The EU’s emerging response to the food crisis needs urgent reset

To reduce the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food security, many European actors propose to increase production in the EU, regardless of the associated environmental costs. This blog post intends to refocus the debate on more fundamental concerns highlighted by the food crisis.

The brutal war in Ukraine already has had a significant effect on food supplies and an even bigger one on global markets, requiring an urgent response. As confirmed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and others, the greatest food supply needs are in Ukraine itself and in those lower-income countries most dependent on imports of wheat, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. Measures to increase and target aid, for example through the World Food Programme, and avoid exacerbating the situation via unhelpful trade restrictions (as introduced by at least one EU country), demand priority. EU Member States also have a responsibility towards their citizens most vulnerable to a jump in the cost of living, attributable to rising energy, food, and other prices. The EU could help to organise and fund such a response.

It is therefore astonishing to see that so many of the responses from the EU agricultural establishment, including EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski and some leading European politicians, are facing quite another direction. Member States and parliamentarians issuing statements or responding to early versions of the Commission’s imminent paper on food security1 have focused disproportionately on support for the pig sector, increasing production of proteins in the EU and demanding delays, if not revisions, to the Farm to Fork strategy. Several agricultural ministries are pressing for a weakening of environmental requirements in their CAP strategic plans, now close to being signed off, which would have substantive five-year consequences, stretching way beyond the present crisis.

Many assume, with little evidence presented, that an immediate increase in EU production is needed. Measures to support livestock farmers, since they are major consumers of grain and proteins, are also prominent. Particular haste in initiating aid for the pig sector is demanded, even though prices are rising. These very immediate preoccupations, especially with livestock feed supplies, have squeezed out a more strategic search for synergies with the sustainability agenda, as is occurring in the energy sector. We can witness quite the reverse in agriculture, where there is a demand from Commissioner Wojciechowski and leading political voices to roll back the fundamental agenda for more sustainable farming in Europe: the Farm to Fork Strategy. This is despite the fact that most key measures within the Strategy have yet to be proposed and debated and one of its prime aims is to increase resource efficiency and decrease dependency on fossil fuel-derived inputs. To top this off, there is a bandwagon of Member States demanding licence to grow protein crops on scarce patches of environmentally valuable farmland, generally noted for their lack of productive potential.

Absent from this agenda are more fundamental concerns highlighted by the food crisis, such as the high levels of dependency on increasingly costly nitrogen fertilisers manufactured from gas and the growing diversion of cereals crops into biofuels.

It is essential that leaders in the Commission and Member States review this skewed approach as urgently as possible and before strategic decisions are taken within the Commission this week. An early package of agricultural policy proposals has already been presented to the European Parliament, and Ursula von der Leyen is due to consider the wider picture, including the possible scale-back of the Farm to Fork strategy, before the end of the week.

More EU production?

Rapidly increasing production in richer parts of the world such as the EU was not on the FAO’s list of urgent responses required in the global food system. Most academics agree, pointing out that the solutions to tackling hunger and supply shortages lie elsewhere. An increasing number argue that dietary change and lower livestock production in Europe is a better solution. However, this has not prevented increased supply from being at the forefront of thinking amongst EU agricultural policymakers. For example, Norbert Lins, chair of the Parliament’s Agri Committee to the Agriculture Commissioner, stressed in a letter on 7 March the importance of increasing EU protein production for livestock feed. More generally, he proposes that “While increasing production has become our most important priority, national strategic plans [within the CAP] should be assessed to make necessary adaptations to the new circumstances, including the use of relevant flexibilities to increase the acreage of lands under production”. The long-standing inclination to increase EU output irrespectively of other concerns is taken as self-evident, rather than built on any convincing rationale. It is also in direct conflict with the effort to increase resource efficiency in agriculture (which goes unquestioned in the energy sector) and reduce pressures on the farmed environment that stand in the way of meeting the EU’s climate and biodiversity goals.

By contrast, some of the obvious drawbacks of cranking up EU production have not received airtime. For example, European agriculture is particularly dependent on inorganic (manufactured) fertilisers, with the EU consuming about 10% of the world’s supply. Supplies have tightened and prices increased significantly since the introduction of a ban on Russian exports of nitrogen, potash and phosphate-based fertilisers.

The nitrogen issue

The prime feedstock for the largest component of this input, nitrogen fertilisers, is natural gas, accounting for a large share of the production cost and explaining why ammonium nitrate costs have broadly doubled since September 2021. Given the low price of gas in the country, it is not surprising that nitrogen-based fertilisers imports originate mainly from Russia (50 % of total EU imports on average since 2010).

Consequently, as the EU develops strategies to reduce gas dependency, increase energy efficiency and ramp up the deployment of renewable energy in response to the Ukraine crisis, it needs to bring fertilisers into the frame and reduce this manifestation of gas dependency as well. Fortunately, the Farm to Fork Strategy already foresees measures to reduce nitrogen use by 2030. Now, these need to be accelerated rapidly both by setting a more ambitious and urgent target to reduce nitrogen use and through specific measures such as free nutrient management advice for farmers and accelerated investment aid for improved efficiency, covering slurry management as well as inorganic fertiliser. This is an area where a rapid modification of the Member States’ draft CAP strategic plans would be particularly helpful and timely.

This is a prime example of why the Farm to Fork strategy needs to be harnessed to ensure a coherent plan rather than pushed back.

The livestock issue

Livestock consumes about 60% of cereals produced in Europe as well as most oilseeds in the form of concentrated feed. Although there is considerable scientific consensus that the average consumption of livestock products in Europe is too high from a health perspective and is also a primary cause of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution, production is broadly unchanged. The output of poultry meat, based almost exclusively on concentrated feeds, has risen by about 30% since 2010.

Prices of both cereals and oilseeds on the global market have been rising for a number of reasons, including drought in certain supply regions, now exacerbated by disruptions to imports from Ukraine, particularly of maize and oilseeds. This creates pressures on the incomes of many livestock farmers, especially those dependent on bought-in feed. However, it is also a signal of high demand for cereals for other purposes, not least for direct human consumption. Initial calculations based on the GlobAgri modelsuggests that potentially 7 million hectares of land and 23 million tonnes of cereals could be freed up by cutting production of livestock most dependent on cereals (pig and poultry) by 15% and production of other animals (beef and milk) by 5%. It is a further prompt to consider the future of the livestock sector, alongside other established needs to: reduce greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions, cut dependence on unsustainable feed sources, improve farm animal welfare and reduce the scale of antimicrobial consumption.

The cost of prioritising intensive feeding regimes for livestock is underlined by the wave of Member States petitioning to allow their larger arable farmers to abandon one of their main environmental commitments under the CAP payments regime and plant protein crops instead. The land concerned by this debate so far is mostly small segments of large arable areas that are left uncropped (fallow land), which are among the ecological focus areas (EFA) with the most positive impact on biodiversity. Moreover, if planting were to be practical and cost-effective (not a trivial assumption), yields still would be below average and the contribution to supply modest, as fallow land has low productivity. The choice between marginal benefits for livestock producers and production (vis-à-vis reducing demand for feed as illustrated above) and increasing environmental damage is stark.

The Farm to Fork strategy is a frame within which to address these challenges. In some cases, a reduction in livestock numbers will be required, as is being discussed in the Netherlands at present, with generous compensatory payments on the agenda. Advancing rather than deferring this debate at the EU level should be the way forward now. At the same time, a bolder approach to planning for Just Transition in EU agriculture would provide more confidence to those Member States and farms anxious about the costs of adjustment. Short term measures to prop up high-input livestock systems are a poor substitute for accelerated planning for a more sustainable approach to meat and dairy production in Europe. Furthermore, there is a very timely opportunity to direct funds under the CAP towards this aim. Before the still draft CAP strategic plans are finalised over the next few months, there is now the chance to build in additional transitional aid measures for livestock farms adopting more ambitious forms of sustainability. This appears more appropriate than channelling increasing amounts of production subsidies to the livestock sector: recent figures from the Commission show that nearly all Member States have high levels of direct-coupled income support within their CAP strategic plans and that about 70% of these funds are devoted to the livestock sector.3

To conclude

Some of the proposals in the Commission’s early draft food security paper, due to be published this Wednesday 23 March, would address well-founded objectives, such as getting food where it is needed. However, the agriculture sector needs a more strategic approach, bringing forward a transition, re-examining the role of livestock systems, reducing the level of nitrogen inputs (and hence dependency), and embracing rather than watering down key measures under the Green Deal. Throughout Europe, the understanding is that the status quo will need to change following the war in Ukraine. And agriculture is no exception.

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Agra Facts No 24-22

2 Calculations by IDDRI – contact Pierre-Marie Aubert at pierremarie.aubert@iddri.org

Nineteen Member States plan implementation above 10% of the direct payments and mostly close to their ceiling, two Member States plan about 10% and four Member States below 5% of their direct payments envelopes. The total budget for the direct payments to 2027 is EUR 291 billion. Figures on the overall level of CAP spending on coupled support are not published.