Ukraine war detonates EU food security debate, but will sustainability be collateral damage?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Is war in Ukraine being used to wage war on the Farm to Fork Strategy? / Pic: GettyImages-Dan Brownsword
Is war in Ukraine being used to wage war on the Farm to Fork Strategy? / Pic: GettyImages-Dan Brownsword

Related tags Food security Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted calls for more heed to be paid to EU food security. But, as agriculture ministers discuss the possibility of putting more land to the plough, environmental experts warn that the debate is being ‘hijacked’ by vested interests. Should we be talking about food versus feed and fuel?

After an informal meeting of European agricultural ministers last week, it was announced that the bloc will consider actions designed to boost food security, including ‘securing and freeing up Europe’s production capacity in 2022’. Measures called out included sowing fallow land with protein crops, with the implication being that these would plug the gap that Black Sea imports will leave in feed supplies. Already there is talk in Ireland of compulsory tillage – with farming organisations being called to an emergency meeting later this week.

“The terrible events taking place in Ukraine cast a tragic light on the need for us to strengthen our food sovereignty so as to ensure food security in times of crisis, both within the European Union and around the world,”​ Julien Denormandie, French Minister for Agriculture and Food, said after the call.

Russia’s military assault on Ukraine is expected to have significant implications for food supply chains. As leading producers and exporters of cereals, Russia and Ukraine together make up nearly a third of global wheat exports, 19% of exported corn and 80% of exports of sunflower oil - the third-most traded vegetable oil internationally. At a time when fallout from COVID-19 and other factors are already driving up commodity prices, the onset of war has accelerated the trend with wheat prices doubling in the space of a month.

GettyImages-Kaycco - sunflower field
Pic: GettyImages-Kaycco

Farm to Fork under fire

European farming organisations Copa and Cogeca seized on the moment to call for a stronger European agriculture policy that will protect producers and consumers in the bloc from such shocks.

Proclaiming solidarity with Ukrainian farmers – and announcing the news that the Ukrainian agricultural organisation UNAF (Ukrainian National Agrarian Forum) become a Copa and Cogeca partner – the organisations said that the crisis would affect ‘most productions’ either directly or indirectly. ‘Exceptional situations call for exceptional measures’ Copa and Cogeca said, arguing that the conflict will have short and medium term implications for European agriculture.

“Since the Russian government is using food security as a weapon, we must counter it with a food shield,”​ Christiane Lambert, Copa President, argued.

European Feed Manufacturers' Federation FEFAC also wants to see a re-assessment of European policy that places food security at its heart. Alexander Döring, FEFAC Secretary General, told FoodNavigator: “The current crisis is severe and will have lasting impacts. Our immediate priority is to ensure the access to sufficient feed materials for the coming 6 months, and likely longer. The EU must prioritise food and feed use of grains in the short-term to prevent disruption of supply chains. We stress the urgent need to set up EU wide contingency plans that will help mitigate the loss of the Black Sea origin for these commodities.”

But there is also the suggestion that this policy shift draws into question some of the fundamental assumptions enshrined in the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission’s policy that aims to transition towards a sustainable food system in line with the targets of the Green Deal.

“Since the process development of the Farm to Fork Strategy started we have always reminded the need to assess fully the food security dimension,”​ Döring argued. “The EU should proceed with a complete cumulative impact assessment of the Farm to Fork Strategy. The current crisis is a strong reminder for the EU to safeguard and strengthen the resilience of its agri-food sector. We will need effective targeted support from the EU to cope with the current crisis. As the EU feed sector we remain committed to fostering sustainable food supply chains while taking advantage of the lessons learned of the COVID crisis to increase the EU's food and feed autonomy.”

Copa’s Lambert insisted that there isn’t a conflict between the twin objectives of delivering food policy that promotes both security and sustainability. “As with energy, in agriculture we strongly believe that it is possible to strengthen our strategic autonomy while continuing to make progress on sustainability. Pitting these two dimensions against each other, as we have heard in Brussels in recent days, is unproductive. We need to rearm our agriculture today to face these two major crises at the same time: the war in Ukraine and climate change.”

Like FEFAC, Copa and Cogeca want to see a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way Brussels thinks about agriculture, starting with the objectives set out in the Farm to Fork.

“Copa and Cogeca are asking to be able to cultivate all available land in 2022 to compensate for the blockage of Russian and Ukrainian production. Everything must be done to prevent disruptions in supply chains, which will inevitably lead to shortages in certain parts of the world. This is an essential question of food sovereignty and democratic stability,”​ the organisations argued.

GettyImages-fotokostic farm pesticide spraying
Farming organisations call for reassessment of Farm to Fork Strategy / Pic: GettyImages-fotokostic

Playing on ‘our most fundamental fears’?

Dr. Jeroen Candel, an assistant professor in food and agricultural policy at Wageningen University, echoed the idea that a ‘false dichotomy between sustainability and food security’ is developing. But that’s where agreement ends.

The policy expert suggested that the crisis in Ukraine has given the existing coalitions objecting to the Farm to Fork Strategy fresh ‘momentum to restate their objections’.

“Food security is a very appealing argument that plays on our most fundamental fears,”​ Dr. Candel told FoodNavigator. However, he continued, ‘the food security discourse is not entirely genuine’.

“Within the EU it is a very cynical argument to undermine sustainability ambitions and does not do justice to the real food security concerns that relate to access rather than supply.”

The disruption to Ukraine supplies is a ‘big concern’ for people in Ukraine and large export markets like Egypt. “There are real concerns about global food security. The EU should do everything it can to keep trade flows moving,” ​he insisted. But impact in EU will be different – it is about access rather than supply. “Those now making food security arguments are often the same as those who oppose more generous social programmes that would address food security in the EU.”

Dr. Guy Pe’er, a researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig and UFZ, also stressed that the crisis will impact shoppers in the EU very differently than those in other parts of the world.

“The war on Ukraine does have an impact on food security, but not in the way most people understand. Namely, it affects poorer countries such as in Africa and the Middle East, whereas in Europe the impact is mostly on feed.”

To Dr. Pe’er, this is an important distinction. Perceived food security concerns are the result of overconsumption and production, particularly of animal products, the production of which is subsidised by the EU. “If the issue is food security why are they talking about feed?”​ he asked, noting that over 70% of agricultural land is used for feed and fuel. “We should therefore better use the resources we have for more food and less feed and fuel. We can do this, for instance, by cancelling the support for biofuels.”

GettyImages-chayakorn lotongkum intensive pork production pigs factory farming
Is war in Ukraine more of a threat to feed and fuel security than food security? / Pic: GettyImages-chayakorn lotongkum

Climate change and land depletion bringing farming to 'crisis point'

At the heart of food security are the issues of climate change and the over-exploitation of the land, the ecosystems expert continued. “We are not talking about food security, we are talking about constant pressure on land that leads to soil erosion, enhanced sensitivity to droughts and pests, and more frequent crop failures This does have an effect on food security and the economic stability of farmers… We are reaching a point of crisis.”

Dr. Pe’er told this publication that acting on climate change is therefore in the interests of farmers, the very people that farming organisations like Copa and Cogeca claim to represent. He is unconvinced, however, that powerful lobby groups reflect the true interests of most farming communities in Europe.

Pointing to the fact that the direct payment system through the Common Agricultural Policy sees 1.5% of farmers receive 32% of payments, Dr. Pe’er claimed that lobbyists are protecting the status quo by calling for a re-evaluation of Farm to Fork. “The biggest problem I see is the misrepresentation of farmers by farm lobbies… They represent the 1% that really gain from CAP and corporate interests,​” he asserted.

Farm-to-fork is ‘science based and curative’ and must be a ‘win-win for farmers and climate’, Dr. Pe’er suggested. “The majority of farmers are in favour of nature and biodiversity… they make a very simple and legitimate demand: To be environmentally sustainable they need to be economically sustainable. We should support farmers who need support and want to do good, and the CAP has the mechanisms to do so. But it doesn't. Not enough, at least.”

Dr. Candel agrees that war in Ukraine cannot overshadow the importance of tackling climate change and undermine the objectives set out in Farm to Fork. “It is clear that if we are serious about climate and emissions targets we need to steer the food system in a different direction. Farm to Fork is a first step,” ​he said. Pointing to the need for social support and food systems transition to tackle inefficiencies like food waste – as well as echoing the need to shift towards plant consumption – Dr. Candel concluded: “Farm to Fork should not be dismantled but complemented.”

For Dr. Pe’er there are two likely scenarios moving forward, best and worst case.

“The ‘best case’ scenario is that we rethink our consumption of resources, and start reducing our demands on land and resources as means to reduce the potential for conflicts. The ‘worst case scenario’ is that the war enhances the speed in which we dwindle resources, leading to enhanced conflicts to which we react by dwindling the resources even faster. This is the direction that farm lobbies and the agricultural ministries seem to have chosen. It is a very slippery slope.”

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