Europe’s energy crisis – which has been sparked mainly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Putin’s subsequent curtailing of natural gas flows to the EU – is swiftly turning into a food crisis. With the costs of maintaining their operations spiralling out of control, many farmers are being forced to curb production. The situation is particularly serious coming against a backdrop of global food shortages and after a summer of devastating droughts which had already brought the agricultural sector to its knees.
Under the circumstances, it’s clear that the pivotal European agricultural industry is in dire need of greater support. For one thing, EU policymakers should begin by reassessing initiatives planned prior to the war and its ensuing fallout, since stubbornly sticking to arbitrary targets could result in a deleterious impact on an already ailing industry. Front-of-pack (FOP) labelling, pesticide restrictions and green objectives should all come under fresh consideration, while it’s also imperative that the agrifood sector is put front and center when politicians must make difficult decisions about gas rationing in the run-up to an ominous winter.
A fallow year for agrifood
2022 looks to be a difficult season for the European farming sector. The latest blow landed earlier this month after the Kremlin confirmed it would be pausing gas flows along its Nord Stream 1 pipeline indefinitely in the face of European sanctions. Energy is important to all facets of agriculture, but some are particularly susceptible.
For example, pasteurization and milk powder production both consume vast amounts of power, driving up prices of butter by 80% and milk powder by 55% and hamstringing dairies and bakeries. The fertilizer sector has also been heavily impacted, as its production costs are tightly tied to the price of natural gas and therefore have risen dramatically in recent months. Due to this severe economic pressure, roughly 70% of European fertilizer capacity is offline—something which could have a disastrous impact on crop yields.
The International Fertilizer Association (IFA) have estimated that the war could see a reduction in global outputs of corn, rice, soybean and white by around 2%. In Europe, that’s coming on the back of prolonged periods of drought in over half of EU member states this summer, meaning that the bloc’s gross cereal production is expected to fall by 4% compared to the five-year average. Sunflower seed yields could drop by 12%, while maize is in danger of a 16% dip.
What’s worse, this meteorological misfortune is expected to occur with increasing regularity going forwards. According to the European Drought Observatory, almost half (47%) of EU land is already at the “warning” indicator of drought hazards, while 17% is at the more extreme “alert” level. With climate change intensifying, the current problems befalling the European food sector are only likely to snowball in the future.
Workers collect grapes during the traditional Champagne wine harvest near Epernay, France.
Policymakers must adjust to changing times
With that in mind, lawmakers must implement sustainable solutions to support European agriculture in both the short and long term. To start with, policymakers must take a second look at initiatives which are misguided or overambitious given the current climate.
For example, the EU’s attempt to streamline FOP labelling and harmonise it across the bloc, allowing consumers to make better-informed decisions is certainly laudable. However, one of the frontrunners for a Europe-wide FOP system, the French Nutri-score scheme, has serious shortcomings which could make it highly damaging to the European agri-food sector at this pivotal time. Particularly troubling is Nutri-score’s arbitrary scoring framework, which classifies foods on an oversimplified A-to-E, green-to-red scale based on a 100g or 100mL serving in isolation, without taking into account the nuances of nutrition.
As a result, certain ultra-processed products (such as fizzy drinks and sugary cereals) are given a deceptively high score, while products at the heart of Europe’s food heritage (like olive oil and parmesan cheese) are discriminated against. Unsurprisingly, there has been a strong backlash among several European countries—particularly those for whom such foods are the backbone of their diet and agricultural industry—and the Italian Competition Authority (ICA) has even ruled that Nutri-score is misleading to consumers. Given the strain, European farmers are already under, adopting a controversial nutritional label that piles more pressure onto local producers seems misconceived.
Attempts to phase out chemical additives are similarly well-intentioned but ill-advised. As mentioned above, a dearth of fertilizer is already expected to impact crop yields, so rigidly sticking to a 2030 target for slashing pesticide use by 50% could further imperil food security, as farmers across Europe have warned.
Another green initiative which could be overreaching itself is the potential inclusion of a mandate for biomethane in the upcoming Renewable Energy Directive. Again, the ambition is admirable, but the targeted production of 35 billion cubic meters of biomethane by 2030 is believed to be almost double the maximum achievable if money was not an issue and over four times what could feasibly be done on a sensible budget.
Prudence and pragmatism should dictate policy
Of course, the extreme weather events experienced this year are the strongest evidence available that the EU must take steps to futureproof its food industry against similar occurrences going forwards, and a transition toward greener practices is certainly to be encouraged. However, that long-term sustainability should not come at the expense of short-term survival, especially when an energy and economic crisis is threatening to spill over into a food disaster.
Thanks to the various climatological and geopolitical challenges that the global food industry has faced this year, numerous producers are likely to wind back production this winter. Given that impoverished parts of the world are potentially facing food shortages of up to 30 million metric tons of produce, bringing 30 million people to the brink of food insecurity, policymakers must recognize the immediate issues at hand. That involves reassessing outdated objectives, employing circumspection and offering targeted support where it’s most needed to ensure that European farmers are able to enjoy a greener tomorrow by surviving a darker today.