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Rural politicians cast doubt on climate targets as they plead: ‘Have faith in our farmers’

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This year’s European Dairy Association (EDA) Policy Conference preceded arguably the most important event on the European political calendar – June’s European Parliament elections.

A turbulent start of the year saw agricultural producers in many EU countries take to the streets to voice their despondence with the EU Green Deal and other policies that many have perceived as threatening the sustainability of their businesses. Right-leaning and populist parties, which are already predicted [https://ecfr.eu/publication/a-sharp-right-turn-a-forecast-for-the-2024-european-parliament-elections/] to have a greater presence in the next EU Parliament, have largely backed farmers’ demands, a move that has further propelled their popularity in the polls.

But despite concessions made by the European Commission to the farming community – including measures to reduce red tape, withdrawing a proposed restriction on pesticides, and scrapping targets related to cutting methane and nitrogen from agriculture – rural political parties are pushing for more.

At EDA’s Policy Conference held in Brussels, Belgium on April 10, three MEP candidates presented their concepts for the future of dairy and took questions from conference participants, who included representatives from food manufacturers, trade associations and governments.

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From left: EDA president Giuseppe Ambrosi with Jessika van Leeuwen, Christophe Hansen and Didier Leportois. Image via EDA

Christophe Hansen, a Luxembourg MEP from the Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) was joined by MEP candidates Jessika van Leeuwen from the Netherlands’ Farmer-Citizen Movement, and Didier Leportois from France’s Rural Alliance.

The three speakers agreed that farmers had been put under pressure by European policies in recent years and that EU produce’s authenticity should be better protected from imitation products in export markets. There were also calls for a less rigid approach to land use regulations and emissions reductions.

Less regulation, more innovation

Addressing the conference, Jessika van Leeuwen said farmer protests had helped mitigate ‘some of the most oppressive regulations’ but ‘it’s not enough, and it might be too late’, claiming that ‘a tsunami wave of dairy farmers’ were quitting in the Netherlands and blaming left-wing politics for creating ‘an imaginary polarization between nature and food production’. She explained her party wants the EU to protect ‘fertile grounds and highly productive areas’ in a scheme akin to Nature 2000, to ease farming and food production.

She also wants the Nature Restoration Law scrapped, hybrid dairy products ‘forbidden’, the introduction of on-farm ESG measures avoided, and to ‘convert the Green Deal into a real deal, where objectives are realistic and affordable’. Leportois shared a similar sentiment, arguing in favor of incentivizing farmers and supporting agrifood technologies rather than prescribing targets.

Hansen too spoke of a more accommodating approach towards agrifood producers, stating: “Farmers are often seen as the problem and not as the solution, and we all know that we need and we want quality foodstuffs produced, preferably inside the European Union, so we should not just push them out.

“We should not be so focused on figures to be achieved – of course, that is something that we have at the back of our minds – but what are the technologies that can decarbonize or lower the emissions of the agriculture sector overall. Not just say ‘OK, this is the figures and we will achieve them if 10% of the farms are stopping’; that is not what we need.”

Van Leeuwen added: “We support the continuous development of more sustainable, highly productive agriculture, but plead for a reduction of rules so there is more room for innovation to be developed. Environmental protection laws need to be customized per area instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. Objectives need to be reasonable, feasible and affordable. And we need to make sure we have and keep an equal playing field on our internal European market but also with our external trading partners to ensure our food producers have a decent and sustainable income.

“We have to have faith in our industry and our farmers and in their innovative minds that they can reach it, but if we put on top of them laws and we fix numbers that they have to achieve by a certain year or time frame, it is not going to work, because everybody is going to stress out instead of being creative and finding the right solution.”

Leportois, himself a dentist and a private breeder from Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, said that 30 of The Rural Alliance’s 81 candidates are farmers. “We [have] exactly the same position – the future must be built on the improvement of technology and science and not on ideology. Ideology leads to sadness and lack of perspective. We have to build on incentives and not just blank obligations.”

Regulators want data

For the European regulators, however, a data-driven approach is key to demonstrating the sector’s progress and how that fits into the bigger EU27 picture.

Wolfgang Burtscher, director general for Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Commission, told the conference that ‘the sustainability issue will continue to be on the agenda’ in agriculture and warned: “We put a lot of effort in designing policy instruments and funding rules that ensure that farmers are in compliance with these rules…but we are much worse at measuring what these measures produce.”

“One element is certainly greenhouse gas emissions, which will concern the livestock sector,” he added. “I perceive that sustainability of the livestock sector will be an important issue. But we need to have a holistic policy – we cannot only look at emissions; we need to look at all elements of farming, the importance of rural areas and the maintenance of landscapes. All these things are interlinked.”

‘We are not against everything’

We asked Jessika van Leeuwen and Didier Leportios why they were opposing emissions reduction strategies. “It’s not that I am against targets,” Van Leeuwen told DairyReporter at the conference. “The problem is with the time span. If you see the power within the farmers to innovate, where we came from and where we stand today, we’re continuously moving; but we make objectives that are just not feasible.”

So what targets would be feasible, we asked. Is the 2050 net-zero target too soon? “It is complex,” Van Leeuwen said. “I am not the person to tell you if it is feasible, because I don’t know all the numbers.

“It’s not that we are against getting as far as possible, but by just fixing it so strongly, you leave people no room. And you put people in a stressed situation where there is no creativity anymore. That, I think, is not helping the cause.”

Asked what she meant by creativity and innovation, the MEP candidate elaborated: “[I mean] innovation as in the general sense of the word, so it can be in traditional things like housing. I’m working in the animal feed business myself, so if we think we can lower a lot of the nitrogen emissions, for instance, we’re not [just] thinking about it.”

On his opposition to emissions targets, Leportois told us: “We are not against everything, you know. We are not old school. We know that evolution is necessary, but not too fast. People have to have the possibility to adapt gradually and to be part of the system, not to suffer from it.

“So there are measures that must be taken, but not too fast, not everything at the same time, and share solutions with the professionals and see what they are able to do, what is sustainable from a financial point of view, and then it will go ahead, but not as fast as it’s going now.”

We also asked the candidates about how they would approach dairy alternatives regulations. During the Q&A, Van Leeuwen said banning hybrid dairy was something on her wish list: “I have another wish, and that is…forbid hybrid products because we cannot be abusing good dairy proteins and mixing them with vegetable proteins and nutritionally misleading customers in thinking that they’re buying something nutritious; that has to be forbidden.”

With food companies including dairy majors already investing in this segment, would Van Leeuwen discourage producers from manufacturing such products if she was elected? “I think you need to be very honest and when you make these products, you need to be very honest about the nutritional profile that the product provides,” she told us. “And you need to be very honest on your pricing, because vegetable protein is a lot cheaper than animal protein.

“So then you need to price accordingly, because now people have the perception that they’re buying an equally nutritious product, or maybe even a healthier product. They need to pay the full price. I am all for people can eat whatever they want to eat, but it needs to be clear and transparent. And I think it’s not the same.”

On the same subject, Leportois added: “We cannot avoid them [dairy alternatives], but the farmer must be considered.”

Dairy alternative products are already banned from using descriptors like ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’ in the EU. There is a lack of concrete evidence on whether shoppers confuse dairy alternatives with traditional dairy, but the issue remains contentious for both regulators and food groups, particularly with regards to labeling rules.

What food companies think

So what did representatives of food companies and dairy co-ops make of the MEP candidates’ views on target-setting and emissions reporting, land use policies, and sustainability incentives?

“We already have our Climate Plan in place with the aim to produce net climate-neutral dairy by 2050,” said FrieslandCampina’s Sanne Dekker. “ We have a clear roadmap for our 2030 emissions reduction targets for scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and are well on track to reach these. Of course, we support greater positive incentives at EU level for dairy farmers to help accelerate sustainable measures; making a transition to more sustainable farming financially viable is essential, after all.”

Valio’s Anna-Kaisa Auvinen told us a more tailored approach to land use would be welcome. “We have our own climate program and I think we are addressing these issues already; so we are not afraid about what the regulation [on climate targets, ed.] is going to be.

“But I think it would be better if we would have more space for innovations if we don’t have such strict regulation. Because the farming conditions are very different in Northern Europe and in the South, but regulations don’t always reflect this.

“And in other areas, there is too much regulation; for example, the Deforestation Act, which many here wouldn’t think would apply to dairy farms at all. But in Finland and Sweden, there are lots of forests; if we want to have bigger grazing areas, we have to look at some of the trees also.”

Antoni Bandrés, director of food supply at Danone Iberia, was in favor of more standardised rules. “We need to have, across the whole value chain, the whole dairy sector, we need to have just regulations to secure the quality of our products to the consumers,” he explained. “I know that regulations sometimes are tough, but we need regulation to demonstrate and to secure this quality of dairy products to the consumers.

“[We need it] in terms of food safety, but also in terms of emissions, we need a standardisation across Europe in order to know how we are and where we are headed. Because nowadays there are many voices saying that we are producing less emissions, but what is behind [this claim], what kind of measurement?

“Nowadays we have no transparency because there isn’t a unified way to measure things. And if we are talking about carbon or methane emissions, there is no uniformity [either].”

“If we have one rule across Europe and all of us follow this rule, it’s easy to compare. And it delivers transparency to the consumer.”

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