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Bananas are early battlefront in EU bid for greener farm standards

The EU’s top fruit suppliers are going bananas as Brussels’ grand ambitions to make agriculture greener are put to their first big test.

The EU’s Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies marked a turning point as they addressed the need to make food production systems more sustainable, including by doing away with the most toxic agrichemicals. But as Brussels deploys the plans, agricultural powerhouses like France and Spain are adamant that the tilt toward greener farming will not see their producers overrun by cheaper foods grown with laxer standards imported from outside the bloc.

As it leads the EU Council this spring, Paris is looking to capitalize on its ability to shape the bloc’s policy agenda to flesh out a new proposal: mirror clauses. French President Emmanuel Macron has described the idea as a “common sense” way of using trade policy to have “our own constraints reflected back to us by the people with whom we trade.”

France’s line is that, as an agri-food trade colossus, the EU has the power to champion sustainable farming internationally and tweak the global food trading playbook accordingly. While initially cautious about the mirror clause push, the European Commission has begun warming to the concept, and is now mulling the best way forward.

“We are uniquely placed to lead the global transition to sustainable food systems,” EU Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told EU farm ministers last month. European policies “must help raise sustainability standards worldwide” and “carefully avoid outsourcing to third countries harmful practices that we ourselves have banned,” she said.

Lopsided pesticide use is a key front in the battle to champion sustainability in farming and level the international playing field for EU farmers. And now the bloc’s ban on a widely-used fungicide called mancozeb, crucial for its top banana suppliers, is emerging as the first concrete test of how far Brussels is willing to go to green up global agri-food trade.

Hailed by environmental groups, the ban came after the EU’s food safety watchdog EFSA in late 2020 said that mancozeb, which has been used for decades on everything from beets to onions to potatoes, was toxic for human health and the environment. “We cannot accept that pesticides harmful to our health are used in the EU,” Kyriakides said at the time. 

But the EU ban on mancozeb is raising hackles outside the bloc, as Latin American banana farmers fret that the EU might next clamp down on import rules for fruit grown with mancozeb, sprayed over their vast plantations to combat Black Sigatoka, a fungal disease that thrives in tropical climates and ravages their banana harvests.

Over 70 percent of the EU’s banana supply hails from Latin American countries, led by Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica. At a time when EU leaders talk big on leading the way toward greener and more agro-ecological farming models, the decision on mancozeb risks landing Brussels in the spotlight as it chooses between upholding its own greener food rhetoric and destabilizing its trusty supply of bananas — irking top trading partners in the process.

Mirror pressures

As a result of the ban, EFSA is reviewing risks to consumers from mancozeb residues in imported food. On the basis of this review, the European Commission will decide whether to tighten the legal limits of mancozeb residues allowed in imported produce; those tolerances are known as Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs). The decision, expected in April, comes as Paris fine-tunes its mirror clause proposal and urges Brussels to take “better account of global environmental challenges when defining MRLs.”

Documents obtained by POLITICO show that fruit giants like Del Monte, Chiquita, and Dole Foods, which source from Latin America, are concerned that this MRL clampdown might jeopardize their reign as top suppliers of the EU’s favorite fruit.

In a letter to EU officials in January, Brussels lobby Alber & Geiger, writing on behalf of the three produce companies, argued that plantations in Latin America “depend” on mancozeb to supply the bulk of the EU’s demand for bananas. The letter contended that the current rules should remain unchanged as “the use of mancozeb on bananas poses negligible consumer exposure.”

But anti-pesticide groups in the EU disagree, warning that there is currently no scientific method to distinguish mancozeb traces from those of similar chemicals.

“Mancozeb is a full endocrine-disrupting pesticide, it is classified as toxic to reproduction, it poses high risks to birds and mammals … This implies that from a scientific perspective, no safe level can be demonstrated,” said Salomé Roynel from the Pesticide Action Network EU.

“In the context of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the EU is committed to putting an end to double standards; it is high time to prove it by not giving in to this commercial pressure,” Roynel said. “This is a typical case of a very toxic substance for which the trade partners are trying to maintain double standards in secret.”

Europe’s leading banana suppliers are balking at the prospect of losing a fungicide they have relied on for decades. “Other products are not as efficient as mancozeb. This will impact the quantity and quality of Latin American bananas,” said Juan José Pons, coordinator of the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster, an industry association that counts multinationals like Chiquita, Fyffes, Del Monte and Dole among its members and is represented in Brussels by Atrevia, a lobby working in concert with Alber & Geiger on maintaining mancozeb MRLs at current levels.

Pons said that Cluster farmers’ use of mancozeb is compliant with safety regulations and that their fruit, nearly 30 percent of which is shipped to the EU, is “subject to certifications of compliance with EU safety and sustainability standards.”

But advocates of greener farming argue that, rather than giving in to the lobby pressure of big multinationals, Brussels should see this as an early chance to turn the tide on how one of the globe’s most traded fruits is farmed.

Alistair Smith, international coordinator at fair-trade group Banana Link, said that the fact that mancozeb was “extremely harmful” to both workers and the environment should give Brussels reason enough to curb its use and throw the bloc’s weight behind greener and more agro-ecological ways of growing the fruit.

“Industry is balking because it hasn’t prepared itself … under the current tight margins, to invest in [less harmful] chemicals,” he said, warning that global banana production was under increasing stress from climate change and novel pests and that “tinkering” with small parts of the current farming would mean that “sooner or later, that system will become completely unsustainable.”

“Nobody has the recipe for agro-ecological production on a big plantation scale,” but some multinationals were “prepared to give it a try,” Smith said, citing the example of France’s Compagnie Fruitière (CF), which, after a 2009 pesticide scandal, turbo-charged its agro-ecological ventures, including in its Latin American farms. CF did not reply to several requests for comment.

But such a turnaround is not within the reach of all banana farmers, a majority of which have been selling their fruit to big supermarkets at rock-bottom prices. Pons said that if the EU, nudging forward its mirror clause agenda, were to tinker with import rules for bananas, then it should also be ready to deal with the fallout of rattling the value chain of one of the cheapest and most widely available fruits in the bloc.

Over the past decade, the price of Latin American bananas has stagnated at less than €1 per kilogram, even as Pons said retailers demanded nothing less than “picture-perfect fruit.”

“To use an American saying: Put your money where your mouth is. Pay the price that this entails. Because there are drops in productivity, there is an increase in the cost of production,” Pons said, stressing that, while the Cluster supported the EU’s green food agenda, potential tightening of import standards didn’t add up with the prices at which EU supermarkets bought their bananas.

Smith agreed, saying that consumers’ calls to make farming more sustainable were “not going to go away” and that it was high time the EU “facilitated alternatives and a shift” towards greener production methods, “in line with its Green Deal goals.”

“Those big producers need to have a way out,” he said. “And the only way out is shared responsibility” along the banana supply chain. “In other words, Big Retail needs to invest with the companies who supply them … in finding alternatives and looking at what agro-ecological production might look like at scale — that’s what needs to happen.”

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify EFSA’s role in the setting of MRLs.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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