European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski has justified the EU entering into free trade agreements, which could see EU farmers facing more market competition from farmers elsewhere.

The defence comes as the latest agricultural outlook compiled by the European Commission points towards a slump in the production of EU farm commodities, such as beef and dairy, over the coming decade amid tightening environmental and animal welfare rules for farmers.

Commissioner Wojciechowski told the 2023 agricultural outlook conference that the EU will continue to advocate for open trade in agri-food markets. “We need to support open trade of agricultural and food products on global markets, advocate for the removal of trade barriers, and continue efforts toward free trade agreements with third countries,” he said.

When pushed by the Irish Farmers Journal on whether this competition was fair for farmers in the EU facing increasing levels of regulation, the Commissioner stated that “everything possible” is done to ensure those exporting to the EU meet the same standards as farmers here.

However, he did acknowledge that this cannot always be achieved in trade deals negotiated under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

“Because we are operating in the WTO rules, according to WTO rules, this is not always possible. But, during the FTA negotiations, this is one of our priorities to ensure the same standards,” the Commissioner responded.

He added that “we have to always remember that the EU is the biggest food exporter in the world”, with exports totalling €230bn when considering the impact of trade restrictions.

Beef outlook

The outlook report states that an additional 2.1m tonnes in beef imports will be sought each year by 2035 by countries not meeting their own beef requirements.

By then, EU production is expected to fall 0.6m tonnes per year, with imports into the EU anticipated to “slowly increase” as exports fall 9% in 12 years.

These figures do not factor any impact from an EU-Mercosur agreement.

Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are regions which will continue looking to international markets to meet their consumers’ hunger for beef.

Beef supports

Targeted beef sector supports could protect some member states from the 11% tumble in suckler numbers across the EU by 2035 foreseen in the outlook; but, overall, these supports will be unable to fully counteract tighter environmental rules and poor profitability.

The report also claims that the decline in EU beef demand witnessed in 2023 was not only down to high prices but also by a “growing negative perception due to sustainability concerns”.