It is valuable to talk and work with people involved in agriculture and horticulture in Flanders because it is necessary to move towards a sustainable food system. It is a statement that Tessa Avermaete also supports. She starts her presentation at the provincial agricultural congress in Limburg as follows: “After all, there are very big challenges ahead of us. We must produce more in the future, and agricultural production must be more sustainable. We will also have to consume differently: healthier and more sustainably. It requires ambition, and Europe wants to radiate that.”
The question arises whether European policy will lead us to a more sustainable food system. In any case, Avermaete is clear: “We cannot afford any more mistakes in the direction we are heading towards.” Not just for us, but for our children and grandchildren. And also for the young farmers who invest in the field today.”
She works with a team at KU Leuven on various European projects. Europe controls what is investigated. “That’s why it’s sometimes important to stop and reflect.”
In May 2020, the European Commission proposed the Farm2Fork strategy, which is part of the Green Deal. The Green Deal defines 3 main goals. These reduce the footprint of the food system, strengthen resilience to crises and ensure healthy and affordable food.
Avermaete: “The new thing is that at European level it is about an integrated policy. Agriculture, consumers and intermediaries are included. It is not new at national, local and regional level. At the local level, the Pact of Milan exists, translated in Flanders into urban food strategies.”
Examples of such food strategies are ‘Gent en Garde’ in Ghent and ‘Voedsel connects’ in Leuven. “Flanders is also working on such an integrated policy that covers the different domains.”
The Farm2Fork strategy, which is part of the CAP, defines 4 main objectives. The first is combating food loss and waste. The second is sustainable food production, which also looks at what happens in the field. The third aspect is sustainable food processing and the fourth is sustainable food consumption. To achieve this we want to focus on different things.
According to Avermaete, some things are described very specifically and others remain vague. No target figures are mentioned when it comes to sufficiently affordable and nutritious food. The policy is also less specific about how to make food consumption and dietary patterns more sustainable.
“The challenges for European citizens and consumers are that many Europeans are obese. Half of Belgian adults are obese and 1 in 5 children are obese. This is not only worrying for those who are obese, it also puts a huge pressure on our health system. After all, many diseases are related to unhealthy diets. The Corona pandemic has shown us once again that obesity is an important risk factor for serious infections. We want to move towards sustainable consumption, but we do not know what means and how we achieve it.Can’t we formulate quite concretely that the top is the way to critical and healthy citizens?
… versus being too specific
When it comes to chemical pesticides and sales of antimicrobials, Europe is very specific. “Perhaps too specific. For example, between 2020 and 2030 they want to halve their use, which is huge. Europe also wants a 20% drop in fertiliser.
In addition, they will increase the area for organic farming: A quarter of the agricultural area must become organic. Now the average is 8.5%. “In Belgium and the Netherlands we do not reach 3%, in Austria they are already longer. Nevertheless, the goal remains very ambitious.”
Avermaete states that she wonders why everything is not clear. “Especially for young farmers and gardeners, it is crucial to know where the governments want to go. We certainly need ambition, but we also need to calculate the impact of ambitious choices. What is the impact on the farmer’s business model? What is the impact on emissions, environment, biodiversity – and not insignificantly – what does the strategy mean for productivity and agricultural production?”
In an environmental context
In Europe and Belgium, green areas are scarce and fragmented. “There are also more and more actors who are looking for agricultural land, other than just farmers and gardeners. Biodiversity is declining, and restoring and significantly increasing it will only succeed if the herb is worked properlychief. The impact of agriculture and horticulture on the environment is enormous, especially the impact of livestock farming.”
Europe formulates its goals in terms of production methods and inputs, but the real ambition lies elsewhere. Among other things, we want healthy soil, good water quality and clean air. “Are we going to achieve these goals with the current goals of organic farming, reduction of fertilizers and pesticides? Europe has enough internal expertise to calculate all this. Again, we need to spend every euro well, good intentions alone are not enough.”
Insufficiently substantiated problem formulation
By underpinning the problem definition, we know exactly where we want to go. Avermaete gives as an example the objectives for environmentally friendly agriculture. “People very specifically want 25% organic farming. Here it is important that calculations are made and that you look at how much production there is.
Furthermore, you must also consider whether you need more land and where to get it. Is it still possible in Europe or will we have to import organic products? And will that import also have to comply with certain laws? A study by Professor Brenner from Wageningen University shows that we will produce less because of the current policy. So we have to import more and become more dependent on what happens outside Europe. In short, we simply move the problem.”
What about regional differences?
Looking at agriculture, we see large regional differences in Europe when it comes to productivity in different crops. There are big differences between Flanders and Romania.
The regional differences are very important when it comes to plant protection products to be reduced. “We are critical of that. If a Member State sets it as its own target, it is possible that it will do much more harm in terms of production in the end. But the goals must be seen at a European level. Maybe more fertilizer needs to be used in some production systems in Eastern Europe.”
The average farmer in Flanders is over 50 years old. There is a huge problem with aging, both in Flemish and European agriculture. “There we must ensure that people who are interested in choosing the agricultural sector,” says Avermaete.
However, young farmers have a hard time. Young starters naturally want to invest in the sector, but encounter many obstacles. “It’s hard work, you have to be able to negotiate, know something about technology… and politics is uncertain. They also have to find land, which is not easy. There are certainly still young people in Flanders who want to work in the sector. Young people must have space and honest perspectives.”
In a subsequent point, Avermaete argues that the economic reality is not reflected enough in European politics. The food market is a global market. Belgium does not function as an island in Europe or the world.
Many agricultural texts state that agriculture must be small-scale and family-based and emphasize the importance of the short chain. However, what Europe means by this is not clear. “The short chain is great and can certainly add value, but the reality is that the majority of agriculture and horticulture is aimed at the global market. It should not be minimized.
Europe wants a competitive and productive agriculture, we will also need it with the ever-increasing world population. We cannot afford less production. We want robust companies that know the vulnerabilities they face, both in terms of political and economic risks, related to climate change.”
Reduction of livestock
The reduction of the herd is a current topic, but not much is reflected in the Farm2Fork strategy. “It is very unfortunate. It certainly does not help the sector to ignore the vulnerabilities, on the contrary. Let’s have an open constructive dialogue so that young livestock farmers can make targeted choices today and get honest perspectives.”
Calculate opportunity costs
Calculating opportunity costs is very important. Europe’s priorities today will invest money, resources and time. “If those priorities are not chosen properly, then that effort is lost. There is also not much money left after the crises. We can do a lot through innovation, but we also have to make the right choices here,” says Tessa Avermaete.
Impact studies and the development of scenarios in connection with prioritization are therefore still a must. “There are research institutes in Europe that do nothing but make models about how production systems in certain regions affect quality (eg less crop protection) and production. Let’s use that insight before we put a policy on paper.”