Europe’s agricultural sector needs help amid energy and food crisis

The energy crisis in Europe – which was triggered mainly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Putin’s subsequent reduction of natural gas flows to the EU – is rapidly turning into a food crisis. With the costs of maintaining their operations spiraling out of control, many farmers are forced to reduce production. The situation is particularly dire against a backdrop of global food shortages and after a summer of devastating droughts that had already brought the agricultural sector to its knees.

Under these circumstances, it is clear that Europe’s vital agricultural industry is in desperate need of increased support. On the one hand, EU policymakers should begin by reassessing the initiatives planned before the war and its fallout, as stubbornly sticking to arbitrary targets could have a deleterious impact on an already struggling industry. Front-of-package (FOP) labelling, pesticide restrictions and eco-targets should all come under renewed scrutiny, while it is also imperative that the agri-food sector be brought to the fore. forefront when politicians have to make tough decisions about fuel rationing in the face of a grim winter.

A fallow year for the food industry

2022 promises to be a difficult season for the European agricultural sector. The latest blow earlier this month after the Kremlin confirmed it would indefinitely suspend gas flows along its Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline in the face of European sanctions. Energy is important to all facets of agriculture, but some are particularly sensitive.

For example, pasteurization and powdered milk production both consume large amounts of energy, drive up prices 80% butter and 55% powdered milk and crippling dairies and bakeries. The fertilizer sector has also been strongly affected, as its production costs are closely linked to the price of natural gas and have therefore resurrected dramatically in recent months. Due to this strong economic pressure, approximately 70% of European fertilizer capacity is offline, which could have a disastrous impact on crop yields.

The International Fertilizer Association (IFA) has valued that the war could lead to a reduction in world production of corn, rice, soybeans and spawn by around 2%. In Europe, it comes following long dry spells in more than half of EU member states this summer, meaning the bloc’s gross grain production is expected down 4% from the five-year average. Yields of sunflower seeds could fall by 12%, while corn is likely to fall by 16%.

Worse still, this weather misfortune is expected to occur with increasing regularity in the future. According According to the European Drought Observatory, nearly half (47%) of EU land is already at the drought risk ‘warning’ indicator, while 17% is at the most extreme “alert”. With the intensification of climate change, the current problems of the European food sector are only likely to snowball in the future.

Workers pick grapes during the traditional Champagne wine harvest near Epernay, France.

Policy makers need to adapt to changing times

With this in mind, legislators must implement sustainable solutions to support European agriculture in the short and long term. For starters, policymakers need to reconsider initiatives that are misguided or overambitious given the current climate.

For example, the EU’s attempt to streamline FOP labeling and harmonize it across the bloc, allowing consumers to make better-informed decisions is certainly commendable. However, one of the precursors of a Europe-wide FOP system, the French Nutri-score system, has serious shortcomings that could make it very detrimental to the European agri-food sector at this pivotal time. Particularly troubling is Nutri-score’s arbitrary grading framework, which ranks foods on an oversimplified scale of A to E, from green to red, based on a single 100g or 100ml serving, without considering nutritional nuances. .

As a result, some ultra-processed products (such as soft drinks and sugary cereals) score deceptively high, while products central to Europe’s food heritage (such as olive oil and parmesan cheese) are discriminated. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong backlash between several European countries – especially those for whom these foods form the backbone of their diets and agricultural industries – and the Italian Competition Authority (ICA) has even ruled that Nutri-score mislead consumers. Given the pressure European farmers are already under, adopting a controversial nutrition label that puts additional pressure on local producers seems misguided.

Attempts to phase out chemical additives are also well-intentioned but misguided. As mentioned above, a fertilizer shortage is already expected to impact crop yields, so stick strictly to a 2030 target to reduce pesticide use by 50%. could further jeopardize food securityas farmers across Europe have warned.

Another green initiative that could go too far is the potential inclusion of a mandate for biomethane in the upcoming Renewable Energy Directive. Again, the ambition is admirable, but the goal of producing 35 billion cubic meters of biomethane by 2030 is believed to be almost double the maximum achievable if money weren’t an issue and more than four times what could be done on a reasonable budget.

Prudence and pragmatism must dictate policy

Of course, this year’s extreme weather events are the strongest evidence available that the EU must take action to future-proof its food industry against similar events in the future, and a transition to greener practices must certainly be encouraged. However, this long-term sustainability should not come at the expense of short-term survival, especially when an energy and economic crisis threatens to turn into a food disaster.

Thanks to the various climatological and geopolitical challenges that the global food industry has faced this year, many producers are expected to slow down their production this winter. Since the poorest regions of the world are potentially facing food shortages of up to 30 million metric tons of produce, bringing 30 million people to the brink of food insecurity, policymakers must recognize the immediate problems at hand. This means reassessing outdated targets, exercising caution and offering targeted support where it is most needed to ensure that European farmers can enjoy a greener future by surviving a darker today. .

Lana T. Arthur