Neglecting productivity leads to import-dependency... and the price is paid at the grocery counter

Fruit Logistica is the biggest trade show for fresh produce in the world. (Photo: 'Grupo THM' flickr)
Fruit Logistica is the biggest trade show for fresh produce in the world. (Photo: 'Grupo THM' flickr)

Berlin, Fruit Logistica

European agriculture policies have renounced growth in productivity and caused an over-dependence on imports. While this is good news for nations selling produce in Europe, the prohibitive nature of Euro policy on productive technologies is causing severe knock-on effects restraining agricultural production both in Europe and globally.

Such was the consensus among representatives of major fruit and vegetable producing nations who met on stage at this week’s Fruit Logistica in Berlin to debate the pros and cons of Euro food policies. Luvuyo Mabombo from South Africa, Maurício de Sá Ferraz from Brazil and Miguel Vela from Spain joined Professor Harald Von Witzke from Humboldt University and Jacques du Puy, President of ECPA, for a lively, wide ranging debate about the issues of food security, price shock, sustainability, climate/environment, nutrition, secondary standards and safety for farmers and consumers.

Fruit Logistica is the biggest trade show for fresh produce in the world,” said host Jacques du Puy. “This is the most fitting place to debate European agricultural policy because it is a microcosm of the real world of productive agriculture. The astonishing display of quality and abundance showcased here is a testament to what crop science and the know-how of professional farmers can achieve.

Prof. von Witzke kicked off the discussion with a withering account of the neglect of productivity in agricultural policies in Europe in recent years. “European agricultural reality is about declining growth in productivity and increasing dependence on imports,” said von Witzke.

The most recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2010-2019 refers to growth in EU agricultural productivity as “stagnant”. It reports very positive projections for food production growth over the next ten years in all major agricultural regions at levels ranging from 15 to 40%, based mainly on yield increases. In sharp contrast, the report projects that net agricultural output in the EU-27 will grow less than 4% due to its productivity-suppressing policies. Europe, already the world’s biggest food importer, will therefore, by EU edict, become even more unnecessarily dependent on imports. Meanwhile, food demand is growing (70 % more food will be needed by 2050, FAO) and food prices trend ever upwards.

There’s more at stake. Von Witzke demonstrated that reducing productivity by regulation and subsidy in Europe has led to the rapid expansion of land dedicated to European food needs elsewhere. An area of farmland the size of Germany is already serving Europe in the developing world: the OECD-FAO report calls this a “land grab”. This land alienation diverts local food supplies and risks not only high prices and disruptions in supply for Europe but further destruction of rainforests and other natural habitats abroad as farmland expands to meet our food needs. He reminded the audience that deforestation due to farmland encroachment constitutes agriculture’s most significant impact on both greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity destruction. “Europeans care about these issues as well,” he said.

Far from Europe feeding the world, the world is now feeding Europe. The EU, governing what is, arguably, the most gifted agricultural continent on the planet has rejected food productivity in favour of an unfortunate mix of mythology and technological regression. To meet the challenges ahead we need to use all available productive technology in a sustainable way and invest in sustainable productivity research. The world needs another green revolution, this time where productivity is achieved sustainably.

Responding to von Witzke’s analysis, Miguel Vela of the Spanish Federation of Associations of Producers and Exporters of Fruits (FEPEX) said. “Spain needs agricultural policies that encourage competitiveness with the end result being superior quality and productivity. Instead, EU prohibitions of plant health products are not helping Europe’s producers to compete with the world’s growers who use many of these products to get their goods to the European market. Europe’s agriculture policies have fostered import-dependency on one hand and failed to give its farmers what they need to compete on the other. The Commission must re-assess its health, environment and rural policies coherently and join them up in support of European agriculture.

All of the panellists agreed that additional “hyper-regulation” by the European grocery chains was causing a chaotic effect among growers. They called on the EU to act to harmonize standards. Luvuyo Mabombo, Chief Executive Officer, Perishable Products Export Control Board (PPECB), South Africa had this to say: “Exporting nations must not only struggle to keep up with the latest official prohibitions from Europe, such as those for GM seed and plant health protection, but we now have multiple grocery chains jumping on the band wagon with secondary hyper-restrictions of their own. This makes it extremely difficult to produce efficiently with high quality. The EU must act to stop this hysterical, fragmented practice, harmonize regulations and put them on a productive footing.

Maurício de Sá Ferraz, Executive Manager, Brazilian Fruit Institute (IBRAF) said, “In Brazil we are committed to producing fruit and vegetables using the most up to date technology. We see the way forward is to increase productivity sustainably so that we do not expand the farmland base. European policies must also adopt this aim if their commitment to sustainability is to be credible. At the moment Europe is importing food and exporting problems for farmers and nations.

Du Puy wrapped up the debate by affirming that crop science is committed to the principles of sustainability and productivity, both of which Europeans need and will demand. “The penetration of recent price shocks into European markets are a direct result of Europe’s import dependency. We can help Europe lead the world in sustainable productive agriculture through the wise use of crop science, a serious investment in sustainable productivity and intensive farmer education and training, This is what our sustainability programming is all about.

Two years ago Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist, demonstrated to a high level audience of agriculture and food officials in Brussels that the conditions were in place for a massive European food price crisis because of our unwarranted dependence on imports.

The EU, therefore, has no reason to be surprised by these latest developments and should be looking to its own policies, regulations and incentives to protect Europeans from price shocks. The debate today demonstrates the profound influence European agriculture and food policies have on world production, markets, prices and land use. The key will be to promote productive, efficient, sustainable agriculture here in Europe and reduce import-dependency for crops that can be grown here. This is the true meaning of food security.