As the European Parliament tests the appointed Commissioners, H+K Brussels’ Jessica Faure, Eva Bille and George Candon ponder what the European agriculture policy will look like in the coming years. 

What an intense couple of weeks for our Commissioners-hopeful, as the MEPs enjoyed their once-in-five-years opportunity to grill them! With the new Commission structure, Ursula von der Leyen put the Green Deal at the center of all aspects of future policy. And much of it is very relevant for those who grow and breed.

It’s no surprise then that, in total, five Commissioners-to-be touched upon farming, from agriculture nominee Wojciechowski, of course, all the way up to Mr Green Deal himself, Frans Timmermans. Ireland’s trade nominee Phil Hogan felt at home commenting on his former portfolio: Kyriakides (health) will be involved, in charge as she is of “sustainable food” in the new Farm2Fork strategy; Sinkevičius will also have a role, seeking a biodiversity equivalent to the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement under the Biodiversity 2030 strategy (which may well bring biodiversity policy out of the NGO closet and into the highest political agenda).

Greening the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) was a key point during agriculture-designate Wojciechowski’s hearings – yes, there were two, after he spectacularly failed to impress at the first. Talking to senior officials from some of the Perm reps, we know that the CAP is on the top of their agendas for agriculture, too. But cash is king and money problems may grow if, as Hogan suggested, Brussels will come to farmers’ rescue to solve potential EU-Mercosur imbalances. MEPs and the Commission want to maintain a substantial CAP budget, but the ball is in the court of Member States, who hold the purse. Some of our contacts think the deadlock will only come undone after July 2020 when Germany takes over the Council presidency.

The CAP is definitely not new, but because it has always been farmer-centric, we’ve rarely seen sectors outside of farming engage heavily in lobbying on this topic. Times they are a changing though; the Commission and Parliament’s focus on greening the CAP and promoting organic farming will impact two sectors in particular: those who use land and those who make, sell, and use crop protection products. And those two sectors will have more than just the CAP to worry about…

Blazing forests

Clearly, the fires in Brazil over the summer created a sense of urgency, and the EU won’t let this slide. While Wojciechowski waffled on about an old forest strategy, Sinkevičius and Timmermans gave a bit more, ahem, meat. They called for a reforestation plan (in rural areas but also in cities with more green areas to absorb CO2), but, above all, for stopping imported deforestation. Although they haven’t yet fully made up their mind on how to do this, ideas of “deforestation-free” labeling and bans of unsustainable products are floating. Food makers and retailers would be the first to feel the pinch.

This is not all. Deforestation will be on everyone’s mind when MEPs eventually talk about the EU-Mercosur trade deal. A recent Yougov survey showed 82% of people in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and Spain want the deal to be stopped, after having been informed it could lead to more deforestation in the Amazon. Although the survey question was massively leading, if we’ve learnt anything from the TTIP fiasco, it’s that popular activism can kill off even the biggest international trade deals. With Hogan having cut his teeth on agriculture before going to trade, we can expect a focus on farming in future trade deals such as with Australia and New Zealand.

Quid organics?

Public pressure on crop protection products (pesticides to you and me – certainly non-organic ones) and their impact on health will only grow, amply demonstrated during Kyriakides’s hearing: we counted 17 mentions of the word “pesticides” during her session in front of MEPs. (Comparatively, her major area of focus, cancer, received 20 mentions by our count). As many other Commissioners-hopeful, she systematically batted off questions about pesticides and chemicals by referring to the Farm2Fork strategy. Unclear whether this was just a deft means of avoiding sticky questions or whether it implies that the strategy will include more regulation on pesticides – one to watch.

If pesticides were in the firing line, it’s perhaps unsurprising that organic farming was being promoted as a bit of a panacea – Wojciechowski liberally peppered his hearings with repeated mentions of it, throwing into the mix a European Action Plan to promote organic farming. Sinkevičius also wants to use the Farm2Fork strategy to look at non-chemical alternatives to pesticides, or “friendly” pesticides where no alternatives exist.  In short, it’s dangerous to be a “hostile” chemical these days: the Farm2Fork and Biodiversity strategies are coming for you. Transparency and better science are crucial to protect those crop protection products that need to be protected – that much was made clear by citizens demanding more on glyphosate and is reflected in the revisions of the general food law. Kyriakides and Timmermans were equally explicit that science-based decision making is the way to go.

But as we’ve seen repeatedly on topics ranging from vaccines to climate change, science rarely wins the popular argument over emotions. The science is not enough – advocates will have to win hearts and minds.