US agriculture chief Sonny Perdue didn’t mince words during a recent webinar on food security in the US and the EU, lobbing strong criticism at the EU’s recently released Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy. Specifically, Purdue alleged that the scheme, intended to make European agriculture more sustainable, “seems to have forgotten the ‘farm’ in ‘Farm to Fork’” and risks hampering European farmers’ competitive edge.
Lambasting European policies may be par for the course for Trump administration officials, who’ve taken issue with everything from the bloc’s trade policy to its leadership on climate issues, but on this particular occasion Perdue has a point. As laudable as Farm to Fork’s goal of cutting down on the agricultural sector’s environmental impact is, it’s undeniable that the scheme is also putting farmers at a disadvantage as they will be held to drastically higher standards than most other producers—including many who export to the EU.
The European bloc is reportedly hoping to use its soft power to establish green alliances “so that EU farmers are not disadvantaged compared to third-country producers”, but some disruption seems inevitable—a particularly harsh blow as European farmers are already suffering the effects of the pandemic and of protectionist policies which have sent their input costs soaring.
EU farmers already facing significant headwinds
Any hit to European farmers’ ability to compete on the global market is particularly damaging given that the bloc’s agricultural sector is already coping with a number of challenges which have eroded margins. For one thing, Covid-19 has had significant knock-on effects, severely disrupting supply chains, sending the prices of non-staple foods into a tailspin, and sparking staff shortages at farms across Europe.
Even prior to the pandemic, however, EU farmers were suffering from a number of policies which have hiked up their costs and cut into their profit margins. In one of the most serious cases, anti-dumping duties on popular nitrogen fertilisers have given a boost to the handful of European firms which produce them—at the expense of European farmers.
Given that fertilisers represent a significant proportion of farmers’ costs and that switching from a nitrogen fertiliser to an alternative chemical is impractical for many crops, the EU’s tariffs have imposed a painful extra cost on farmers which has pared down their profit margins and made them less competitive compared to producers outside the bloc.
Jer Bergin, from the Irish Farmers Association, excoriated the protective duties for stymying real competition in the fertiliser industry and allowing fertiliser prices to increase at twice the rate of other input costs. The anti-dumping measures, according to Bergin, are cutting European farmers’ already-tight incomes by roughly €1 billion a year and preventing them from creating as many as 100,000 jobs.
Farm to Fork adding an extra burden
As it currently stands, the Farm to Fork strategy looks likely to make another dent in farmers’ competitiveness, already fragilized by these existing issues. One MEP warned that the plan’s environmental advances will require “unacceptable sacrifices” from European farmers. The mandate to triple the amount of land farmed organically by 2030, for example, poses a problem given that studies have confirmed that organic farming produces on average 16% lower yields than conventional agriculture. Since surveys have indicated only a small percentage of Europeans are willing to pay a premium for organic food, it’s unlikely that farmers could make up for the lower yields by hiking their prices—leaving them with a damaging revenue shortfall.
A broader problem stems from the relatively short deadlines for farmers to achieve the Farm to Fork scheme’s ambitious goals. In addition to ramping up organic farming, the European agricultural sector is expected to cut the use of chemical pesticides by 50%, reduce nutrient losses by at least 50% while making sure that soil fertility is not adversely affected, and curb the use of antimicrobials for livestock by 50%—all by 2030.
Farmers and farmers’ associations have expressed their alarm at the tight timeframe, particularly given the constraints that the European agricultural industry is already facing. The international agricultural advocacy group COPA-COGECA questioned how the European Commission could have set such stringent targets without first carrying out comprehensive impact assessments and identifying suitable alternatives which would allow farmers to hit the targets without endangering their livelihoods.
Unless European farmers are provided with more guidance and funding to defray the costs of complying with Farm to Fork’s ecological imperatives, there’s a strong chance that many European growers will go out of business, while others will lose their competitive edge. “The costs of adhering to safety restrictions are already several times higher than in third countries”, warned the spokesman for the Czech Republic’s Agricultural Association. “The new strategy may further increase this imbalance”.
Holding out a helping hand for farmers
Despite its flaws, the Farm to Fork strategy is responding to a genuine threat—agriculture is responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and farming uses a full half of the globe’s habitable land. As a global leader on climate issues, the EU should indeed take point on reducing the environmental impact of farming.
It must, however, find a way to do so without imposing such a significant burden on farms—already strained by the pandemic and by protectionist policies such as the anti-dumping duties on fertiliser—that they are unable to compete on the global market. Extending the period in which F2F’s formidable goals must be accomplished, ensuring that food producers are provided with the broadest possible “toolbox” of alternatives to lead this transition, and addressing outstanding issues which are eroding farmers’ margins are all essential to ensure that Europe’s agricultural sector truly is sustainable.