By Angela Dansby
Approaches to food security by the United States and Europe are similar short-term but very different long-term as revealed in an online panel discussion July 29, 2020 organized by the European Conservatives and Reformists Party. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, EU Commissioner of Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski, members of the European Parliament Anna Fotyga and Hermann Tertsch, and U.S. journalist Jon Entine faced off on environmental, social and economic aspects of farming and food security.
The U.S. food supply is about “probability, sustainability and affordability” noted Perdue, emphasizing that “farming must be profitable in order to continue.”
To this end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched in early 2020 an Agricultural Innovation Agenda to increase productivity by 40 percent while reducing farmers’ environmental footprint by 50 percent. Perdue commended the European Union for its commitment to sustainability with its newly launched Farm to Fork Strategy but said “the EU has forgotten the farm in it.”
“The economic and social aspects of sustainability must also be considered along with environmental,” Perdue noted, including agricultural policy that’s “innovation-focused, data-driven and science-based to feed the world and enhance trade relations.” He said policies should not restrict innovation so farmers have every tool possible to improve production.
Wojciechowski countered that the Farm to Fork Strategy, which focuses on increasing organic agriculture, aims to shorten the supply chain to reduce transportation needs and localize supplies more. This will reduce reliance on the free movement of goods, which has been disrupted during the COVID-19 crisis. He called for strengthening agrodiversity, economic support for farmers and rural area investment while supporting agricultural trade.
“The Farm to Fork Strategy is not against international trade,” he said. “For example, if EU farmers have less productivity, there will be more imports.”
“High productivity comes from innovation,” Perdue replied. “Let consumers decide if they want U.S. products.”
U.S. journalist Jon Entine weighed in on the EU’s reluctance to adopt modern biotechnology techniques like gene editing and noted that organic agriculture is not sustainable.
“Organic farmers use [organic] pesticides,” he noted, “some of which are more dangerous than conventional ones like copper sulfate on wine grapes … Organic agriculture is 40 percent less efficient than conventional so it needs more land, which is less sustainable.”
He noted the Farm to Fork Strategy will be tough to meet based on the Precautionary Principle, especially without biotechnology.
“Ninety percent of insecticide use has been reduced in the U.S. due to biotech genes,” he said, which have also been effective in controlling dangerous mycotoxins.
Tertsch added that hysteria by NGOs about the wrong issues has not helped EU agriculture. He called for focusing on the positives of modern farming instead of negatives to support farmers.
“Farmers should have freedom of choice, including biotechnology and gene editing,” he said. “We need all types of farming and technology.”
“There should be no agriculture in silos,” added Entine. “Don’t prioritize one type of agriculture over another.”
“We have to reduce obstacles to innovation in the EU,” Hermann concluded. “With the Precautionary Principle, the fear of a risk or risk of a risk is overblown … the economic viability of farmers is critical in the EU. We need farmers producing more and we must give them the tools to do it.”
Both sides of the Atlantic are concerned about aging demographics of farmers and the need to recruit young people. Wojciechowski noted that the number of farmers has shrunk in the last decade from 14 to 10 million, namely family farms. More seasonal workers are needed as well, he said, to ensure future food supplies.
Fortyck noted that food production is not the problem, rather distribution, which underlies famine and malnutrition. She emphasized the need for close trans-Atlantic trade relations to tackle this and other challenges.
Angela Dansby is director of communications for the U.S. Canola Association, which is based in Washington, D.C.