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“Farm to fork”: Brussels’ green revolution faces distress

  • The war in Ukraine freezes activity in Europe’s “breadbasket” and jeopardizes the European Green Deal
  • Brussels has softened the restrictions of the new common agricultural policy to free up set-aside land to ease cereal prices
  • Alternative protein sources for feed manufacturing and organic fertilizers emerge as a possible solution to fill the void left by the war

Next May will mark two years since the European Union (EU) unveiled its new strategy to achieve a sustainable agri-food model under the European Green Deal. But now, the Farm to fork revolution faces distress. Its priorities are to guarantee access to top quality food with the lowest possible environmental impact, reduce the use of pesticides and promote agroecology.  But how does the war in Ukraine affect the EU’s agricultural strategy?

Tackling the unexpected

Russia’s attack on Europe’s breadbasket is a variable that no one counted on. And that can disrupt Brussel’s plans to transform towards a sustainable agri-food model. According to the Green Deal, the area dedicated to organic farming should represent 25% of the total agriculture area of the European Union by 2030. And 10% of each farm’s arable land should be for biodiversity and non-productive elements.

Considering that Russia and Ukraine are responsible for a third the world’s wheat and corn and 50% of sunflower seeds, the hardships derived from the war in Ukraine adds a level of complexity to achieving Europe’s Green Deal, leaving the agriculture sector looking for alternatives to fill that void like novel proteins sourced from insects for animal feed and biofertilizer.

Increasing Europe’s organic surface area

France is currently home to the EU’s largest organic agricultural area. According to Eurostat, 2.5 million hectares were being farmed organically in France at the end of 2020, equating to 9.5% of France’s total cultivated area. Closely behind is Spain with 2.4 million hectares, Italy with 2 million and Germany with 1.5 million hectares.

Collectively, the organic agricultural area in Europe covers more than 17 million hectares, which is 9.1% of total cultivated land and represents a year-on-year increase of 5.3%. However, those numbers are still far below the 25% benchmark per country that the EU has allocated for organic farming. At the moment, the only country that complies with the European Green Deal is Austria that has25.3% of its area classified as organic.

Will we make it in time for 2030?

Although difficult to predict during these uncertain times, experts agree that achieving the goals set out by the European Green Deal may possible. The political will is clear and the change in the production model places Europe at the forefront of the global transformation process. However, the Ukrainian crisis may slow down the timetable.

At the same time, doubts continue to be rise about the viability of the new paradigm. Experts and key players from the agriculture sector are asking if the world is ready for a transformation of this magnitude. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, if no one else follows the European Union in its reforms, agricultural production in member countries could fall by up to 12% and prices could rise by 17%, and all this while facing 20% less exports.

However, Brussels considers this scenario to be based on an inconsistent assumption. It expects its policy to be replicated in any country that exports its goods to the EU, since the requirements to trade with member states will be the same as those for European farmers and livestock breeders, which is to embrace a sustainable agri-food model. To dispel alarmism, the European Commission adds that changes in the food diet and in the supply and demand curve itself are foreseen in the near future, because soils are exhausted and food security is not guaranteed with the old model.

A market in exponential growth

Another encouraging sign is that the market for organic products is growing exponentially. According to the report led by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBIL) , organic agriculture generated EUR 52 billion in Europe last year, marking an increase of 15%. The biggest consumers of organic products by country are Germany (EUR 15 billion), France (EUR 12.7 billion) and Italy EUR 3.9 billion). And the ones with the highest share of sales are Denmark (13%), Austria (11.3%) and Switzerland (10.3%).

A matter of survival

Beyond the conflict, the United Nations launched a disturbing message during the last climate summit that should make us think twice. According to data provided by the UN Food Agriculture Organization, in 2050 there will be more than 10 billion people on the planet and if nothing changes, the industry will only be able to feed half of the world’s population.

Experts believe that the solution lies in optimizing the usable area, dedicating it to sustainable crops that also respect the natural balance of the soil. In this strategy, the use of alternative sources of protein to reduce our dependence on soybeans and cereals will be crucial, at least in certain steps of the production process, such as the manufacture of animal feed. At the same time, the use of organic fertilizers must be promoted to compensate for the high prices of chemical fertilizers, especially during crisis situations like the one that the world is going through as a result of the war in Ukraine.