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Brace yourself for the next superpower showdown across the Atlantic. This time the ideological clash is all about how we grow our food.
In the race to reduce the damage that agriculture is wreaking on the climate, the EU and the U.S. are veering toward a high-stakes standoff over how to transform the global food system, and their dueling visions could mean we all lose out.
The brewing Cold War between the two agricultural heavyweights over the future of farming risks undermining not only tens of billions of euros’ worth of agricultural trade annually, but also threatens to undercut the more fundamental aspiration to reverse global warming through cooperation on food systems, which are responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s pretty clear there are two different pathways, and I think the United States and many other countries are going to go down one path [and] the EU is going to go down a different path,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told MediaFrolic in an interview in which he barely veiled his criticism of the EU’s farming philosophy.
America’s chief bogeyman is Europe’s Farm to Fork strategy, which seeks to prioritize sustainability by slashing pesticide usage in half by 2030 and by ensuring that organic production covers a quarter of European farmland. For Washington, this is a recipe for disaster that will reduce crop yields, push up food prices and threaten food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released economic models saying world food production would drop by 11 percent and prices would shoot up 89 percent if all countries followed the European model.
“The world’s got to get fed, and it’s got to get fed in a sustainable way. And we can’t basically sacrifice one for the other,” Vilsack said.
Coalition of the tilling
In what Vilsack has described as America’s response to Farm to Fork, the U.S. unveiled a new international coalition for increasing food production in a sustainable way as part of the U.N.’s Food Systems Summit in September. It’s a grouping through which he is looking to marshal together countries, probably across the Americas initially, to ensure that the EU won’t dictate the new norms across the world’s cornfields and dairy farms.
“There are a number of nations who believe strongly that we can’t sacrifice productivity in order to reach a sustainability goal,” Vilsack said.
These days, trade is all about the battle for international standards, and the U.S. has long smarted over how the EU has flexed its muscle through trade policy to impose global food norms, including the geographical indication labels that protect its premium brands like Champagne and Parma ham.
Washington doesn’t want the European gastronomic and agronomic model spreading any further, particularly since the backlash against pesticides and genetically modified foodstuffs is no longer confined to Europe. Mexico, for example, has sent shockwaves through the farming world with its plan to ban the ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate and genetically modified maize.
Vilsack’s overarching fear is that Europe would use its diverging food standards to throw up more barriers to trade. And he is right that the writing is on the wall.
During its EU presidency in the first half of next year, France is seeking to legislate on restrictions on imports coming from countries that the EU sees as having inferior standards, including in relation to the use of agri-chemicals. Vilsack retorted that Paris’s plan would create “a trading system which really isn’t a trading system.”
Influential American farm lobbies also fear Farm to Fork could hurt their bottom lines by erecting new hurdles for their goods to enter the EU market, where they already face difficulties selling goods like meat across the Atlantic due to differing standards, and wonder whether the plan could push other countries to follow Brussels’ lead.
“A concern coming out of that for us is, in the future, could [Farm to Fork] result in some new trade barriers if they decide the way they want to produce food is the only way and they only want to let products in from outside that produce food the same way?” said David Salmonsen, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farmers’ organization in the U.S. “Will that result in some sort of trade restrictions or make people do things their way to sell into the European Union? We’re not sure which way that’s going to go.”
Salmonsen added: “What this coalition is meant to do is show a different way of achieving the same goals … it’s showing an approach that we think will work for modern agriculture around the world, and works better than just trying to go a different approach the way the EU program does.”
Standing at 180 degrees to the U.S. position, the EU’s Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans has stressed this year that productivity growth must no longer be paramount.
“We’ve created a system that pushes farmers to increase and go bigger all the time. But that system has pushed the Earth past its limits,” he said. We’ve got to stop counting success in terms of the number of “wagons of food” we produce, he urged.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. disagrees with Timmermans’ analysis, arguing that rather than abandoning the philosophy of productivity-focused farming for the sake of the climate, it can have the best of both worlds, by investing in technologies and practices being heralded as climate-smart like gene-editing, artificial intelligence and precision farming, and without all the new regulation that Brussels is planning.
Vilsack’s productivity coalition plan has sparked strong criticism from greener parts of the EU political spectrum.
“It’s the complete opposite of long-term food security to promote agricultural systems which are literally destroying the fundamental part of our production, which is the soil,” said Thomas Waitz, an Austrian member of the European Parliament from the Greens. He dismissed Vilsack’s comments as a “blunt lobby appearance for the GMO sector.”
In the era of President Donald Trump, Washington did not mince its words either, warning that the EU’s plan risked a global famine if rolled out across the world. But even under the new U.S. President Joe Biden, Washington is still raining down attacks on Farm to Fork.
Vilsack made a point of noting that Farm to Fork has been criticized by Europe’s own farmers as a threat to their food yields.
Indeed, in a strongly worded statement in September, EU farmers’ lobby Copa & Cogeca cited concerns about a potentially significant fall in output and asked: “How many more studies on the impact of the Farm to Fork Strategy are needed before a real debate starts in Brussels?”
Digging into a defensive position, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski told the World Agri-Tech event on Tuesday that it was still too early to see how Farm to Fork would impact productivity, and that the Commission would have to wait and see how countries plan to implement the next giant EU farm subsidies scheme, known as the Common Agricultural Policy, before passing any judgment.
According to an EU diplomat, at a meeting of 27 EU countries’ diplomats on September 20, “a lot of countries” asked the Commission to conduct a full impact assessment of how the Farm to Fork strategy will impact the farm sector, joining agribusiness lobbies from the pesticides to the fertilizers industry in clamoring for a study.
If the EU fails in its stated mission of forging “green alliances” with non-EU countries, its flagship food and farming strategy could end up transforming the EU into a glorified organic supermarket, doubtless producing higher quality, more sustainable and valuable food — but with little impact on lifting global environmental standards.
In June, EU food safety official Almut Bitterhof said that when it comes to changing global pesticide usage through Farm to Fork, there’s been “very mixed” feedback from “several” of the EU’s trading partners who complain that the EU is being overly pushy. The EU is, for example, planning to ban food imports of crops grown using agrichemicals that contribute to global environmental problems like pollinator decline.
The divergence of views on what should count as sustainable farming could mirror the current EU-U.S. rivalry on protected foods, where each side wants to sign trade deals that block the other from protecting their custom products, said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
“It really does create this sort of bifurcated world,” he said, talking about the long-running geographical indications dispute. “I would hope it wouldn’t come to that. Having some notion of equivalence would be a lot, lot better for the world.” Glauber added, however, that he doesn’t envision a trade war erupting straight away over this, because both the EU and the U.S. sustainability plans are not very far advanced yet.
Alexander Müller, a former assistant director general of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said: “Today we have kind of an aggressive silence between the U.S. and the EU on this question, and this is really dangerous because it does not solve the problem.” He said there was a missed opportunity to open a debate about the merits of the two rival food systems at the recent U.N. Food Systems Summit.
Glauber said: “These are important issues that need to be tackled and really tackled seriously,” referring to climate change and food security. “It’s going to be a lot less helpful if countries are working at it from two totally different directions.”
Gabriela Galindo and Ximena Bustillo contributed reporting.
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