Brussels facing a challenging year of agri-food balancing acts

A host of European civil society organizations, citizens and MEPs are up in arms against a forthcoming Commission proposal which could relax EU regulations on plant gene editing, known as new breeding techniques (NBTs), presenting the Brussels executive a 420,000-signatory petition on 7 February calling for NBTs to remain under the same regulatory regime as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

While proponents hail gene editing technology as critical for satisfying the competing demands of farming productivity, food security and industry sustainability, given that NGTs enable the growth of drought and heat-resistant crops and higher yields with fewer inputs, its European detractors fear opening the floodgates could lead to slacker environmental standards, pointing to similar deregulation in the US and other parts of the world.

The NGT brouhaha is just one of several hotly debated agri-food policy decisions in the EU’s pipeline with significant competition, social and environmental implications. Facing a pivotal moment in its agri-food policymaking, Brussels must balance the urgent economic needs of its farming community against the longer-term necessity of creating a greener, healthier food system.

Ukraine support proving problematic

Meanwhile, the EU’s ongoing support of Ukraine in the wake of its invasion by Russia is also throwing up unforeseen issues. In a bid to support Ukrainian farmers, whose grain exports accounted for almost 10% of the global total prior to the war, Brussels has launched a  “solidarity lanes” scheme for exporting grain by land, as well as temporarily suspending all tariffs and quotas on imports into the bloc. While providing an invaluable lifeline to Kyiv’s struggling economy, the solidarity lanes have inadvertently put the squeeze on EU farmers.

With Ukrainian imports skyrocketing from thousands to millions of tons in a matter of months, there is now a surplus of grain on the European market, sharply affecting farmers in Central and Eastern European member states, including Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, whose farmers have been forced to slash their prices. As a result, six EU member states, led by Poland, have tabled a joint statement asking for mitigation measures and economic support for those most affected, while expressing support for continuing the bloc’s assistance for Ukrainian farmers.

Although the Commission has recently signaled continued ‘solidarity lanes’ support, the “jury’s still out” on policy measures to simultaneously support EU farmers and resolve this internal market disruption.

FOP saga rumbles on

The EU executive’s ‘jury’ remains similarly undecided in the long-running debate over a bloc-wide Front-of-Package (FOP) healthy food label aimed at improving dietary health and tackling a growing obesity crisis in Europe. Divisions within the EU have been primarily focused on France-backed Nutri-Score, a red-green, A-to-E labelling system.

After being adopted by several EU members and major corporations, Nutri-Score once seemed like a safe bet to be rolled out across the EU. However, a coalition of countries across Europe, often led by Mediterranean countries, have persistently brought to light the system’s fundamental shortcomings; namely, the impact on its imbalanced algorithm – which has had to be revised – on local agri-food producers’ competitiveness and consumer decision-making.

Essentially, by overly weighing “negative” contents of salt, sugar and fats inherent to certain heritage foods, including cured hams, cheeses and olive oil, while failing to factor in realistic portion sizes, Nutri-Score’s algorithm designates these products unfairly harsh grades that threaten the viability and competitiveness of local producers while giving consumers a misguided, absolutist view of dietary health. And despite its update, the algorithm has retained its misguided focus on negative ingredients to the detriment of important micronutrients found in local farmers’ products.

With an already-delayed Commission proposal looking like it could be indefinitely shelved and the EU executive having previously suggested that Nutri-Score will not get the green light, new research suggests a better approach to tackling obesity should focus on improving nutritional education and healthy food affordability rather than on oversimplifying with one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations.

German Minister feeling the heat

Furthermore, the Commission’s heal-dragging on its FOP proposal is fueling a heated domestic agri-food labeling debate in Germany, with animal welfare, husbandry and product origin all part of the argument.

Germany’s Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir has attempted to address the subject by proposing a mandatory FOP requirement for all animal products, including processed and frozen products, which must specify the conditions in which the animals were reared. The bill was approved by the German cabinet in October and came into force for pork products in December, with expansion into all foodstuffs containing animal ingredients scheduled for the future.

However, Özdemir wishes to wait for the EU’s FOP proposals before full implementation for fear that foreign, unlabeled and cheaper products could undermine the internal market by exposing local German farmers, who are calling for additional financial support to improve welfare standards, to unfair competition. While understandable, his reluctance to plough ahead with the legislation has drawn a backlash from Socialist lawmakers and animal welfare groups.

A decisive year for Euro agri-food

The damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t dilemma facing Özdemir is redolent of the greater predicaments facing the Commission on a continent-wide scale. It seems as though no matter which decisions it makes, there will always be those whom they inadvertently disadvantage and displease. Whether it be NBT farming, Ukrainian grain, FOP labels or unfair market competition, there are two sides to each of the bloc’s boisterous agri-food debate and those tasked with finding a compromise will find no furrow easy to plough.

Instead, they must carefully weigh up the grievances brought by each party, as well as the various solutions that are being proposed, to settle upon those that will ensure short-term economic prosperity, without endangering the overarching goal of a greener future for European farming. Crossing these various impasses will occupy the attention of Europe’s chief personnel in the weeks and months ahead, meaning 2023 is set to be a decisive year for the bloc’s farming community and the millions of European citizens which feed and thrive upon it.

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