the once powerful agriculture lobby in policy making. President von der Leyen and Vice President Frans Timmermans have been the public voices of the Green Deal, with the rest of the EU’s executives trailing. Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski’s part in the launch of the Farm to Fork Strategy was limited, with Cypriot Stella Kyriadides, responsible for health, and Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, from Lithuania, taking the lead in its launch. Kyriakides called Farm to Fork, “the first time in the history of EU food policy that we propose a comprehensive agenda for all stages of food production,” explaining that it looked “particularly from the point of view of the consumer and the producer…putting them at the center of our focus.”

“The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the importance of a resilient food system and food security, given the strong links between our health, ecosystems and supply chains,” she said. “This is just the latest reminder of many: annual droughts, floods, forest fires and new pests are alarm bells that our food system must become more sustainable and resilient.”

However, Kyriakides did stress support for agriculture.

“The Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy will support our primary producers through new streams of funding and eco-schemes to implement sustainable practices,” she promised. “Because without prospering farmers, we will not ensure food security. Without a healthy planet, farmers will have nowhere to farm.”

Sinkevičius insisted that, “we have really worked to get everyone on board: farmers, fishermen and women, business and consumers. Only if we all act together, then we can stop the dramatic biodiversity loss that affects all of us.”

In the absence of Wojciechowski, the only other member of the Commission at the launch of the two strategies was Frans Timmermans. He stressed that the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies are a central element of the EU’s recovery plan.

“They are crucial for our health, for our well-being and are crucial for creating immediate business and investment opportunities so that we can restore the EU’s economy as fast as possible,” he said.

The Dutchman also insisted that they were “not about telling people what to do.”

“They are about telling people how they can make their choices better informed, so we give them what they deserve: more sustainable food, better information and to bolster their rights to choose,” he said. “Better-informed citizens are stronger citizens, creating a stronger society.”

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