Food safety standards in Europe, and in particular in the UK, are among the highest in the world, and yet consumer trust and confidence in the food system has never been so low, writes George Lyon, former MEP.
Despite the wide availability of cheap, nutritious food, misconceptions around issues such as animal welfare and the use of antibiotics are driving unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of food producers.
The livestock sector is losing the battle over its public image as consumers are bombarded with wild claims about the damage modern farming systems are causing and the suggestion that if only we turned the clock back to some golden age everything would be fine.
We seem to have forgotten that before the post-war development of modern farming systems, we regularly faced food shortages, high prices and poor-quality food.
It is a testament to modern systems that despite the world’s population doubling, the proportion of income spent on food in the UK has more than halved in the past 60 years.
And we have achieved that goal while meeting some of the most stringent EU animal health policies in the world.
We must now do more to help consumers understand the reality of livestock farming and its importance to public health and nutrition.
Firstly, we must tackle the misconception that large-scale, intensive farming compromises on animal welfare.
As any farmer will tell you, animal welfare comes top of their agenda, especially on larger farms for the simple reason that without happy, well-looked after animals, you cannot make a living from livestock farming.
Secondly, the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is too often mistaken for the primary cause of antimicrobial resistance and superbugs when the biggest driver of drug resistance continues to be the use of antibiotics in human medicine.
While farmers and veterinarians clearly play a part in ensuring antibiotics are used responsibly, the EU bans them from being used as growth promoters in animals and limits their use to medical necessities, which in turn is integral to animal welfare.
And there are strict controls on withdrawal periods to prevent any residues of animal medicines entering the food chain.
Both the animal health sector and the livestock industry also run initiatives to promote the responsible use of antibiotics, which deserve greater attention.
Finally, the debate and scrutiny over the environmental impact of the livestock sector is often skewed by generalizations.
In the face of increasing demand for animal-source foods, many European producers are pioneering precision livestock farming to allow them to deliver the necessary supply while minimizing their environmental impact.
Such an approach is making animal agriculture more sustainable by allowing farmers and veterinarians to identify health issues earlier and more accurately regulate feed and water, and administer medicine if needed.
It also offers best practice examples for other regions where either productivity or sustainability is low.
While livestock production systems are not all equal, Europe leads the way in developing a more sustainable agriculture, which holds out the promise of helping other countries to leapfrog towards ever more sustainable practices.
For consumers, there is a gulf between their perceptions of the food system and the reality of modern farming systems.
It is vital, therefore, that the farming industry ups its game and seeks to close that knowledge gap otherwise we risk throwing away the massive benefits modern agriculture delivers for our consumers.
PAN Europe asks: Is German EU Presidency set to knife the Farm to Fork Strategy?
Ahead of a gathering of experts from EU member states to discuss the implementation of the “Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive” (SUD), PAN Europe warns that national plans towards reduction in pesticide use are not only insufficient, but could derail the Farm to Fork Strategy entirely. The three-day online workshop, 'Better training for safer Food: Experiences on SUD, its current implementation and possible future policy options', taking place from 17 to 19 November 2020, is part of the revision process of the Directive 2009/128/EC that is already two years overdue, and is now scheduled to happen by 2022.
In May 2020, the European Commission published a report stating that most EU countries’ national action plans “lack ambition and fail to define high-level, outcome-based targets” for reducing the potential risks posed by pesticides. “The poor quality and lack of ambition of member states to reduce the risks posed by pesticides should not only be addressed in a workshop but in the front of the European Court of Justice. It simply can’t be that member states fall short on the requirements of their own legally binding legislation and turn a blind eye to the biodiversity crisis that Europe is facing,” said PAN Europe President Francois Veillerette.
“The European Commission should start infringement procedures against countries that fail to implement the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive,” he added. The Council, currently under Germany’s Presidency, has so far refused to acknowledge member states’ grave lack of effort. After gaining access to a draft document last week, PAN Europe discovered that the EU Council, in the report on SUD implementation to be released, is instead calling for more soft measures such as training and research, and is completely sidelining all discussions on the idea of fixing EU-wide pesticide reduction targets as clearly addressed in the European Commission’s report.
“The Council’s attitude is in direct contrast with what European citizens already understand: Europe will not have clean water and restore its biodiversity without reducing its use of pesticides. This disconnect between the EU’s political ambitions and the practices of many individual member states urgently needs to be addressed,” said Henriette Christensen, Senior Policy Adviser Agriculture for PAN Europe.
“After the recent missed opportunity of the European Parliament to transform European agriculture through the CAP reform, and the EU thus turning its back on a sustainable agricultural model, the pesticides reduction objective is unequivocal: it requires the integration of the EU-wide 50% reduction target from the Farm to Fork strategy into both into the CAP and the SUD,” said Christensen.
Common Agricultural Policy reform: First trilogue
On 10 November, Executive Vice President Timmermans and Commissioner Wojciechowski represented the Commission at the first trilogue on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform. The trilogue will cover all three proposals - the Strategic Plan Regulation, the Horizontal Regulation and the Common Market Organization (CMO) Amending Regulation.
The European Parliament, the Council and the Commission, will have the opportunity to put forward their positions on the key elements of the three Regulations, and agree on the working arrangements and indicative timeline that will apply to the ensuing political trilogues and preparatory technical meetings.
The Commission considers the CAP to be one of the central policies for the European Green Deal and it is thus steering the process at the highest level in close coordination with other policy areas. The Commission is determined to play its full role in the CAP trilogue negotiations, as an honest broker between the co-legislators, and as a driving force for greater sustainability to deliver on the European Green Deal objectives.
The aim is to agree on a Common Agricultural Policy that is fit for purpose and effectively responds to the higher societal expectations in terms of climate action, protection of biodiversity, environmental sustainability and a fair income for farmers.
The Commission presented its proposals for a future CAP in June 2018, introducing a more flexible, performance and results-based approach that takes into account local conditions and needs, while increasing EU level ambitions in terms of sustainability.
Higher environmental and climate ambitions is reflected by a new green architecture including the new eco-schemes system. The Commission highlighted the compatibility of its proposals with the European Green Deal in a report published in May 2020.
Investment, connectivity and co-operation: Why we need more EU-African co-operation in agriculture
In recent months, the European Union has demonstrated its willingness to promote and support agricultural businesses in Africa, under European Commission’s Africa-EU Partnership. The Partnership, which stresses EU-African co-operation, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, aims to promote sustainability and biodiversity and have championed promoting public-private relationships across the continent, writes African Green Resources Chairman Zuneid Yousuf.
Though these commitments apply to the entire continent, I would like to focus on how increased African-EU co-operation has helped Zambia, my country. Last month, European Union Ambassador to Zambia Jacek Jankowski announced ENTERPRISE Zambia Challenge Fund (EZCF), an EU-backed initiative that will award grants to agribusiness operators in Zambia. The plan is worth an overall total of €25.9 million and has already launched its first call for proposals. In a time where Zambia, my country, is battling serious economic challenges this is a much-needed opportunity for the African agribusiness industry. More recently, just last week, the EU and Zambia agreed to two financing agreements that hope to boost investments in the country under the Economic Government Support Programme and the Zambia Energy Efficiency Sustainable Transformation Programme.
Europe’s collaboration and commitment to promoting African agriculture is not new. Our European partners have long been invested in promoting and helping African agribusiness realise their full potential and empower the sector. In June of this year, the African and European Unions launched a joint agri-food platform, which aims to link African and European private sectors to promote sustainable and meaningful investment.
The platform was launched off the back of the ‘Africa-Europe alliance for sustainable investment and jobs’ which was part of European Commission President’s Jean Claude Junker’s 2018 state of the Union address, where he called for a new “Africa-Europe alliance” and demonstrated that Africa is at the heart of the Union’s external relations.
The Zambian, and arguably the African agricultural environment, is dominated largely by small-to-medium sized farms that need both financial and institutional support to navigate these challenges. In addition, there is a lack of connectivity and interconnectedness within the sector, preventing farmers to connect with each other and realise their full potential through cooperation.
What makes EZCF unique among European agribusiness initiatives in Africa, however, is its specific focus on Zambia and empowering Zambian farmers. Over the past few years, the Zambian farming industry has grappled with droughts, lack of reliable infrastructure and unemployment. In fact, throughout 2019, it is estimated that a severe drought in Zambia led to 2.3 million people requiring emergency food assistance.
Therefore, a solely Zambia-focused initiative, backed by the European Union and aligned with promoting increased connectedness and investment in agriculture, not only reinforces Europe’s strong connection with Zambia, but will also bring some much-needed support and opportunity for the sector. This will undoubtedly allow our local farmers to unlock and leverage a wide range of financial resources.
More importantly, the EZCF is not operating alone. Alongside international initiatives, Zambia is already home to several impressive and important agribusiness companies that are working to empower and provide farmers with access to funding and capital markets.
One of these is African Green Resources (AGR) a world-class agribusiness company of which I am proud to be the chairman. At AGR, the focus is to promote value addition at every level of the farming value chain, as well as look for sustainable strategies for farmers to maximise their yields. For example, in March this year, AGR teamed up with several commercial farmers and multilateral agencies to develop a private sector financed irrigation scheme and dam and off grid solar supply which will support over 2,400 horticultural farmers, and expand grain production and new fruit plantations in the Mkushi farming block in Central Zambia. Over the next few years, our focus will be to continue promoting sustainability and the implementation of similar initiatives, and we are ready to invest alongside other agribusiness companies that seek to expand, modernise or diversify their operations.
Though it appears that the agricultural sector in Zambia may be facing challenges in the years to come, there are some very important milestones and reasons for optimism and opportunity. Increased cooperation with the European Union and European partners is an important way of capitalizing on opportunity and ensuring that we are all doing as much as we can to help small and medium sized farmers across the country.
Promoting increased interconnectedness within the private sector will help ensure that small farmers, the backbone of our national agricultural industry, are supported and empowered to collaborate, and share their resources with larger markets. I believe that both European and local agribusiness companies are heading in the right direction by looking into ways of promoting agribusiness, and I hope that together, we can all sustainably promote these goals on the regional and international stage.