The EU Outlook for Agriculture Conference is now a fixture in the must-attend events for anyone involved or interested in any aspect of agriculture.
This year’s conference has had to move online this week, but, as the organisers highlighted, it means that it wasn’t oversubscribed as it normally is, with everyone interested able to log in.
The event was opened for the second time by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski.
The president paid a fulsome tribute to the contribution of farmers in keeping supermarket shelves filled during the pandemic, which was also repeated by the commissioner.
Commissioner Wojciechowski also reflected on his first year in the job and took satisfaction from securing an increase in the budget when he identified a priority at last year’s conference of not letting the budget be reduced.
It was an increase, but marginal, on what had been proposed by his predecessor and while the final figure of €22bn more is an increase, the reality is that the agriculture share of an expansive budget will be lower than it has ever been before.
It is also clear that the commissioner is on the farmers' side and has a particular passion for attracting young farmers, preserving the family farm and animal welfare/shorter supply chains.
He also shared the dilemma with Farm to Fork; too much environmental focus for some, not enough for others whose priority is the environment.
EU agriculture policy
While Commissioner Wojciechowski is evidently pro-farmer, the direction of travel for the EU is clearly putting the competitiveness of farming as a distant secondary priority after the environment, sustainability and welfare.
This is the political position of the EU and that is fine, whether farmers agree with it or not.
On the basis of paying the piper and giving the right to call the tune, it is also acceptable that the EU dictates the terms and conditions for accessing CAP funding.
However, this policy crosses the line when it expects EU farmers to compete with its global counterparts without the tools that its global competitors have.
If EU farmers have to work with whatever percentage less pesticides, fertiliser and antibiotics, as well as strive for 25% of land use to be organic by 2030, it is unreasonable to try to sell this produce in competition with imported alternatives produced without these constraints.
What’s more, doing so frustrates the noble objectives of Farm to Fork, as it merely outsources the problem to non-EU suppliers.
The USDA identified the consequences of this strategy in its impact assessment, which, unfortunately, isn’t being challenged by similar work by the EU.
It identified a 16% loss of farm incomes if the EU goes alone with this strategy.
Food costs would increase, as would farm incomes, if the EU persuaded its trading partners to follow this strategy and even more if the rest of the world followed the EU.
The cost would be dramatically increased food prices and up to 185m more exposed to food insecurity if Farm to Fork became the world standard.
This is why it is essential that the EU undertakes its own impact assessment and it was disappointing that the Commissioner ruled this out in his press conference.
He needs to reconsider this approach, because the Farm to Fork strategy will shape Irish and EU agriculture for the next decade.
Such a major strategic policy must be considered by considering all information and all the consequences.