Nobel laureates and scientific coalitions call on the European Parliament to embrace new genomic techniques for climate and food security. Within the EU, debates intensify over proposals to patent gene-edited plant. EP adopted its negotiating position while the Council’s presidency is still anxious to build a majority to adopt its position on NGTs which would open the way to trilogues.

While FAO studies the impact of biotechnologies on small farmers holders, the UK develop disease-resistant bananas.

Nature Restoration Law: a provisional agreement covering agricultural land

Four months after the vote in plenary, the Trilogue of 9 November marks the end of the negotiations on the Restoration of Nature regulation. An agreement of the three institutions has been found although it will now have to go through the final scrutiny of the Council and Parliament.

While waiting for the final text of the agreement and the analysis of the details, which are sometimes crucial, we can already see that on the agricultural part, the agreement is closer to the Commission’s proposal and the Council’s position than to that of the Parliament, which had requested the deletion of Article 9, i.e. the complete exclusion of agricultural land from the regulation.

Instead, the agreement reinstates Article 9 and retains its structure but switches from a result-based to an effort-based approach. Furthermore, Member States can choose two of the three proposed indicators (butterfly index; organic carbon stock; share of farmland with high-diversity topographical features). 

The reference to the 10 % objective of high diversity landscape features is deleted.

With regard to peatlands, the restoration targets from the Council general approach are maintained but the rewetting targets for 2040 and 2050 are reduced to a third. 

On forest ecosystem restoration, the indicators on standing and lying deadwood have been recovered, and at least one of the two should be mandatory. The need for Member States to consider the risk of forest fires is included.

Probably to take into consideration the food security debate that has animated the protests against this regulation, the enhacement of food security has been included as an objective in Article 1 of the regulation. 

Furthermore, with regard to financing, it is clarified that the implementation of this regulation does not imply the reprogramming of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy or other agricultural and fisheries financing programmes and instruments under the current MFF. In addition, the European Commission is requested to submit a report on the financial resources available in the EU to implement this regulation and the current funding needs to identify any funding gaps and to present the necessary proposals, including the establishment of specific funding. 

The Parliament obtains as well one of its demands, namely the obligation to plant, by 2030, 3 billion trees following ecological principles. 

It is therefore an agreement that respects the framework desired by the Commission, with its targets and obligations for the Member States that will have to carry the burden of this regulation. However, the EP obtained some adjustments and flexibilities on agriculture in order not to have this regulation in complete contradiction with the challenge of food security, as the Commission proposal envisaged.

Sustainable Pesticide Use: a step in the right direction from the Parliament

Agriculture Committee Approves Ms Aguilera’s Report with ambitious targets while minimizing bureaucratic hurdles and the shortcomings of the initial proposal from the Commission”

On October 9th, the Agriculture Committee made a significant contribution regarding the sustainable use of pesticides (SUR) by voting on the Aguilera report. This report introduces key changes to the European Commission proposal that will shape the future of pesticide usage in agriculture. The approved AGRI opinion is a step in the right direction, setting ambitious targets while minimising bureaucratic hurdles, making it more practical and accessible for implementation in the agricultural sector. Many shortcomings of the initial proposal from the European Commission are corrected, which should encourage the Environment Committee of the Parliament to follow the same path and draw inspiration from the consistant approach of the report voted by ComAGRI.

Key Decisions

  1. Pesticide Reduction Targets: The committee has set an ambitious goal to reduce pesticide use and risks by up to 50% by 2035. Additionally, Member States are required to establish national reduction targets of at least 35%.
  2. Feasibility Evaluation: By 2029, the Commission would assess the feasibility of achieving the Union’s 2035 reduction targets. This assessment will be based on the availability of alternative non-chemical pest control methods and low-risk plant protection products.
  3. Adjusted Reference Period: The reference period for calculating the reduction in pesticide use and risk has been changed to 2011-2012-2013, a shift from the Commission’s proposal of 2015-2016-2017.
  4. Sensitive Areas: Member States have the authority to define their sensitive areas, but specific details on territorial designations would have to be defined by the Member States.
  5. Electronic Record-keeping: The requirement for farmers to use electronic registers to document preventive practices and pesticide applications was not approved. Articles 14 and 16, which outlined these obligations, were removed.
  6. Crop-Specific Guidelines: Article 15 now provides crop-specific guidelines instead of rigid rules for integrated pest management (IPM).Non-Chemical Pest Control: Farmers are no longer obligated to use non-chemical tools before resorting to pesticides. This change allows more flexibility in agronomic decisions.
  7. Fast Track Approval for Low-Risk Methods: A new article (42b) proposes to fasten approval process for low-risk and biological control methods. This includes the potential for provisional authorization of ‘biological control plant protection products derived from natural substances’.
  8. Precision Agriculture and Drones: The regulation calls for the implementation of precision agriculture, including the use of drones, one year after the regulation takes effect, as opposed to the Commission’s original proposal of three years.
  9. Financing: Article 43, which initially intended to fund this regulation with CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) funds, has been removed. MEPs felt that additional funding sources were necessary, and it was not appropriate to allocate existing CAP funds to new policies.

Final Approval

The final text of the Aguilera report was approved with 26 votes in favor, 9 against, and 3 abstentions. Notably, the Renew Group played a pivotal role in the decision-making process, at times aligning with the EPP and at other times abstaining.

Nature restoration law: a major setback for VP Frans Timmermans

Whatever the outcome of the vote on the Nature Restoration Law in Strasbourg tomorrow, the situation of extreme polarisation of the debate is already a major failure for Vice-President Frans Timmermans and his personal vision of implementing the Green Deal and Farm to Fork.

Ultimately, it raises the question of a European Commission that claims to be « political », and no longer has the capacity to play its role as “honest broker”, able to facilitate dialogue and to shape compromises leaving no one behind. The inclusion of agriculture in this text raises questions as far as the co-legislators have just reached an agreement via the Common Agricultural Policy on important points included again in the Nature Restoration Law. This creates mistrust in the political decision-making and the feeling among the farming community that the European Commission is coming back via the back door, despite the political balances recently established.

The Nature Restoration Law is far from being the only text aimed at protecting natural resources. The aim of this law is above all to bring the protection of biodiversity and environmental policy under the jurisdiction of the Courts, placing a legal risk on the Member States and political leaders, and ultimately to put pressure on all those in direct contact with natural resources, in particular farmers, fishermen and foresters.

In this respect, Article 16 proposed by the European Commission (which makes it easier for individuals to take legal action against political leaders) is indicative of this approach: with this law, it is not a question of encouraging and promoting a positive dynamic. It’s not about incentives, it’s about sanctions. The European Commission is positioning itself as a supervisor who validates or distributes sanctions, without taking any political responsibility for defining the path to achieving the targets — the how to implement transitions —, and if necessary relying on the courts. The European Commission would approve national plans.

No political group, with the exception of the Greens and part of the far left, feels truly comfortable with the approach defined by the European Commission. An analysis of the amendments tabled in plenary bears this out.

  • The EPP profoundly rejects this text. In the end, it decided that there was no point in trying to improve the draft law. It has tabled a motion to reject it.
  • It is joined in this approach by the ECR and ID groups. The ECR also tabled amendments aimed at deleting the 10% target for areas of ecological interest (equivalent to set-aside land) and deleting the “butterfly” indicator, which would force Member States to observe the growth of certain species.
  • The Renew Europe group is attempting a compromise by proposing the Council’s general approach, a proposal which does not, however, resolve the most divisive agricultural issues.
  • In addition, individual MEPs from Renew Europe and the Socialists tabled amendments on these subjects in order to limit the potential negative impact on agriculture, and in particular the deletion of any reference to the 10% target.
  • The Greens support the overall approach of the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans.

However, no amendments were tabled in relation to the recital making “extensive agriculture” the alpha and omega of an effective environmental policy. Yet this type of approach, which moves towards de-growth in agricultural production, poses a problem, not only from a food sovereignty point of view but also from the point of view of protecting natural resources. It would mean more land being farmed, and therefore more deforestation and less biodiversity. Following this “extensification” path, the nature restoration law would be bad for nature.

Our analysis of the initial proposal is available here.

Ukrainian crisis : investments in the bioeconomy provide a lasting solution

Structural changes call for structural responses. The stronger tights between Ukraine and the EU are here to stay. It is very likely that new processing capacities will be needed to valorise agriculture commodities that will be attracted by the EU market, depending on global markets and transport costs developments. This new reality calls for a new direction to be given to the Green Deal. A new impetus to the bioeconomy in the EU would not only strengthen strategic productions (food, feed, biofuels, biomaterial, etc.) and help stabilising agricultural markets, but also provide a long term support to Ukraine economy and democracy. 

Imports of grains from Ukraine into neighbouring EU countries have disrupted local markets, pushing farmers to ask for an end of duty-free imports, and some countries to follow suit and block them. The crisis has raised shock waves in Brussels, as the well-justified support to the Ukrainian economy, victim of the Russian aggression, created a large movement of opposition to one of its key components – the temporary abolition of all custom duties.

The Commission attempted to compensate the affected farmers with a first additional support package through the CAP crisis reserve, but quickly enough a second and larger package was deemed necessary. Despite throwing resources to calm the protests, calls for an application of safeguard clauses are still on the table.

The competitiveness of Ukrainian wheat, maize, sunflower and barley (to mention only a few sectors), is well known. Already more than 20 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the USSR, Ukrainian imports of wheat were coming into the European Union, even after paying the full import taxes. That situation led the European Union to renegotiate its external protection for wheat in the WTO, raising the duties applied.

Ukrainian exports suffered with the Russian aggression, dropping in the case of maize from the highs of 27 million tonnes in 2021/22 to a forecast of 20 million tonnes in the current campaign, on wheat from around 19 to 15 million tonnes, and on barley from around 6 to 3 million tonnes in the same campaign years. However, despite the fall in exports, the opening of alternative trade routes to the traditional Black Sea made large quantities of Ukrainian grains available in the EU neighbouring countries.

The root causes of the problem will not go away. EU markets are more attractive to Ukrainian exports than far away markets in developing countries. Even when the war is over, and hopefully Ukraine starts recovering from the wounds, it is likely that the European Union will extend forms of financial, economic and trade support for a large period, also in view of a possible accession of Ukraine to the EU.

Therefore, the EU should figure out lasting solutions to the Ukrainian grain imports, instead of pilling up compensation package after compensation package. Boosting the bioeconomy could provide a long-lasting solution to the additional availability of grains beneficial for global food security. 

Incentivizing investments in bioeconomy could add value to maize, wheat, barley and sunflower production to mention a few, into high value and much needed proteins, energy and all kinds of biomaterials. Those products are highly needed to overcome the challenges of food security and environmental transitions, while at the same time stabilizing agricultural markets. This would benefit global food security as imports from Ukraine would reduce the overall EU footprint on other markets, notably soy from South America. 

In the first five months of 2023, the European Union imported roughly the same amount of grains from Ukraine as in the entire pre-war campaign. This, despite the war’s impact on Ukrainian agriculture. A large share of this grain face difficulties to be re-exported to global markets, as is already the case with Central European countries’ production. Logistic challenges in this part of Europe are not new.

The European Union needs to set up new processing capacities to valorise an additional production coming from Ukraine on a structural basis, that will otherwise weight yearly on the EU market, especially considering further integration of the Ukrainian economy to the internal market. 

Short-term measures triggered by the EU won’t be enough to address a structural challenge. Indeed, the lack of effective market mechanism tools currently included in the Common Agricultural Policy to cope with market disturbance is plain to see. This should press the European Union to rethink its agricultural policy to provide more teeth to its economic levers. However in the current situation no market measure will compensate a structural shift in market reality. Structural changes call for structural responses. 

In a context where high-value food, feed, energy, and biomaterials is increasingly strategic, the EU should not delay launching a new wave of investments in these sectors. This effort should provide a new direction to the Green Deal’s approach, promoting sustainable growth for agriculture and related sectors. 

Included within the current Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the European Union has room for maneuver to incentivize bioeconomy that produce at the same time a wide range of food, feed, biofuels and biochemical products. Today, the percentage of crop-based biofuels in the transport energy mix in the EU hovers below 5%, whereas the RED accepts a higher limit of 7% to be accounted for the EU renewable energy mandates. Ambitious climate targets calls for higher contribution from agriculture in the decarbonation effort of the economy. 

The recent Council Conclusions  “on the opportunities of the bioeconomy in the light of the current challenges with special emphasis on rural areas”, on the initiative of the Swedish Presidency, “emphasises the role of a sustainable and circular bioeconomy in dealing with climate, biodiversity, energy and food security issues, as well as its potential to diversify income, create jobs in rural and coastal areas, and support the EU’s green transition and increased resilience.”

This political will should lead to actual investments. The Commission should facilitate the process through policies that encourage investment in the bioeconomy, without excluding any sectors that might contribute. Particular attention should be made not to hamper investments through ill-conceived taxonomy regulations. Member States should establish national mandates and policies that foster these investments.

Let us react to the present crisis to bring forward-looking and lasting solutions, mobilising the EU investment capacities to trigger a surge of the EU bioeconomy. This would also provide a long term support to the Ukrainian economy and democracy.