Delaying the agricultural transition, a bad response to food security?

Posted 23 March, 2022

Does the threat of food shortages linked to the war in Ukraine justify delaying the transition to greener agriculture in Europe? No, answer scientists and NGOs, who call on the contrary to move faster towards more resistant and fairer systems.

The European Commission is preparing to validate emergency measures on Wednesday which would allow, temporarily, to relaunch production on land set aside to protect them.

While Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of cereals, some member states are also pushing to postpone the European timetable aimed at reducing the use of pesticides.

Two legislative texts which set out these objectives, which Brussels was to present on Wednesday, have been postponed indefinitely.

They proposed, by 2030, to reduce the use of pesticides by half, that of fertilizers by 20%, and to devote a quarter of the land to organic farming.

These states are on the wrong track, alert NGOs and experts.

"This is very bad news," worries An Lambrechts, of Greenpeace International, from Geneva, where international negotiations are taking place for better protection of biodiversity.

In an appeal signed by more than 500 experts, scientists from the Institute for Research on the Impact of Climate Change in Potsdam (PIK) call on the European Union to "strengthen - and not abandon - the transformation towards a healthy food system, fair and good for the environment".

"Smart short-term measures are necessary, but long-term objectives should not be neglected because reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity is absolutely necessary to ensure food production", insists the AFP Hermann Lotze-Campen, agro-economist at the PIK.

Intensive agriculture contributes to climate change, environmental pollution and poses risks to human health.

"We must not only look at the supply side but also reduce our consumption of animal products and the number of head of cattle", continues Hermann Lotze-Campen.


Economic aid


“Today, the main reason why we could run out of cereals in Europe is that we put too much of it in the engines and that we give too much of it to the animals,” explains Pierre-Marie Aubert of the IDDRI research center.

About 60% of European cereal production is intended to feed pigs, chickens, or cows, and just under 10% for fuel.

To increase agricultural production, "cultivating fallow land is not a solution", he continues. Often "it's not good land" and fallow land "provides key services that farmers depend on: pollination and pest control".

In the short term, the solution will be to help countries that do not have the economic means to cope with soaring cereal prices, he believes.

The war in Ukraine has also underscored Europe's dependence on synthetic fertilizers from Russia and potash from Belarus. However, "reducing the supply of herbicides and nitrogen fertilizers by 30 to 50%, when they are used massively, has no effect on yields, which remain stable", according to CNRS experiments.

These blows against a change in the European agricultural model, which are not the first, show "the power of the productivist lobby", analyzes Aleksandar Rankovic, a researcher at Sciences Po Paris, who follows the negotiations in Geneva.

French President Emmanuel Macron is among those advocating for a review of Europe's pesticide and fertilizer reduction strategy. This position could be explained by the proximity of the presidential election, to win a traditionally more right-wing agricultural vote, judge observers close to the negotiations on condition of anonymity.

In Geneva, it is important that the discussions in view of the COP15 biodiversity, which must define a global framework for the protection of nature by 2030, lead to "a change in agricultural and food systems via good agroecological approaches for agriculture and biodiversity", judge Guido Broekhoven of WWF International.

The European Union is positioning itself there with ambitious objectives.

The emergency measures taken on Wednesday "risk seriously undermining the EU's ability to claim a leadership role in global nature protection, when it does not keep its word at home", worries Anna Heslop from the NGO ClientEarth.

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23 March, 2022 13:01

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