Sustainable food chains are the future of the European Union

We talk to Maciej Golubiewski, Head of the Cabinet of the European Union Commissioner for Agriculture, about the plans of the European Commission regarding sustainable agriculture and sustainable food and the challenges of ensuring the competitiveness of agriculture and food security.

The positions of EU Commissioners are rather well known, but the role of the Head of the Cabinet of the EU Commissioner is not necessarily so. Can you start with the role of the Head of the Cabinet of the EU Commissioner and what you do on a daily basis?

Indeed, the function of the Head of the Cabinet of the European Union Commissioner is quite specific and differs quite significantly from the role of people who have a similar title, for example heads of political cabinets in ministries. In a nutshell, apart from such everyday tasks as managing the cabinet itself, which consists of a team of a dozen or so people, or supervising the budget of the Commissioner’s cabinet, my role is primarily political. Heads of Cabinets are required to represent the political line of their Commissioners. This includes, for example, any meetings, so in practice during our conversation I will not speak in my own voice but on behalf of the EU Commissioner for Agriculture.

The same is true of all formal or working meetings within the Commission itself – during our weekly meetings of the 27 Heads of Cabinets, where the negotiations on draft regulations, directives, decisions or communications of the European Commission take place – I always speak and represent the Commissioner’s political line. These are very important meetings because they prepare the sessions of the College of Commissioners. It is a very responsible political role because in practice it is us, as heads of cabinets, who directly influence the legislation of the European Union acting under the instructions of our Commissioners.

It is also worth noting that the European Commission is a collegiate legislative body. This has a double meaning. Firstly, all decisions taken by the European Commission and all legislative proposals that the European Commission puts forward must obtain the consent of all Commissioners. Secondly, the Commissioner’s role is not limited to presenting proposals in the sector for which he is responsible within the European Commission – in our case, agriculture. Every Commissioner has the right to speak on all subjects for which the European Commission is responsible. Thus, if the Commissioner has his own opinion or political preference on any subject, he has the right to, inter alia, also through his heads of cabinet, to influence the draft texts of the proposed regulations during meetings, regardless of whether it is agriculture, energy or any other area.

We also represent the Commissioner wherever he cannot be in person, so I often attend meetings to represent the Commissioner and his political line.

Please tell us what is the importance of sustainable agriculture in the policy of the European Union? Does the European Commission plan to adopt a definition of sustainable agriculture, as in the case of organic farming?

Yes. However, since there is no official definition yet, before I go into a detailed answer to this question, I would like to tell you where our thinking about sustainability comes from and, therefore, how sustainable agriculture should be understood.

For me personally, the definition of the word sustainable is best expressed in French, which translates it as durable – one that is meant to last. Which means one that allows you to meet the current needs without limiting the needs of future generations. It is therefore necessary to pursue a policy in agriculture that would not lead to the accumulation of certain costs for the future, which future generations will have to deal with in a much worse situation than we do today. Sustainability is therefore such a long-term policy that aims to secure the position of agriculture as a strong sector in Europe in such a way that future generations will not be held hostage to the policies we are pursuing today.

At the same time, we must remember about such important elements as ensuring food security – after all, we must feed our population today and in the future. However, this should be done while balancing this need with other elements: the health of the environment in which the farmer operates, a sense of social justice and the economic aspect. We need to make sure that those who feed us will have adequate income from this and will have the chance to compete on good terms. These environmental, social and economic elements must be balanced together in order for this long-term ambition to become a reality.

The implementation of these assumptions by the European Commission is described in the strategy document “From Farm to Fork”, which – what should be emphasized – is not a strategy referring only to agriculture, but also to the entire food chain – from the producer, i.e. the farmer, to the consumer. This means, as I mentioned at the beginning, that at least a few Commissioners within the European Commission are committed to making the entire food chain sustainable. That is why in the Farm to Fork strategy, a big and important element is also the emphasis on properly informing consumers about the origin of food, about what they eat and how agricultural products were produced. At the same time, our strategy encourages all participants in the food chain to increase the availability and affordability of sustainable food, which also means ensuring that relations between the participants in this chain are fair.

The Common Agricultural Policy is a key tool at the operational level to implement the agricultural assumptions of the Farm to Fork Strategy and to support farmers in their transformation towards sustainability. This is to be done through appropriate financial incentives, but also education, training and counseling. Our goal is to make this transformation as smooth and beneficial to farmers as possible. Above all, I am referring to mitigating the economic and social consequences that may arise particularly in the short term. Sustainable development is essential to maintain a competitive and productive agricultural sector in Europe, while supporting farmers’ livelihoods. In this respect, Commissioner Wojciechowski emphasizes an important element of the strategy concerning the support for building of short supply chains as a method of diversifying agricultural production and building resilience against external crises.

Returning to the answer to the question posed – we must remember that the Farm to Fork strategy itself is a road map, a general vision, while the strategy itself is (and will be) always followed by specific legislative proposals.

Such a draft of legislation is the creation of framework regulations for a sustainable food system. The intention of the Commission is to present the draft framework by the end of 2023. The proposal is then forwarded to the European Council and the European Parliament, and further discussions until a joint proposal is reached, depending on the complexity of the subject, may take from one to two years.

Preparatory work, impact assessments and work on different scenarios for defining what a sustainable food system means are currently underway.

This includes, inter alia, ongoing discussions with stakeholders on what sustainability is. Current definitions of sustainability sometimes describe conflicting concepts of sustainable agricultural production. Let me give you an example – is animal husbandry just about environmental and ecological aspects, such as water consumption, way of grazing, etc., or about strictly climate-related aspects, such as emissions, or maybe also about animal welfare issues? Various parties to the discussion emphasize aspects that are important to them. At first glance, these elements seem to be connected, but they need to be properly balanced – the environment is not the same as climate or animal welfare. This is one of the reasons why the European Commission has the ambition to sort out the issue of sustainable agriculture on the basis of the declarations contained in the “Farm to Fork” strategy.

The future legislative framework is certainly aimed at raising the profile of sustainability throughout the agri-food chain, accelerating the transition to more sustainable food systems and ultimately ensuring that all food placed on the European Union market is as sustainable as possible – while maintaining affordability for EU consumers, of course.

In summary, the definition of sustainable agriculture is to be presented in a proposal to the European Commission by the end of 2023.

The document will also include the obligations of all entities in the food system and the minimum requirements for recognition of food products as sustainable. This means that the framework law, if adopted in the form of a directive, will give the 27 Member States some freedom to implement these minimum requirements.

Another element that will ultimately allow consumers to recognize sustainable food is labeling. There are currently many independent, voluntary labeling schemes.

The Commission will endeavor to develop a European minimum standard for such labels. These provisions will be the basis for the development of a uniform sustainable food labeling system.

At the same time, sustainability should be understood as three pillars that are found in the Farm to Fork strategy – environmental, social and economic. It is worth emphasizing that they are also supported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. It is important that all sustainable practices translate into the creation of more value that comes out of the farm. Labeling is just one of the elements that will increase the value of food in the eyes of the consumer and at the same time translate into farmers’ incomes, which will reward their efforts for the use of sustainable agricultural practices.

All our efforts towards sustainability are, of course, not detached from the reality around us and result directly from the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy itself. However, we must not forget that they are based on our climate goals, which aim to stop at a maximum of 2% of post-industrial global warming. All sectors, including agriculture, work towards this common goal, but it is very important that the Common Agricultural Policy will compensate these costs and encourage changes, not force them, as Commissioner Wojciechowski often repeats.

Speaking of the climate goals – please tell us how the EU views the issue of sequestration and what are the incentives for farmers to decarbonize their farms?

The answer to this question is very complex because this topic covers many sectors and issues even within agriculture itself. Starting from the beginning, the basic assumption of the European Union is the need to become independent from fossil fuels. Part of this goal is to store more carbon dioxide in nature while promoting industrial solutions that can offer carbon dioxide recycling. Removing more carbon from the atmosphere than before is essential to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

On carbon sequestration, the change proposed in the Land Use and Forestry Regulation clearly indicates the target of minus 310 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent and thus achieving land sector neutrality in 2035. This is to be achieved by using the land and forestry sector to absorb and balance emissions from agriculture. Agriculture is one of the few sectors that has this ability to absorb emissions – which potentially allows to balance CO2 emissions to zero. The regulation assumes that this removal can be based on industrial and technical solutions or on nature-based resources. In the land sector, the main solutions relate to the management of land and coastal wetland, e.g. through the implementation of an agroforestry maintenance (regenerative) farming system, afforestation, sustainable forest management or re-irrigation of peatlands. The challenge here will certainly be to implement the framework for reporting and verifying the level of carbon fixation, so that one can check whether we are achieving the assumed goals.

We assume that farmers will be motivated to decarbonize their farms. The tools will be direct incentives for land managers. On December 15, 2021, the European Commission adopted a communication on the sustainable carbon cycle and set out how to increase the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by increasing the scale of sequestration in ecosystems as part of regenerative agriculture.

The intention here is to be able to create a business model that rewards farmers for undertaking specific land management practices that are intended to increase CO2 sequestration – e.g. in biomass, dead organic matter and soil, or by reducing the release of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

Regenerative agriculture is promoted under the Common Agricultural Policy and other programs such as LIFE, Horizon Europe, the research mission “Pact for healthy soils in Europe”, or national public and private funding.

The second action is to unify the methods of monitoring, reporting and verification necessary for the certification of regenerative agriculture – which is to enable the creation of a market for trading in allowances for absorbing CO2 emissions.  Our goal is not that the farmer, on an individual basis, as a retailer, would necessarily sell the emission rights to companies himself, but rather to earn money through a dedicated system that would allow for proper reporting and counting of these emissions.

Thanks to this, sequestration will be able to be translated into certificates that agriculture will be able to trade. By the end of 2022, an EU regulatory framework for carbon dioxide removal certificates for the land and forestry sector is to be established.

The implementation of an agricultural policy related to sustainability and a shift away from agriculture focused solely on the financial effect will influence the costs of food production in the European Union. Will food produced in accordance with the new standards be affordable for European Union consumers and competitive on export markets?

There is no contradiction between the need to meet the climate challenges and the long-term sustainability of the agricultural sector. If we do not take action now to prevent temperatures from rising, we will not escape the purely financial and material consequences for agriculture. Let’s face it – the climate consequences are simply costly for agriculture.

We basically have two options to choose from. We can passively wait for climate change and biodiversity loss and continue to rely on unsustainable practices. This means that our plan for these challenges is to deal with successive crises one after the other – yield losses, droughts, etc. The second solution is to engage in the transformation of our business model, trying to mitigate these changes and to adapt technologies such as precision farming, new genetic techniques (I am not talking here about the socially controversial issue of GMOs) – in short, to use what has been written in the Farm to Fork strategy. This is our choice. We are aware that the European Green Deal is something new and that it raises various doubts and that not everyone is willing, in the short term, to follow us towards sustainability. That is why we also act internationally and promote this strategy globally. We cooperate in all possible multilateral forums that implement the UN agenda, in particular within the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the WTO (World Trade Organization), the G20, the G7, as well as within the framework of standard-setting bodies such as Codex Alimentarius or the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). Of course this takes time and it is complicated, but it leads to the development of global standards.

Sustainability is also being promoted in bilateral relations, in particular in our trade strategies. We systematically propose provisions on sustainable food systems in all new trade negotiations, and we hope that these actions can bring faster results and help build coalitions with like-minded partners. This is our trading strategy.

Thirdly, we can also take advantage of the fact that the EU market is attractive and require, under certain conditions, in line with WTO rules, that the products placed on the European market comply with our standards of sustainable development. It is important, of course, that these solutions are, and I repeat it again, compatible with WTO rules, that is, they should pursue the objectives of the common good at global level. These must be environmental, ethical, and animal welfare objectives – they must not be purely instrumental, cost-equalizing objectives. International consensus is needed to promote sustainability, as is the case of deforestation.

Another element to ensure that the competitiveness of agriculture is maintained is the report currently being prepared by the Commission at the request of the European Parliament and the European Council on the technical and legal feasibility of applying EU health and environmental standards, including animal welfare standards, to imported products, the results of which will be presented in June this year. It will provide a detailed explanation of our approach to promoting sustainable development strategies globally.

European agricultural exports should have nothing to fear. Food from the European Union is well known for its high level of quality and safety – as confirmed by our trade surplus.

In addition, we believe that, in the long term, the Farm to Fork Strategy will also make European Union agriculture less dependent on fossil fuels, fertilizers and other agrochemicals. Thus, it will also be more competitive by freeing us from certain external dependencies – which can now be seen well on the example of fertilizers.

High prices for energy, fertilizers, feed, unreliable trading partners such as Russia or China, with very long and vulnerable supply chains, certainly do not contribute to the improvement of the situation of our farmers.  Russia’s aggression clearly shows that our current system of intensive farming is neither resilient nor sustainable. We are convinced that we are entering a world where sustainable development will be the driving force behind competitiveness – this, of course, requires effort on the part of farmers, but at the same time the Common Agricultural Policy has been designed to support them on this path.

Is the European Commission considering temporarily easing the European Green Deal in connection with the war in Ukraine? What is the European Commission’s policy on food security challenges?

The war in Ukraine, combined with the sharp rise in commodity prices, highlights the links between geopolitics, globalization, climate change and food security. Food security in the European Union is not threatened as the European Union is a large net producer and exporter of grains and many other products. Rather, the direct effect lies in the increase in costs throughout the food supply chain, the disruption of trade flows to and from Ukraine and Russia, and the impact of these factors on global food security.

In our view, in the short term, the challenge may be the rise in the prices of inputs such as energy, fertilizers and feed and the impact of rising food prices on society. That is why, at the beginning of March 2022, the European Commission convened for the first time a new expert group on the European Food Security Crisis Preparedness and Response Mechanism (EFSCM). Our response must also include the avoidance of export restrictions.

The functioning of the markets within the internal market of the European Union, but also throughout the world, will be essential to ensure that supplies reach those in need. Any measures restricting trade within the internal market must be limited to what is necessary and must be strictly proportionate.

In the medium term, however, we need sustainable, productive and resilient agriculture – based on the Farm to Fork Strategy, which is an important part of our medium-term response. The strategy focuses on ensuring a resilient EU food system. The current crisis confirms the importance of this task. The European Union must strive for a sustainable food system also by reducing the dependency of EU agriculture.

We do not believe that Farm to Fork and the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy should be discontinued or slowed down.

On the contrary, in the long term, a shift to environmental and climate sustainability will improve our resilience and therefore have the same importance for food security as removing short-term disruptions in the supply of certain crops. As Commissioner Wojciechowski strongly emphasizes, the long-term enhancement of our resilience is the shortening of supply chains, local production and processing as well as an agricultural model that is less dependent on external imports of feed, fertilizers and energy – this will allow us to strengthen the EU framework of food security. The overarching objective of the Common Agricultural Policy and its instruments is precisely to ensure food security and affordable prices for consumers.

Thank you for the interview!