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Will the EU achieve its green farming ambitions before the 2024 elections?

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With the European elections around the corner, it is crunch time for determining the legacy of the Green Deal for agriculture and food policy, as lawmakers scramble to rescue the climate-protecting credentials of this legislative mandate.

The EU elections of June 2024 are already casting their shadow on EU policymaking: Any directive or regulation that is not adopted before then faces an uncertain future under a new Parliament and Commission.

The time pressure is therefore on – and already felt – in EU agriculture and food policy, where the delaying or pushing forward of laws has turned into a political instrument.

Meanwhile, as EU party groups enter campaign mode, food and farming issues themselves are becoming increasingly politicised.

What does all this mean for the current Spanish presidency of the EU Council and what can we expect after the summer break? EURACTIV takes a look at the busy semester ahead.

Green Deal initiatives – do they still stand a chance?

Among the proposals already on the table – but still jumping through the legislative process – are several key files of the Green Deal, the EU’s flagship policy for environmental sustainability.

The notorious Nature Restoration Law (NRL), which recently found itself at the centre of controversy in the EU lawmaking process, includes several provisions relevant to the restoration of agricultural systems including compensation measures for landowners and whether to use the budget of the EU’s farming subsidies policy for restoration efforts.

After the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) led a campaign against the law, its fate was in the balance, but the European Parliament plenary backed the law in a mid-July vote.

Subsequently, the Parliament launched inter-institutional talks with the EU ministers on 19 July. While these can often be drawn out, an agreement could be found soon in this case, as the Parliament already moved close to the Council’s position in the plenary vote.

Meanwhile, time is running out for another key proposal belonging to the Green Deal bloc, the sustainable use of pesticides regulation (SUR), in which the Commission proposed to slash the use and risk of pesticides in half by 2030.

The contentious law, which was already proposed months later than planned in the first place, has been subject to further lags, behind which campaigners and Green lawmakers suspect a tactical manoeuvre to delay an agreement until it is too late.

With Parliamentary committee votes pushed back by several months and the Council only recently having received an extra impact study it requested from the Commission, there is reason to think the law might not be ratified in time before the elections.

Also still pending is the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), with which the Commission aims to curb harmful emissions from industrial installations – including large livestock farms.

After MEPs recently passed the vote on their mandate, negotiations between the Parliament and the Council have already kicked off. However, the Commission worries that their proposal could be ‘significantly’ watered down by both lawmakers – particularly when it comes to the threshold for agricultural emissions as well as in the inclusion of cattle emissions.

The EU executive is also expected to table its proposal for a sustainable food systems law in the third quarter of 2023. Originally advertised as the overarching legislation of the Farm to Fork strategy – the agri-food component of the Green Deal – green campaigners fear the proposal could end up focusing more on food security.

The task of saving the Green Deal’s original ambition might be harder since the likely departure from Brussels of its staunchest defender, Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, after throwing his hat into the Dutch election race.

Gene editing and ‘sustainable use of resources’

In early July, the Commission proposed loosening EU rules on new genomic techniques (NGTs), a term used for scientific methods to alter specific traits of crops. However, this contentious initiative is unlikely to be brought to a conclusion before the elections.

Even though the issue is a priority for the Spanish presidency, some opposition has come from the European Greens, from several countries, as well as the EU organics sector, and many of those involved do not seem to expect an agreement before the end of the current mandate.

The NGT proposal formed part of a broader package put forth by the Commission, alongside, among other things, a soil monitoring law and a revision of the seed marketing framework, which now both face a similarly tight timeline.

However, an agreement on the soil monitoring initiative might be more easily found since the draft put forth by the EU executive is already much less ambitious compared to what the ‘soil health law’ originally envisioned.

As part of a revision of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive, the Commission also tabled a proposal which includes legally binding national targets to reduce food waste by 2030 in households, restaurants and shops, as well as in the food manufacturing and processing sector.

Despite the proposal being the first of its kind, campaigning groups warned EU executive’s ambitions still lack teeth, as they do not reach the reduction targets set by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Animal welfare, food labelling: Will they, won’t they?

After successfully passing the first stage in the tabling of the animal welfare rules overhaul – the quality control of the regulatory scrutiny board (RSB) – the EU executive is confident that the new legislation will be proposed before the end of the year.

However, there is still a long way to negotiate the text that the Commission will propose – and the run-up to the European elections in June 2024 could prove a game-changer, according to Green and socialist MEPs.

Another much-awaited but still pending Commission proposal is the overhaul of the EU rules on food labelling. However, while the initiative was originally set to be tabled before the end of 2022 and then pushed back to spring this year, there has been no movement yet, and it remains to be seen whether it will be tabled at all. The German government, at least, seems to have given up on the proposal.

Coming up in Autumn – and beyond

With the current EU approval for glyphosate running out in December, the question of whether to re-approve the bloc’s most widely used herbicide is high on the agenda – with a decision expected by autumn, a recently-leaked draft report suggests.

Earlier this month, EU Food Safety Authority EFSA concluded that the use of glyphosate as an active substance in herbicides poses no “critical concerns“, while the full report was released on Wednesday (26 July). The verdict could help pave the way towards re-approval.

Another topic that should appear on the agenda after summer is related to the promotion policy, the EU’s funding programme for the promotion of European food products domestically and abroad.

The framework is contested for its promotion of foodstuffs whose intake the EU is otherwise aiming to reduce, such as red meat or alcohol. According to a Commission source, a proposal for an overhaul of this policy, which has disappeared from the agenda for several years, can be expected in autumn.

The Commission will also attempt to introduce a mechanism to stop producing chemical pesticides not authorised in the EU and still produced for exports. The initiative is set to drop to curtain on the current legislative mandate as it is expected to be unveiled in January 2024, EU sources confirmed to EURACTIV.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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