We spoke to Ramón Armengol, president of the European General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives (Cogeca), the voice of European agri-food, forestry, and fishery co-operatives to find out how the sector is being affected by climate change and what it is doing in terms of adaptation and mitigation.
What are the biggest challenges for agri food co-ops and farmers in Europe?
The challenges are many: changes on the global market, climate change, regulatory issues, trade pressure and of course still the effect and consequences of Covid-19. However, these also can present great opportunities, to strengthen our resilience and invest in creating more sustainable systems. Co-operatives can be important catalysers of such change, provided that there are enabling policies and financial tools available.
In recent years we have witnessed several heat waves and droughts in Europe. How did this affect agricultural production in Europe?
The increasingly adverse weather conditions, whether droughts or floods, have put additional strains on agricultural production in Europe. For example, this year, all of these events had serious consequences on the wine sector. Wine production in the three major producing countries, Italy, France and Spain, is estimated to drop by 18% from 2020/21. In addition to the spring frosts, which decimated approximately 30% of the cultivations in France and northern Italy, hail, droughts and diseases have further accentuated the losses.
What practical measures are agricultural co-ops taking to adapt to these climate changes? Are there opportunities for collaboration within the sector as well as with other co-operative sectors?
Agri co-operatives are investing in technologies and adopting targeted programmes that will allow us to take climate action. We recognise the importance of becoming ever more efficient and taking every available opportunity to reduce emissions and implement adaptation and mitigation actions.
European agri co-operatives, with their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, and even disposal or re-use of by-product or waste that originate from agriculture, are indeed a tool to be more efficient and sustainable in many sub-systems, such as, farming system, waste management system, input supply system, and interacts with other key systems, such as energy system, manufacture system, and technological and digital systems. There is not only the need to co-operate with other sectors. Co-operation among co-operatives can represent a critical element to grasp the opportunities.
There are common actions on these issue with others co-operative sectors. For example, Cogeca has recently contributed together with Eurocoop, and all other food chain European organisations, to the development of the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices that sets out aspirational targets that the operators on the value chain can voluntarily commit to undertake to tangibly improve and communicate their sustainability performance.
Agriculture remains a significant contributor to green gas house emissions – 10% in Europe. What measures are agricultural co-ops taking to mitigate against climate change?
European agriculture co-operatives have been engaged on this topic for years. Thanks to the advance and exchange of knowledge on the improvement of production, the agriculture sector has decreased its emissions by 20% from the 1990s. This commitment continues and with more sense of urgency. Working together with farmers and scientists, agri co-ops can help further improvement of practices by investing in new technologies, precision farming, digitalisation, training and knowledge exchange. Agriculture is not only the sector that emits but also a sector that can sequestrate carbon, so further investments towards the full utilisation of this potential is one of the priorities.
How would a EU-Mercosur agreement impact European agri co-ops?
Cogeca is in general supportive of trade, as long as it is balanced and fair. Each concluded agreement must be balanced in all its chapters and agriculture should not pay the price. To this extent EU-Mercosur deal as any other should respect that, otherwise the impact can be negative for our farmers and therefore also our co-operatives.
Copa-Cogeca has recently warned that even if a reduction in EU agricultural emissions could result from the Farm to Fork strategy, a large part of it would come from the relocation of our production to third countries. How could this issue be addressed?
There are various ways in which this could be prevented, first of all by enabling and not endangering the production in Europe, which is already following the highest production standards in the world. Policy coherence, especially between policies that concern production requirements and trade policy. Further investments in research, innovation and digitalisation in the sector are also important. In addition, carbon border adjustment mechanism and mirroring clauses are some of the possibilities we are also evaluating at the moment.
What are your members’ main concerns with regards to the proposed Farm to Fork Strategy?
Farm to Form Strategy has been a very controversial issue for the sector. The initial strategy proposed by the Commission was already problematic as it proposed objectives which many of our sectors find problematic, considering there are not sufficient alternative tools they could turn to and maintain production levels. Now this strategy has been taken further by the European Parliament. The recently adopted report from the Agriculture and Environment committees has raised some serious red flags. Despite a growing amount of evidence on the impact of the Farm to Fork strategy, and despite repeated warnings from a large number of stakeholders, MEPs have decided to add several new requirements to the initial proposal from the Commission. These new proposals on the future of PPPs, or on a tax on certain food products, as well as the rest of the strategy have not been subject to preliminary assessments.
However, it should also be noted that the final text contains some interesting proposals and advances, particularly when it comes to innovation, carbon farming, trade and also the strengthening of agri co-operatives. We are very glad to see that MEPs asked to promote co-operatives as a tool to improve farmers’ resilience, strengthening them in the food supply chain.