*Below is the article I filed on February 5. The  delayed version posted by Euractiv (url above) has lines they put in without consulting me 

Farmers protesting in Castlebar in Ireland (Simon Roughneen)

On February 1, as farmers blocked roads and brought parts of Belgium, France and Germany to a standstill, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lauded their “essential role” in the continent’s economy.

Copa-Cogeca, a pan-European farmers’ and cooperatives’ group, had earlier put its case to von der Leyen and Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, which in 2022 saw weeks of protests by farmers.

“Economic burdens and bureaucracy are strangling farmers across the EU,” Copa-Cogeca said, in a statement released on January 31.

The pressure appeared to have paid off. Speaking after a February 1 meeting of the European Council, von der Leyen not only praised farmers but promised revisions to some rules they oppose.

“Farmers can count on European support,” she said, praising their “resilience”. Farmers have in recent years been squeezed by soaring costs of inputs such as fuel, fertiliser, transport and feed for animals. Prices started to climb in 2021 as Covid pandemic lockdowns and state spending disrupted economies, before soaring after Russia, a key supplier of gas and of fertiliser, invaded Ukraine, one of the world’s leading sources of grains and oilseeds and a country sometimes called “Europe’s breadbasket.”

And as part of its efforts to shore up Ukraine’s war-wracked economy, the EU has made it easier for Kyiv to export its produce to the EU.

But that has angered farmers already irate at the prospect of the EU allowing reduced-tariff or even duty-free imports from parts of the world, such as South America, where food is not subject to EU-level production and environmental standards.

Ahead of the February 1 Council meeting, France’s government ruled out endorsing a deal that favours South American agriculture and food production.

According to a Council statement issued after the meeting, “EU leaders discussed challenges in the agricultural sector, including concerns raised by farmers” and promised to “keep the situation under review.”

But von der Leyen said the same day that farmers were key to “ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources,” a hint that the EU expects them to fall in line with efforts to cut emissions and “rewild” patches of agricultural land.

A draft EU document leaked the same week showed the Commission’s intent to by 2040 cut emissions by 90% compared to output in 1990 – with livestock and fertiliser mentioned as key – as part of the bloc’s ‘Green Deal’ and ‘net zero’ blueprints.

A week earlier, von der Leyen hosted the first meeting of the Commission’s “strategic dialogue” on farming, a gathering ostensibly aimed at healing rifts between food producers, policymakers and environmentalists over what counts as “sustainable” production, under the various EU frameworks such as the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Green Deal.

Ahead of that January 25 dialogue event, agriculture representatives met in Brussels to discuss what they view as the vilification of their sector. “Farmers are made out to be environmental terrorists due to misinformation being spread about us,” said Helen O’Sullivan of the Irish Farmers’ Alliance, a recently established political party.

On February 1, von der Leyen said the dialogue was about coming up with “a roadmap on how to reach our common goals,” which, she reminded, include “climate neutrality by 2050.”

How to reach hit those targets without putting farmers out of business, and with it, making Europe more dependent on imports, is a Gordian Knot which the dialogue should help unpick, even if some opponents contend the goals are at best contradictory, and that Europe will end up producing less food.

According to Isabel Paliotta, policy officer for sustainable food systems at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), it is “misleading and contrary to scientific evidence to pitch environmental restoration and preservation, and food production as conflicting.”

“Achieving a balance between conservation, carbon emissions reduction, and food production is indeed challenging but feasible,” said Alberto Arroyo Schnell, head of programme and policy at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Europe office.

“The Green Deal and its accompanying policies – such as the Farm to Fork and the Biodiversity Strategy – [have] set a high environmental standard,“ he added, referencing several of EU’s initiatives.

The dialogue can take these efforts forward as it “offers a way to consolidate our ambitions on sustainable food production and find a way forward in an increasingly polarised climate,” according to Rafael Sampson, public affairs & public relations manager at industry organisation FoodDrinkEurope.

But the dialogue is likely to be no more than a start on addressing the challenges.

Writing in the journal Nature Food in September 2023, a team of scientists from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland said the EU faces the challenge of developing “a common and coherent definition of a sustainable EU food system,” which will in turn need “a concrete governance architecture that allows for steering and accelerating food systems transformation.”

“There is a wide variety of sustainable agricultural approaches to help make this happen,” said the IUCN’s Arroyo Schnell.

According to Paliotta, if the EU wants to “ensure our agri-food systems become sustainable,” it will have to overcome what she labelled “policy incoherence.”

“Siloed thinking and policy development have curtailed action and reduced the effectiveness of policies and regulations, and it is crucial we solve that if we are to make progress,” she warned.

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