Powerful industrial-agriculture lobbies are seeking to take advantage of the crisis to undermine EU commitments.
The war the Kremlin has launched on Ukraine and the destruction it has wrought on the population have shocked the world, evoking a series of responses by the European Union. Among its myriad ramifications, our energy and food systems will be shaken.
Agriculture in the EU is dependent on Russian exports of phosphate fertilisers and of gas for the production of nitrogen-based alternatives. We also import large amounts of grain and oilseed for livestock feed from Ukraine. The disruptions to trade resulting from the war are a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities of our globalised food system.
But we must steer clear of simple fixes with potentially harmful long-term impacts. The tragedy is being exploited by big European agriculture lobbies, in the name of ‘food security’, to urge the rolling back of the ecological objectives of the European Green Deal. This would be disastrous.
Beyond Europe, the war does pose a severe threat to food security: Ukraine and Russia together account for 30 per cent of the wheat, 17 per cent of the corn and over half of the sunflower oil and seed traded worldwide. Ukraine is a significant supplier of wheat for human consumption in northern Africa and the middle east, while Russia exports large amounts to many sub-Saharan countries.
Food prices are already at their highest since 2011 and the war is likely to exacerbate the situation, which will hit hard low-income populations in these regions. Such dire circumstances call for urgent and unprecedented short-term solutions to prevent a rise in hunger and food insecurity—the think-tank IDDRI has made useful suggestions.
The situation with regard to food security in Europe is however very different and should not be misconstrued. Increases in food prices will indeed affect low-income households and social policies are needed to support vulnerable groups. But Europe is not facing any shortage of food.
Agricultural imports from Ukraine and Russia are primarily used to feed livestock. The EU is a net exporter of cereals and cereal and oilseed imports from the two countries account for less than 10 per cent of the EU total.
Making the transition
The war on Ukraine thus does not pose a threat to the EU’s food supplies. What is foregrounded is the union’s dependence on feed and fertiliser imports.
The EU could try, as some urge, to compensate for the reduction in these imports, without regard to cost, to maintain the status quo in our food production and consumption. Or it could use these supply shocks and resulting surges in prices to lead a transition—from intensive livestock rearing and input-dependent and environmentally-destructive agriculture to a sustainable, relocalised and resilient food system.
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The EU spends €1 billion annually on Russian fertilisers, inefficiently used and causing widespread pollution. Take the disruption of the phosphorus cycle caused by fertilisers used in industrial agriculture. The mining of mineral phosphorus has resulted in a resource paradox: we are rapidly approaching global scarcity, while agricultural soil in most industrialised countries with a long history of fertiliser use contains high levels of residual phosphorus. This is inaccessible to plants, so farmers have to overcompensate with more fertiliser.
Rather than switching our fertiliser dependence from Russia to other countries—from which it could come with high densities of polluting heavy metals such as cadmium—the EU should invest in the transition to agroecology, supporting self-sufficiency and sustainability. By enhancing biodiversity and integrating different and mutually-supporting plant species, farmers can boost soil microbes which make phosphorus accessible to plants and thus increase the efficiency of the phosphorus cycle, aiding circular nutrient management.
Science is unequivocal that—over and above dietary considerations—we need to reduce the consumption and production of meat. Intensive animal farms, rife with antimicrobial resistance, pose serious risks of zoonotic disease and cause heavy pollution, which harms human health. Industrial livestock farming in the EU is largely export-oriented and highly dependent on imports of feed, the production of which also takes up a huge share of European arable land.
Rebalancing of power
Using land set aside for biodiversity to produce feed for livestock would thus be wrong and unsustainable. The solution is to switch to less and better animal farming and meat, dairy and egg consumption. This transition requires time and structural change, including a rebalancing of power—increasingly concentrated—in the food value chain. Those at the top do not have the interests of small producers and consumers at heart.
Big intensive farming lobbies, with the backing of familiar faces in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, are looking to exploit the current crisis to protect their own interests, to the detriment of the wider union. Led by the powerful French FNSEA and German Bauernverband, with support from Copa Cogeca, they have been quick to build an emotive narrative of looming food shortages to justify calls for the rolling back of green measures and targets—capitalising on fear to defend their privileges and thwart the agri-food sector’s transition to sustainability.
The shortcomings of European food production were recognised by the EU with the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork and biodiversity strategies. The invasion of Ukraine, as with the pandemic, has highlighted these vulnerabilities. A food system dependent on global commodity trading of fertilisers derived from fossil fuels and crops for livestock feed and biofuel production is neither resilient nor sustainable.
Food production will not benefit from being made less sustainable, as the European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans stressed this month to the parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. The current crisis should bolster political support for the EU’s green objectives and an acceleration towards them. Public spending should facilitate the shift to a resilient and sustainable food system and support producers in this transition.
Logic of overproduction
The focus on ever-increasing production has unbalanced our agri-food sector to favour an outdated logic of overproduction. It has supported the compartmentalisation of EU agriculture policy to cater for the interests of the powerful few, with disastrous consequences for nature and ecosystems. These same actors must not be allowed to take advantage of the tragic war in Ukraine to impede the progress made so far to repair the damage done.
‘Delay means death’ was the warning of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ministers and EU institutions must heed this by honouring their environmental commitments. As Timmermans declared, ‘Farm to Fork is part of the answer and not part of the problem.’