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The EU’s plan to fix the food system: 5 key takeaways

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Grow more to feed Europe and the world. That’s the EU’s response to a looming hunger crisis worsened by the invasion of Ukraine, one of the biggest wheat producers on the planet.

Almost a month after the conflict erupted, Brussels proposed a slate of measures designed to shield its own farmers and consumers from surging prices and strained supply chains. 

By slamming the handbrake on green rules, planting as much food as possible and splashing the cash, the EU hopes to avert the worst economic effects at home — but also to help prop up Ukraine’s creaking food system and ease the struggles of people facing starvation further afield. 

“Russia’s relentless aggression not only means more food shortages for suffering Ukrainians,” said European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis. “It also means supply disruptions that affect the whole world.”

There is no suggestion that supplies inside the bloc are threatened — although rising inflation will make affording food much tougher for the poorest EU citizens. 

In parts of Africa and the Middle East, though, the stakes could not be higher, as poorer countries face a critical shortage of grain from Ukraine.

Here we analyze the key points from the EU’s new plan.

1. Not now, Green Deal

After two years trying to persuade EU governments to heave their farm systems onto a greener track, the Commission is allowing countries to lift some environmental rules to free up land for food production. 

That’s alarming environmentalists who fear that productivist agribusinesses have hijacked the EU’s Green Deal agenda. Two key proposals were recently delayed. 

Farmers will be able to keep receiving green subsidies while planting whatever food and animal feed crops they like on 4 million hectares of land that is usually left fallow for biodiversity. This amounts to 6 percent of the EU’s farmland, an area the size of the Netherlands. 

In addition, Brussels is encouraging countries not to invest so much in producing crops to be burned and turned into biofuels. The focus will be on producing food to eat, and feed for animals, instead.

According to the Commission, the Green Deal for farming is not dead, just resting. But Marilda Dhaskali, EU agriculture policy officer for the environmental NGO Birdlife, criticised the Commission’s plans. “Ploughing through the set-aside land will require more fertilisers and more pesticides, which in turn increases Europe’s dependency on natural gas,” she said.

2. Food independence … at some point

The sudden shuttering of trade from Ukraine exposed just how much the EU relies on imports of corn to feed European animals, while the war has revealed the extent to which the bloc depends on fertilizer from Russia and Belarus.

That has reignited a push for greater “food sovereignty” — the notion that the EU should be more self-sufficient.

So far, modest measures have been announced, such as monitoring foodstocks and fertilizer prices more closely and setting up a new expert group that will recommend how to boost food security. EU countries are also being encouraged to diversify away from gas, pesticides and fertilizers to reduce the need for imports. 

The Green Deal — which sets an explicit target for weaning the EU off fertilizers — could help in the long-run. But the Commission shrugged off recent calls from most member countries for a new plant protein strategy, which could have reduced the EU’s addiction to soybean imports.

The truth is the EU can’t become self-sufficient in everything overnight. For now the greatest trade challenge is to keep food markets open to stem a tide of protectionism that risks driving prices even higher.

3. Helping Ukraine‘s farmers

Ukraine’s own harvest this year is severely threatened. That will have knock-on effects not only for global food security but for its own population.

With farmers fighting on the frontlines, there is a shortage of workers in the fields. Farming inputs like seeds, fertilizers, machinery and fuel are also in short supply and are needed now to tend to last year’s winter wheat, and plant an upcoming spring crop of maize and sunflowers.

The Commission plans to finance Polish efforts to get 50,000 tons of fuel across the border and into Ukrainian tractors every week. It is also encouraging more food aid from EU countries.

4. Feed the world 

When it comes to feeding the world, wheat is crucial. Bread is a staple in North Africa and the Middle East, but wheat futures prices have soared by 70 percent since the invasion.

There are 5 million tons of wheat sitting in the Black Sea ports that cannot be shipped out. That’s on top of another 20 million tons which was expected to be grown in Ukraine but might not materialize, according to the Commission’s document.

So what to do? Higher prices could tempt traders to direct more wheat to human consumption rather than animals, thus easing the burden of hunger. India could partially come to the rescue too, as it is expected to put about 6 million tons of wheat on the market, becoming a major global player in the commodity for the first time. 

The EU needs to increase its food support for African countries, according to Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. “But first of all we need to have food. And this is the reason [the] increase of production is so important now,” he added.

5. Cash in hand for EU farmers 

One of the most concrete measures announced is extra direct help for EU farmers, to get them through a liquidity crisis caused by rising fuel and fertilizer costs. On top of looser state aid rules, €500 million has been found from the EU’s crisis funds, which can be topped up by national governments.

Farmers will receive more help with EU subsidies, with the pig sector set to benefit from looser competition rules, having long been squeezed between rising production costs and low prices for meat. But the main EU farmers’ lobby Copa & Cogeca criticized the Commission for a “complete lack” of specific short-term measures to stabilize the fertilizer market.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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