Putin is using food as a geopolitical weapon and the EU will not stand idle in the face of this aggression. It is crucial to put an end to the invasion and the suffering of the Ukrainian population, but also to avoid the consequences a prolonged war in Ukraine would have on global food security ~ Janusz Wojciechowski
Will there be flour and sugar on the shelves tomorrow? Will grain reach hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa? Is the battle for food and energy the most important line of resistance in the conflict that spilled over from Ukraine to engulf the world? During times when food has become a geopolitical weapon, these are the questions that dominated our interview with European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski, alongside the issues of the Green Deal, technological breakthroughs in the field of food cultivation and support to candidate countries like Serbia in sustaining their own food security.
Some top EU officials have warned that a global food crisis is on the horizon, due to the war in Ukraine, and promised initiatives to avoid any disruption of food supply chains. How do these developments impact on your work?
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has had a profound impact on the global food system and food security has become a key concern. First in Ukraine itself, but also in the EU’s neighbourhood, in North Africa and the Middle East, but also in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This concerns wheat in particular, as a key staple. At the Commission, we are keeping a close eye on the situation and on agricultural markets. My services recently launched an online dashboard monitoring production, prices and trade in the main commodities of cereals and oilseeds.
In the EU, we are lucky that food security is not at risk today, as the EU is largely self-sufficient in all major agricultural products. However, the crisis in Ukraine shows that we are dependent on key inputs, such as fertilisers and plant proteins for animal feed. In addition, rising food prices and food affordability have become a major issue, especially for our socially threatened citizens. Social policies are important to protect the most vulnerable citizens against food insecurity and ensure that all people can afford sufficient quantities of healthy and nutritious food.
Monitoring and managing the impact of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is at the very top of my political priorities. I am in touch on a weekly and almost daily basis with the Ukrainian minister of agriculture to discuss their needs and try to accommodate them. I have also been very committed to establishing solidarity lanes, especially via Poland, to help Ukraine export its agricultural produce. Putin is using food as a geopolitical weapon and the EU will not stand idle in the face of this aggression. It is crucial to put an end to the invasion and the suffering of the Ukrainian population, but also to avoid the consequences a prolonged war in Ukraine would have on global food security.
What are the short- and long-term responses to the food shortages, triggered by the war in Ukraine, that are hitting African and other countries that have been heavily dependent on food exports from Russia?
We presented a response plan and visible political engagement combining different strands of action: trade, including avoiding export restrictions, agricultural measures, civil protection and humanitarian assistance, medium and longerterm support, as well as mobilising a multilateral response. The EU is a leading humanitarian and development donor in food and nutrition security and is spearheading international efforts in this regard, together with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO). We are also leading food security efforts at the WTO in the run up to this June’s 12th Ministerial Conference.
Serbia and other neighbouring countries are part of the new European food security crisis preparedness and response mechanism (EFSCM), because the issues we face don’t stop at the borders of the EU
We are also stepping up funding to vulnerable partner countries that rely heavily on certain food imports from Ukraine.
From a geostrategic perspective, it is essential that the EU contributes to narrowing the production gap in order to avoid expected global shortages, especially of wheat. The EU isn’t only a major net exporter of wheat, but also has the world’s highest wheat yields. Over the last five years, we have exported an average of about 27 million tons of common wheat. For the 2022-2023 campaign, our short-term outlook is for exports of up to 40 million tons, which would represent an important contribution to the world market. However, we should remain cautious, as final exports will depend on weather conditions and the availability of inputs like fertiliser. We will monitor developments closely.
I would like to add that it is essential for all countries to avoid restrictive trade measures. Only global trade routes will allow us to cushion the blow of the war by moving stocks of staple foodstuffs to where they are most needed.
On the other hand, the impact on EU food markets is likely to be multifaceted, with the business sector hit by shortages of everything from food product ingredients to packaging materials. What measures are envisaged in this department?
You are right to point out the complexity and intricacies of the food supply chain. This crisis again shows the need for resilience and diversified supply chains, particularly for products like fossil fuels, fertiliser and animal fodder. We should diversify our food supplies even more, just as we are doing for energy. Our trade agreements are an important tool in this regard. With the high level of ambition in our 46 deals with 78 countries, the EU is able to secure substantial tariff liberalisation from these countries for staple foodstuffs relevant to food and animal feed security. Furthermore, EU exports of food also benefit from improved market access to such countries, helping global food security. That’s why it is imperative we continue pursuing an open trade agenda.
I also launched a new European food security crisis preparedness and response mechanism (EFSCM) to discuss the food security impact of the price increase for energy and inputs and the impact of the war in Ukraine. The entire food supply chain is represented in this group: farmers and fishermen, food processors, traders, retailers, consumers, food banks, food transportation services, logistics and infrastructure, inputs and packaging industries, together with national experts from ministries, including some from Serbia. It was important to include Serbia and other neighbouring countries because the issues we face don’t stop at the borders of the EU. I firmly believe the risks to food security in the EU can be contained if we all cooperate and coordinate our actions. With this group meeting regularly, we want to ensure a better flow of information across the full food supply chain in order to minimise the level of uncertainty, coordinate responses at all levels and swiftly identify priorities.
I have also tasked this group with mapping the risks and vulnerabilities of the EU food supply chain and its critical infrastructure, and with setting up an appropriate communications channel for the timely exchange of information.
When it comes to long-term action, what are the major EU-level policies for tackling climate change and improving biodiversity?
While short-term measures are needed to deal with this exceptional situation, we mustn’t forget that the transition to sustainable agriculture is our only path to long-term food security. The Commission has taken various steps towards a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system. The European Green Deal represents a holistic approach to adapting our economy to planetary boundaries and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The Green Deal includes the Farm-to-Fork Strategy, which sets out ways to transform the EU food system. It also covers the EU Biodiversity Strategy with a transformative and ambitious biodiversity framework. Agriculture plays a key role in implementing these strategies and objectives.
Making the European food system sustainable and resilient is the key objective of the Farm to Fork Strategy. It brings together all actors in the food value chain to move towards sustainable food systems that have a neutral or positive environmental and climate impact, and to create the preconditions to make healthy diets the easy choice for EU citizens. The EU is also looking to that sustainability to increase its competitiveness. More specifically, we want to significantly reduce the use and risks of chemical plant protection products, as well as the use of antibiotics and the loss of nutrients. It is also our objective to increase the area under organic farming, guaranteeing additional area for nature and providing access to fast broadband in rural areas.
This crisis again shows the need for resilience and diversified supply chains, particularly for products like fossil fuels, fertiliser and animal fodder. We should diversify our food supplies even more, just as we are doing for energy
While it is an EU initiative, we cannot achieve it on our own. This vision is not only European, but also global. We need to join forces with likeminded partners across the bilateral and multilateral spectrum.
To what extent is digitalisation and use on different cutting-edge technologies present in the agriculture sector across EU countries?
Using the potential offer of digital and cuttingedge technologies and other types of innovation to increase the sustainability performance and competitiveness of the agricultural sector is a priority for the EU. The uptake of novel technologies varies not only across countries, but also between sectors and types of farms within a single region. We find farms where production is almost fully automated and farms where all tasks are done manually.
To boost the uptake of innovative technologies in agriculture in a sustainable way, and to avoid digital divides, we follow a comprehensive approach that includes supporting research and innovation, and tailoring advisory services and exchanges of experience and knowledge. Stakeholders in non-EU countries can benefit greatly from training and knowledge exchange. I invite you to take a look at the project portal of the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI) to receive inspiration from end-user driven innovation developed by practitioners in collaboration with scientists. This will be crucial to enable all farmers to adopt such innovative technologies and practises. The EIP-AGRI and the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (AKIS), as well as advisory services, will be strengthened, as will the synergies with R&I supported under Horizon Europe, which will increase the use of cutting-edge technology. Advances in innovation, technology and digital solutions, such as precision farming, will lead to higher productivity and reduced inputs, thereby lowering costs.
To what extent are the Horizon programmes focused on the agriculture sector? How much of this funding is used in candidate countries that have some of the most interesting EU projects, such as the one being applied by the Biosense Institute in Novi Sad?
From 2021 to 2027, Horizon Europe is devoting about €9 billion to Cluster 6, which deals with agriculture, food, the bioeconomy and natural resources. This cluster’s 2021-2022 work programme has a budget of €1.8 billion. About a third of the resources of this work programme are invested in research and innovation in agriculture, forestry and rural areas. This will support the transition of the farming sector to sustainability and enable it to cope with climate change.
It is too early to know Serbia’s full level of participation in Horizon Europe, but Serbia received around €10.4 million from Horizon 2020 for projects directly linked to agriculture, food and natural resources, for a total of 50 Serbian entities working on 53 different projects. I have no doubt that the participation of Serbia in Horizon Europe will exceed this level.
How does the Common Agricultural Policy for 2023 – 2027 address major developments in the sector? What is in store for candidate countries?
The recent sanitary and geopolitical changes (Covid pandemic and Russian aggression against Ukraine) have demonstrated how relevant and important agriculture is for all of us. Food security concerns that so intensely impact agricultural production, but also the need to deadapt to climate change, tell us that the farming sector, and rural areas in general, must adapt and respond to challenges continuously. Hence, food sustainability is fundamental to food security. The new CAP will do just that: help our farmers to produce sufficient food, of sufficiently high quality, while respecting the environment and increasing its resilience, and hence also contributing to the objectives of the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the EU Biodiversity Strategy.
IPA (Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance), and more specifically its branch focused on rural development (IPARD), provides instruments for candidate countries, including Serbia, to increase their farming competitiveness, adapt to high EU food safety and quality standards, invest in modern technology and equipment, improve quality of life in rural areas, but also take care of the environment and manage natural resources sustainably. By doing this, we not only aim to increase food sustainability in pre-accession countries, but also for these countries to contribute to their own food security – both individually and collectively. IPARD supports investments that enable increases in the production of highquality agricultural produce and compliance with EU standards. Investments in processing capacities contribute to creating higher added value agricultural production.
Through IPARD we not only aim to increase food sustainability in preaccession countries, but also for these countries to contribute to their own food security – both individually and collectively
Just a few months ago, the European Commission adopted the IPARD programme for Serbia for 2021-2027. This programme provides the basis for EU support in the field of agriculture and rural development. The programmes also provides a significant contribution to the implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, and thus also to the long-term economic recovery of the region and its convergence with the European Union.
Serbia received €175 million under IPARD in the 2014-2020 period and is expected to receive €288 million to pursue these objectives in the 2021-2027 period. IPARD in Serbia has so far already co-financed around 540 projects, with hundreds more projects at various stages of implementation.
We expect the current programme to support some 800 investments in farms, with 600 of those modernising and progressively upgrading to EU standards, 30 investing in renewable energy and a further 80 developing manure storage systems. The measure should generate total investments worth some €190 million. It is also planned for around 220 investments in processing and marketing to receive support. All of those beneficiaries will modernise and progressively upgrade to EU standards.
We often talk about major food producers, but you also support the development of medium-sized firms and the return of young people to agriculture. How can we realise these goals successfully given the circumstances – both in the EU and the Western Balkans – of negative demographics, age structures and migration?
The CAP and IPARD embrace the diversity of European agriculture, in terms of its structure, productivity and type of production. This is one of the reasons why the CAP has been so successful – while it is a common EU policy, it also allows each country’s specificities to be taken into account. This also means different types of farms and farmers can benefit.
I am fully aware of the problem of deadapt population in rural areas and the ageing of European farmers, including in membership candidate countries. This is a process that needs to be addressed if we want to preserve family farms and vibrant rural areas. CAP and IPARD support provides tools to make work and life in farming and rural areas more attractive for all, including younger generations.
IPARD programmes support investments in harmonising with EU standards, including upgrading buildings, machinery and equipment. They also help to establish short supply chains and increase the growth potential and attractiveness of rural areas, prevent depopulation via better infrastructure, diversify income-generating economic activities and foster rural employment, in particular among women and youth.
The beneficiary countries have several measures, established at the EU level, at their disposal to achieve these objectives. This includes, for example, support for rural businesses and farming families seeking to develop non-agricultural activities, and thus create new jobs, diversify income streams and reverse rural depopulation. There is also a measure targeting the economic, social and territorial development of rural areas through the development of physical infrastructure that improves the living standards of the rural population and the overall attractiveness of rural areas.
In the EU-funded IPARD programme for Serbia, young farmers also benefit from a higher co-financing rate for their investments, as well as from prioritisation in the selecting of IPARD beneficiaries
Monitoring and managing the impact of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is at the very top of my political priorities
It is essential for all countries to avoid restrictive trade measures. Only global trade routes will allow us to cushion the blow of the war by moving stocks to where they’re most needed
Using the potential of digital and cutting-edge technologies to increase the sustainability, performance and competitiveness of the agricultural sector is an EU priority