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Monday 29 May 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Opinion EU moves to tackle food insecurity cannot be at the expense of others
Ukraine conflict has exacerbated Covid disruptions and rising costs of energy and fertilisers – and not just in the EU.

GLOBAL FOOD AND agriculture markets are bound together by a complex logistical web, which has been disrupted by the invasion of Ukraine. The consequences for developing countries – already reeling from drought – could be catastrophic unless the EU comes to grips with this emerging global crisis, acting proactively to transform agriculture, as well as reactively to relieve short-term food shortages.

Irish consumers have been well-aware of rising food prices since last year, caused by coronavirus-related disruptions to the supply chain and the rising costs of energy and fertilisers. Across the EU, food prices have increased by 5.6% since February 2021.

The conflict has exacerbated this, due to our dependence on food, fertiliser and fuel from Ukraine and Russia. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), Ukraine and the Russian Federation rank among the top three world exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, while the Russian Federation is the world’s biggest exporter of nitrogen fertilisers and the second leading supplier of both potassic and phosphorous fertilisers. Russia and Belarussian potash exports account for 40 percent of global trade.

In response, the EU is providing €330 million to ensure that seed, diesel and fertiliser reaches Ukrainian farmers, so that they can plant crops for the 2022 harvest.

No reversing of greening of farm policy

The reduction in Ukrainian food imports is not a dire threat to the EU. While European farmers will face significant challenges to replace lost imports – due to the increased cost of fuel and fertiliser – the EU is self-sufficient for most foodstuffs. Nevertheless, the EU is reducing the shortfall in the single market’s food supply, by helping farmers affected by higher fertiliser and fuel costs.

Although there may be short-term tactical shifts in EU farming policy in response to the invasion, it cannot be used as a pretext for reversing the greening of EU farm policy. Biodiversity is not the enemy of efficient production; they are two sides of the same coin. Changing weather patterns are no less a threat to European food security than factor inflation and political instability.

The EU will also campaign strongly to avoid export restrictions and export bans on food. In the food price spikes of 2007 and 2008, food export bans by more than 29 countries contributed significantly to the problem. Export bans have negative implications for food security, because export restrictions adopted by large exporting countries bring about an increase in world prices, which brings creates a vicious circle of rising prices and lower supply for countries that lack food security.

This is exacerbated by the perception of shortages, which leads to hoarding by farmers, traders and consumers. An export ban enacted to promote one countries food security increases food insecurity in another.

We also need to go beyond a reactive stance to the current food price shocks. Ireland and the EU are developing a Food Systems Approach to the agri-food industry, which takes account of the links between policies for food, climate and environment, and health, as well as the role of all players in the food value chain. I have tabled a number of amendments to the recent policy proposals developed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, addressing food security in developing countries. A key proposal across the EU and the African Union is to adopt a food system that recognises the integrated nature of food, environmental and health policy.

Disastrous impact of climate change

We have been here before. The 2010 popular uprisings of the Arab Spring were triggered by a series of spikes in world food prices that started in 2008. The subsequent catastrophic – and still on-going – civil war in Syria, led to millions of people fleeing their homes and seeking asylum in neighbouring countries and in the EU.

The situation is already very difficult in many countries. Across East Africa, below average rainfall has created some of the driest conditions for decades. The drought in Kenya has left more than three million people short of food and has killed more than 1.5 million livestock. The price of simple food commodities, such as wheat and cooking oil, has doubled in many instances. Other parts of the globe also depend upon the Ukrainian vegetable oil and cereal crops, especially India and countries in South-East Asia.

Many of these countries are dependent on the import of fertilisers for a significant part of their agricultural production. Some of them are dependent on wheat imports and are facing increasing costs, which will have consequences for future harvests. The prices of food has doubled in markets where people do not have the disposable income to cover these costs.

The EU has allocated €2.5 billion over the next few years to provide short term food aid to countries facing a food crisis, due to climate disruption or conflicts. However, it is also focused on alleviating food insecurity in the medium and long term. The EU recognises that people need access to safe and nutritious food; that farming methods must be sustainable; that farmers should receive a fair income; and that women – who make up a majority of smallholder farmers in developing countries – need to be recognised for the role they play.

Innovation through research, knowledge, technology, agro-ecology and adoption of best practices can mitigate pressure on input costs without hurting production capacity, leading to long-term progress in productivity, to achieve the green transition. More importantly, this transition will help to achieve a fundamental change in society by reducing food waste and building partnerships with third countries for development of sustainable food systems.

Colm Markey is a Fine Gael MEP for Midlands-North-West and a member of the European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

This work is published under The Good Information Project, which is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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