‘Much ado about nothing’ was the title of the Shakespearean play that came to mind when the Farm to Fork report was largely approved by the plenary of the European Parliament this week. But the whole fuss generated around this vote also reminded us of a different tragedy by the bard.

What are we talking about here? Well, in the (highly unlikely) event that it slipped your notice, European lawmakers backed their report on the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, this week.

The vote on the strategy, which aims to better align agriculture and food policies with the objectives of the European Green Deal, passed with a large majority of 452 of the 699 Members of Parliament voting in favour, sending a clear signal of support for the bloc’s green ambitions in a move widely seen as a victory for green campaigners.

While the vote, which took place in Strasbourg during the plenary session on Tuesday (19 October), carries no legislative weight, it gives Parliament’s blessing for the Commission’s vision for the future of the sector, as outlined in the strategy.

Despite the over dramatisation ahead of the vote, the report also passed nearly untouched, with only one amendment.

Of course, this is not intended to diminish the work of environmental campaigners and the Greens in the European Parliament, as the approved text is admittedly ambitious.

Still, we’ve rarely seen a non-binding parliamentary resolution that has made this much noise.

It’s worth noting, again, that the report does not bring any addition to the Commission’s strategy – in fact, you could say that the real battle has only just begun.

The first round will be the overhaul of the sustainable use of pesticides directive – confirmed to be scheduled next May – an acid test to see how the Commission aims to meet the target of slashing the use and risk of chemical pesticides in half in practice.

You could also say that, contrary to popular opinion, the real winner of this polarised clash on this parliamentary vote is, in fact, the European Commission.

When they presented their strategy back in May 2020, they were criticised from both sides: NGOs were disappointed by the lack of ambition, while the industry took umbrage with the concept of targets.

The clash with the industry ahead of this vote regrouped the NGOs and other environmental groups behind the Commission’s stance, the same one which was once initially considered not ambitious or bold enough to tackle the transition in the food systems.

After this vote, the EU executive can now count on the support of the Parliament, as well as the full-throated advocacy of the F2F by civil society, and they also survived another attempt from the industry to get an overall impact assessment.

Not bad going.

The other interesting take is that, like another ruckus last year surrounding the veggie burger ban, the Farm to Fork quarrel has exploded in the EU bubble, and arguably blown way out of proportion.

So much energy has been spent on a report that ultimately doesn’t change much at all, other than to further polarise a debate that requires a greater commonality of purpose among all stakeholders to solve.

Outside the EU bubble, agricultural entrepreneurs keep closing down, biodiversity loss continues apace and every passing day soil, our black gold, is deteriorating.

Interests are interests, but the risk of this fight between the industry and the NGOs reminds the other feud between Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s other tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet.

The mortal hatred between the two families led to the famous, tragic end with both lovers dying of a foolish death.

Do we really want the same destiny for the lovers of our play – our farmers and our planet?

(G.F. and N.F.)

Agrifood Podcast

This week, EURACTIV discusses the outcome of the European Parliaments vote on their own initiative report on the Farm to Fork strategy, and we speak with Diana Lenzi, President of young farmers’ association CEJA, about her experience in converting her family farm to organic, including her motivations for doing so and the challenges she encountered along the way.

Stories of the week

Farming sustainability protocols can be an invaluable tool for farmers to tell their story and keep farms economically viable so they can be passed onto future generations, US farmer Aaron Barcellos told EURACTIV in an interview.

France’s food and public health agencies, Anses and Santé Publique France, have announced that they would be launching a study on pesticide exposure among people living in wine-growing areas. The issue is of growing concern in France and the EU. EURACTIV France reports.

The EU’s push on organic farming could have ripple effects across Africa, but only if African farmers have equal access to the European Market as well as the skills and resources to capitalise on this, stakeholders have told EURACTIV.

Be sure to check out this EURACTIV Virtual Conference where panellists discussed how member states will deliver on their CAP strategic plans. Relive all the fun here

Convergence: In a Twitter thread, leftist MEP Luke Ming Flanagan spelt out what convergence in the CAP is this week, criticising the fact that Ireland has only opted for the minimum mandatory convergence, which was set at 85%. “While 85% isn’t 100%, it’s still satisfying to see that as a result of my amendment at the AGRI committee in 2019 the minister has at least been forced to go this far,” he said, adding that if convergence had remained at a minimum of 60%, it would have cost the poorest farmers “hundreds of millions” of euros.

News from the bubble

Misuse of agricultural funds: Members of the budget control committee will discuss the follow-up to the investigation into possible misuse of EU agriculture funds in Slovakia on Monday (25 October), with Slovakia’s Agriculture Minister Samuel Vlčan, the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF and the Commission.

Methane strategy: The European Parliament called on the European Commission for a legislative proposal for binding targets methane emissions this week for the first time. The strategy, which carries a lot of significance for the agricultural sector, calls for the reduction of methane emissions as part of the measures to combat climate change.

Green campaigners welcomed the news, with the Humane Society International saying that it showed MEPs resisted “cynical attempts” to weaken language on emissions associated with animal agriculture. While EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA said they supported the move in principle, they said they regretted yet another call for the Commission to set binding measures and reduction targets. “Given their on-the-ground realities, farmers should be given the discretion to choose which are the best practices and measures to implement,” they said. 

Carbon farming: The green association European Environmental Bureau (EEB) launched a new report on carbon farming which looks at the topic from an agronomic perspective. Carbon farming is expected to be debated quite extensively in the coming months, as a specific Commission’s initiative on the issue is in the pipeline. Despite being neglected by NGOs in the past, carbon farming represents for the EEB an interface between agriculture and climate.

According to the authors of the report, the carbon farming issue should be treated more holistically also considering the potential of agroecology for ensuring biodiversity. “Carbon in soil is so important and we are missing a lot of it, so bringing it back is crucial,” EEB’s policy officer Celia Nyssens told EURACTIV.

The report contains a set of policy recommendations to change the current policy framework on carbon farming switching to effective incentives combined with legally binding targets on climate, nature and soil.

Instead of spending public money to incentivise the practice, the report suggests conceiving some non-market-based private financing options, including collaborative schemes. “We should encourage big retailers investing not in carbon credits but in partnerships with farmers,” she explained.

Novel food: The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) published a new scientific opinion on the safety of an application for the marketing of an alternative protein as a novel food this week, the first in a growing number of novel food applications that EFSA is receiving for sustainable alternative proteins. EFSA’s experts concluded that the consumption of the NF is not nutritionally disadvantageous and is safe under the proposed conditions of use and use levels.

Fur farming ban: Ahead of the G20 meeting in Rome later this month, a petition of almost 900,000 signatures gathered by the Fur Free Alliance is calling on world leaders to ban fur farming globally. 

Gene editing consultation: The European Commission’s public consultation on the legal framework for plants obtained by new plant breeding techniques closes today (Friday, 22 October) at midnight. At the time of writing, over 60,000 EU citizens had already given their response to the survey, with the overwhelming majority pointing to the fact that they did not want to see deregulation or loosening of regulation on gene-edited organisms. There is still time to have your say, which you can do so here

Waste not, want not: The JRC has developed a harmonised methodology to estimate food waste generated by EU countries. The new method – as reported in De Laurentiis et al, 2021 – quantifies food waste at the country level allowing the comparison of food waste generation across countries and the EU Bioeconomy Monitoring System has been updated to include the JRC food waste indicators.

From the Capitals

Slovakia will submit a CAP strategic plan to the Commission within the required deadline, the Slovak ministry of agriculture told EURACTIV Slovakia. After sources told EURACTIV last week that the country was one of those far behind with their plans, the Slovakian agricultural ministry denied that it would not be able to send the Commission a draft of the key plan for future agricultural subsidies by the end of the year. Instead, it said it wants to complete the related documents “in the coming days” and present them to the public in the “coming weeks”. “We expect the strategic plan to be approved by the government and then sent to the Commission this year,” the ministry said, adding that the delay was due to the fact that legislation on the reformed CAP has still not been definitively approved. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)

The clash between the Greek agriculture ministry and banks has escalated after it was revealed that banks ask farmers’ personal assets as a guarantee to give loans for investments in the field. “It is inconceivable that banks demand that farmers who want to invest in the agricultural sector put their personal property as collateral,” said Spilios Livanos, Greece’s Minister of Rural Development and Food. “What I expect from banks is to take the risk together with the people who want to invest in our field and to grow much faster,” he added. Livanos explained that loans of €480 million could have flowed into the market since the establishment of the Guarantee Fund, which was created to support businesses during the pandemic. However, in reality, to date, only €70 million of the 1,200 applications submitted have been approved and of these, less than €4 million have been disbursed.   (Georgia Karagianni | EURACTIV.gr)

Germany’s likely new government coalition wants to promote the transition to sustainable agriculture. On Friday (15 October), the Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals published a preliminary agreement outlining the results of their exploratory talks. According to the paper, the potential coalition would “take effective measures for the protection of biodiversity and the environment”. At the same time, the parties’ stated goal is to secure an adequate income for farmers. The agreement also foresees to support livestock farmers in enhancing animal welfare and introducing an animal welfare label, although it is not clear whether this would be compulsory or not. What is also left unclear is how the coalition would stand on new genomic techniques – a potential sticking point between the Greens and the Liberals. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.DE)

The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (Anses) and public health service Santé publique France have announced the launch of a large-scale study called “PestiRiv” to assess the exposure of people living in the vicinity of vineyards to pesticides and the potential correlations with their health. The study will be run in two stages, during the relatively pesticide-free months of October to February (starting this month), and from March to August 2022, when the use of pesticides is highest. Researchers will take citizens’ hair and urine samples as well as measure the quality of air, water and food in the chosen vineyards’ vicinity in a bid to “identify the factors which contribute to the exposure to pesticides and adapt prevention measures accordingly”. Hailed by civil society organisations, the announcement has sparked concerns amongst winemakers, who fear the negative backlash on their image the study might provoke. ​​(Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.FR)

The farming sector has taken a hit due to high gas prices in recent weeks, which has slowed down the production of fertilisers given that gas is a key ingredient in the production of nitrogen fertilizers, accounting for over 70% of production costs. However, the two largest Polish producers of fertilisers, Grupa Azoty and Anwi, declared this week that they will not limit their production despite unfavourable market conditions. Grupa Azoty is currently one of the few producers of fertilisers in Europe that has not closed or significantly limited production at its plants. “The priority at this point is to guarantee Polish farmers access to fertilisers, which is why the group has recently decided to limit exports and redirect products to the domestic market, with the exception of long-term contracts,” Monika Darnobyt, from Grupa Azoty, said. (Kamila Wilczyńska | EURACTIV.pl)

Responding to the news that the UK had struck a free trade deal with New Zealand, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Minette Batters warned that this deal, coupled with the Australia deal signed earlier this year, means the UK will be “opening our doors to significant extra volumes of imported food – whether or not produced to our own high standards – while securing almost nothing in return for UK farmers”. “We should all be worried that there could be a huge downside to these deals, especially for sectors such as dairy, red meat and horticulture,” she said, pointing out that UK farm businesses face “significantly higher costs of production” than farmers in New Zealand and Australia. “The government is now asking British farmers to go toe-to-toe with some of the most export-orientated farmers in the world, without the serious, long-term and properly funded investment in UK agriculture that can enable us to do so,” she said. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

A number of Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) protests took place this week in the south of the country today in response to the announcement of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strategic plan funding allocations this week after they were denounced for being the “single biggest threat” to farming livelihoods, according to Agriland. Speaking at one of the protests, the president of the IFA, Tim Cullinan, said that buried behind “all the hype and big headline figures” in the CAP plan announcement lies “savage cuts to a cohort of farmers”. “This comes on top of farmers being hit with climate targets without any impact assessment of the consequences for individual farmers or rural Ireland,” he pointed out. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

The Government and the autonomous communities have distributed €145 million to rural areas to promote environmental sustainability, competitiveness and digitisation of the countryside, as well as for rural development. EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro has more

Upcoming events

25-26 October | Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development will hold meetings to discuss, among other things, animal welfare and the impact of the CAP

26 October | Concrete measures for the food industry to go carbon-neutral

27 October | EURACTIV Twitter chat on the resilience of European agriculture and farmers in the face of COVID-19

29 October |  Debate on the development of a regulatory framework for new genomic techniques