Spanish EU presidency must not let domestic politics derail crucial agricultural agenda

Spanish EU presidency must not let domestic politics derail crucial agricultural agenda

Three weeks before its hotly-anticipated general election, Spain assumed the six-month EU Council Presidency. On 2 July, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez hosted European Council President Charles Michel in Madrid in a vision meeting where strategic autonomy, the green transition and social and economic justice emerged as the overarching priorities.

In advancing these goals, few sectors will have more relevance than agriculture, a reality that  Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas clearly recognises, recently stating that “the fragilities of the agri-food chain production have been revealed,” by the war in Ukraine, while strongly associating food security with the Spanish Presidency’s strategic autonomy objectives.

With climate change-driven drought, labour shortages and food labelling adding to the agri-food sector’s vulnerability, Spain’s focus on innovative farming technologies and regulatory approaches offers much-needed hope. Yet Madrid will need to ensure its upcoming election does not derail this vital agenda, particularly as Brussels’ legislative machine will soon grind to a halt to prepare next year’s European elections.

Drought drying up soils and labour pools 

Having undergone severe droughts for much of 2023, Spain is particularly well-placed to respond to the impending summer of discontent facing the continent’s farmers, with the water shortages of the winter and spring taking a harsh toll on farms in key agricultural regions. Martí Costal, head of water at the Young Farmers and Ranchers of Catalonia (JARC) paints a harrowing picture for which “there is no precedent,” marked by massive losses of wheat and barley harvests on rainfed and irrigated lands, while the story is much the same for Andalusia’s olive growers.

Yet Spain is certainly not alone in the line of fire, with France, Italy and Portugal forming a southern European farming bloc of drought. Last month, the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) published a report revealing the impact of this year’s unforgiving meteorological conditions on the western Mediterranean region, highlighting that drying soils and low river flows are threatening agricultural production in the pivotal growing season. And while May rainfall provided partial relief, much of Europe remains under drought warning and alert conditions.

Beyond the devastating impact on yields, farmers like Catalonia-based Santi Caudevilla have expressed fears that increasingly-frequent droughts put rural farming areas at risk of “abandonment,” adding that in 10 years nobody will want to work in this countryside.” According to the OECD, the EU’s agriculture sector has already lost 2.5 million workers over the past decade and faces a 13% employment drop in the next, which, paired with rising labour costs, represent a real menace to the continent’s food security.

Nutri-Score threat remains despite mounting opposition

While weather is already a considerable disincentive for new farmers, Brussels could add an entirely-avoidable repellent with its bloc-wide Front-of-Package (FOP) food label proposal.

Once considered the Commission’s frontrunner, the France-backed Nutri-Score has found itself at the centre of controversy. Indeed, with Its punitive approach and unreliable, ever-changing algorithm, it has attracted the ire of European governments and local farmers whose traditional products – such as French Roquefort cheese, Spanish olive oil, and now even plums – receive misleadingly negative scores for their high salt, fat and sugar content, with no regard for degree of processing nor broader nutritional benefits.

Dr Steffen Jahn, leader of a new study on consumer confusion of “low fat” labels with low sugar content, has concluded that Nutri-Score does “not help detect the biased inference examined in our study, because no nutrient-specific information is provided.” Moreover, leading nutritionist Professor Philippe Legrand has criticized the Nutri-Score algorithm’s “outdated” treatment of fats.

Opposition to Nutri-Score has significantly expanded in Europe as these shortcomings have come to light. In an early blow, the Italian Competition Authority banned the label last summer, while senior Commission official Claire Bury’s statement last September that Nutri-Score would not get the green light sent shockwaves through the Brussels bubble.

In May, Romania’s competition authority followed Rome’s lead in banning the label, while brewing legislation in Switzerland – a Nutri-Score stalwart home to one of the system’s staunchest agri-food advocates, Nestlé – could lead to its revocation if passed. Even in Spain, major parties such as PP and Vox have called for Nutri-Score’s cessation due to its harsh treatment of Mediterranean staples. With Nutri-Score losing support in its former strongholds, Spain’s Council Presidency provides a perfect opportunity to deal the final blow.

Pressures sparking turn to innovation

Faced with this range of pressures, “the big question” over EU farming regions’ long-term survival will depend on “if we are able to adapt,” in the wise words of agri-food scientist Joan Girona Gomis. Encouragingly, Madrid has displayed an innovative vision for this agricultural adaption, with Planas citing “improved irrigation systems, precision farming, and new genomic techniques (NGTs)” – or gene editing – as key Spanish Presidency priorities to bolster drought resilience and food production sustainably.

Given the Commission’s proposal in early July to finally relax NGT regulations – notably removing “GMO” labelling and risk assessment obligations for genetically engineered foods – Madrid seems primed to push this vital agenda forward. This refreshingly rational, science-based regulatory and labelling approach should inform the Commission’s long-awaited FOP proposal.

Furthermore, the Spanish Government has just announced that its cutting-edge drought monitoring system will become globally accessible, helping climate-vulnerable agricultural countries track this scourge in real-time and implement early warning systems. And forward-thinking farmers like Gomis are showing the vast agricultural potential of advanced technologies, including sensor-based smart irrigation to reduce water consumption without sacrificing yields and further degrading soil health.

The Commission’s €430 million support package for EU farmers in late June will certainly help mitigate inflationary and climactic pressures, but Brussels should ensure sufficient funding for these types of interventions. Guided by innovation and pragmatism, the EU can help support its beleaguered farmers while advancing its sustainability goals.

To that end, the Spanish EU Council Presidency has arrived at an opportune moment. If it can avoid distraction from domestic political turbulence and a potential government transition, Madrid’s adaptation-based approach and deep experience with farming challenges can help steer Brussels’ agri-food agenda on the right path.

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