The penultimate trip of the 2018/19 Cereals Devleopment Programme saw the group head to Brussels to visit the European Parliament, lunch with Anthea McIntyre MEP and enjoy various talks with representatives from countries with all different trading relationships with the EU. Alex Nelms from Buckinghamshire reports on the trip.
It’s finally here! The trip that every CDP attendee has been buzzing about since day one – we are going to Brussels! And so it was that our adventure began the way all good British train journeys should – at the Wetherspoons in St. Pancras International Station…
I must start with a huge thank you to Katie Jarvis, Tom Keen and Michelle Hickey in the BAB office for lining up our itinerary and visiting speakers. Anthea McIntyre MEP and Faye Kent at the European Parliament for hosting us and chaperoning through the corridors and chambers and finally Chloe Lockhart, our invaluable NFU Combinable Crops Adviser and flag carrier for an excellent trip that was pulled off seamlessly in spite of a cancelled farm visit and Eurostar due to inclement weather.
“If you ever go to Brussels, eat at Pampas Rodizio in Sainte Catherine.” - Every CDP participant.
Tuesday 29th January
We started the first day fresh faced and ready for action, the agenda called for us to meet 9am sharp at the British Agricultural Bureau’s (BAB) offices on Rue de Treves - just 600m from the European Parliament. The BAB is NFU’s outpost in Brussels and represents the 4 home nation Farmers’ Unions (England, Scotland, Wales & N. Ireland).
Katie Jarvis, European Policy Adviser in the BAB (fluent in French, Italian and learning German) briefed us on the workings of the EU’s institutions, the BAB’s role in lobbying politicians on behalf of members back home, working as part of the wider agricultural lobby Copa Cogeca (the 2nd largest lobbying group in Brussels after Business & Industry) and being a conduit for information coming out of EU Institutions.
The BAB office in Brussels is set to remain open after Brexit since the EU will continue to be the most important trading partner for the UK and so it makes sense to retain the presence and resources that have been in place since 1971 – before we joined the European Economic Community in 1972.
Lynn Fortin, Trade Commissioner, Canada Mission to the EU
It was great to gain some insight into what it’s like to be a 3rd country that managed to agree the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) with the EU, whilst also being the small neighbour with a massive trading partner next door i.e. the USA. It was discussed where Canada sees itself with regards to the North American and European approaches to agricultural practices and food products which boils down to a familiar argument of hazard versus risk. Similarly, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in July 2018 that New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs) come under the 2001 Directive for Genetically Modified Organisms was raised and the feelings of frustration were apparent throughout.
With regards to borders, it was explained that the streamlining and fluidity in place today has taken years to achieve, with joint initiatives such as ‘Beyond the Border’ establishing ways to deepen integration whilst acknowledging that there will always have to be checks. The relevant enforcement officers from each country will visit their counterparts and look at their systems for recording and monitoring. So long as they are satisfied these systems are robust, trade is largely allowed to flow with minimal disruption.
Flora Dewar, Trade and Agriculture Policy Manager, Coceral
Coceral is a significant organisation that represents bulk agricultural commodities and agri-supply chains (such as fertiliser) at a European level. In the UK, membership of Coceral is through Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) which then sets other standards for acronyms you may recognise such as ESTA, FEMAS, FIAS, UFAS and TASCC.
Flora explained the EU’s position as a net exporter of cereals such as wheat and barley but significant importer of (GM) soy and corn. This means EU decisions regarding chemical use and residues can result in changes to 3rd country’s regulatory regime e.g. Argentina banning specific Plant Protection Products (PPP) to help their farmers export to the EU market.
Flora also explained the nature of the EU Commission’s ‘Protein Plan’. This is basically a policy idea to address the EU’s present 13 million tonne imbalance of protein sources (such as soy and OSR) that are import dependant. Therefore, the Commission is seeking to promote domestic production through boosting productivity and yields.
European Parliament and Lunch with MEPs
MEPs sit in a horseshoe or ‘hemicycle’ shape according to their political ideology or affinity – not their nationality. There are 8 political groups representing every shade of the political spectrum.
I have had a few discussions with fellow CDP attendees and some common feelings were how international the city of Brussels feels – the people that live and work there are from all over the EU, as well as all the diplomatic missions from the rest of the world. At times we experienced a feeling of exploring a distant or alien land – even though the distance from London to Brussels is the same as London to the Yorkshire Dales.
I have walked around some dingy corridors in Westminster and sat in the House of Commons and felt a sense of history, tradition and power. Brussels offered a stark contrast as it was spacious, modern, expensive – but fit for purpose. The scale of the task, to represent the views of 512 million people across 28 countries with an ambition to find consensus that will carry and progress all of those citizens and countries in the same direction, in their own language is going to come at a mind boggling cost – because there is simply no other political institution that comes close!
Anthea McIntyre MEP (Con), James Nicholson MEP (UUP), John Procter MEP (Con), Julie Girling MEP (Con), Faye Kent and other members of Anthea’s office staff hosted us for a splendid lunch in the European Parliament building. Our gratitude to Anthea for hosting us and Faye for shepherding us around the labyrinth of security, escalators and immaculate identical corridors!
For lunch we spread ourselves around the table to enable our Parliamentarians to swap places between courses. The discussions around the table were friendly and informative for both us and our hosts. We learnt about the work and routine of a MEP – the Committees, press releases, correspondence with constituents and plenary sessions. In turn we talked about our home farms, our roles in our respective businesses and our experiences on the Cereals Development Programme so far.
Anthea closed our visit with a paper on her “Member Initiative” entitled Technological Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture in the EU. The Initiative was adopted and passed on to the Commission in April 2016. The full text can be found online but the final summary sentence: -
“The long term challenges of sustainable agriculture should be met with a joined-up approach from the Commission and Member States to ensure support for technological innovation, a regulatory framework that is risk based, underpinned by scientific evidence, continuity of basic and applied research and the development of agri-related skills.”
This paragraph is indicative of the common sense, logical and practical approach for which Anthea is known, both to her constituent farmers in the West Midlands and Parliamentary colleagues in Brussels.
Robert de Graeff, Policy and Research Officer at the European Landowners’ Organisation (ELO)
Robert was our speaker at the end of an epic day, presenting a fascinating and engaging paper on the opportunities and challenges of digital farming and the future of agriculture which kept us all upright in our chairs.
The advances in field machinery coming in the next 5 to 10 years including driverless tractors, precision spot spraying and drones are only exceeded by advances in data collection, seed breeding techniques and further consolidation in the industry. Robert spent some time dwelling on what these changes might mean and if they will always be positive.
Wednesday 30th January
We woke up on our final morning in Brussels to a dusting of fresh snow and news that Eurostar had cancelled our train home that evening. Mid-morning we would also learn that Bayer did not want us to venture 20km outside of the city to see their experimental farm which was disappointing but not totally unexpected – seems Brussels is as useless as London when it comes to snow!
Alessia Musumarra, Secretary General of European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA)
Our first paper of the morning was presented on the work of CEJA and why it is important. CEJA was set up in 1958 at the same time as the European Economic Community, just prior to the first CAP in 1962. Their mission is two-fold:
- Lobbying to create good living and working conditions for young farmer members by promoting communication and dialogue with European decision makers.
- A knowledge exchange and forum for learning using the diverse experience and working practices of young farmer members across 24 EU member states plus Serbia.
We had a discussion with Alessia about CAP reform and the pitfalls of agriculture’s place in public perception and priorities. Including how there is too much focus on food and not agriculture which has resulted in consumers being disconnected. The main NFU criticism of the Agriculture Bill 2019 is the lack of focus on food or agriculture, so this ‘consumer disconnect’ is likely to be exacerbated.
This trend is well known to farmers through our own businesses and is a competing message to those generated by NGOs and vocal minorities from urban consumers that rely upon rural producers. CEJA has made communication a top priority to engage more and tell the good news story that is young people in agriculture today.
Helena Massote, Trade Commissioner, Brazil Mission to the EU
Three key themes were discussed, these being: the environment, biotech and pesticides and a 3rd country perspective when trading with the EU.
Helena talked about the EU’s trade deficit with Brazil for bulk agricultural commodities like soybean for animal feed. Typically, the EU consumes 13 million tonnes of soya each year, all imported at 0% tariffs.
Moving on from international trade to Brazilian domestic politics, it was interesting to learn that a 2012 Federal Law requires landowners to maintain a legal reserve of 20% of their land for forestry. There is a particular focus to maintain forestry next to rivers and waterways and joining up the legal reserve between neighbouring parcels is required at the landowners expense with no grant or subsidy provided.
Brazil has a Land Registry style database for submitting ownership details and then a traffic light system of green, amber or red indicates if you are on the correct side of the law. This then has a direct link to the availability of credit as the Register is checked by banks when providing loans.
Michal Kicinski and Laurent Oger, European Crop Protection Association (ECPA)
ECPA represents major chemical manufacturers such as BASF, Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta as well as National lobbying associations such as the Crop Protection Association in the UK.
The ECPA’s mission is to engage with decision makers and politicians at the EU level to promote a safe, affordable, healthy and sustainable food supply through the responsible use of pesticide technology.
Europe is a challenging policy environment for crop protection because of the unrelenting debate of risk vs hazard. The EU is much more cautious and has the most stringent regulatory regime in the world when it comes to approving Active Substances (AS). As a consequence, European farmers are at a disadvantage compared to the technological advances that our counterparts can use in other parts of the world. An obvious example that was reported recently in the press is neonicotinoids that are banned in Europe (apart from derogations in Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Romania) and then perfectly acceptable to import neonicotinoid treated OSR from 3rd countries such as Australia.
The number of EU permitted Active Substances dropped from 953 in 2001 to around 400 in 2011 before increasing slightly to 490 in 2017. This small increase due in part to ‘New Non-Conventional’ biocides and also includes things such as beer and vinegar, which were approved and added to the list of Active Substances by the European Commission in 2017 and 2016 respectively.
It is clear that the rate of innovation is not matching the rate of disappearing substances leading to a significantly empty toolbox.
This is causing investment and research to flee the continent and is a trend that will take years to reverse. It is also raising the spectre of resistance as with fewer AS.
Another interesting project that the ECPA engaged in was the Low Yield Report that resembled the Healthy Harvest campaign launched by NFU, AIC and CPA in 2014. The aim was to assess the impact of removing access to all pesticides and how yields would change overnight in such a scenario.
The percentage loss of yields for 7 staple crops in 14 EU countries and the UK are summarised below:
14 Nation Avg.
House of European History, Park Leopold, European Quarter
For our final afternoon we had a few unplanned hours to kill before catching our rescheduled Eurostar home. We split into 2 groups, some of us walked down to the €60 million House of European History Museum built by the European Parliament in 2017, while the others went to the pub.
The House of European History told the fascinating story of the political, cultural and economic revolutions that have shaped the continent since Roman times. The museum was free and included a tablet and headphones that updated as you moved around the building. The artefacts on display and detailed descriptions told through audio descriptions and short videos was a unique and immersive experience that I had not seen at a Museum before.
One artefact in particular, the Browning pistol used to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and trigger World War I was a powerful exhibit of arguably the single most important gun in history. The timeline continued through the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, the peak of the Cold War and onward to further European Integration. It was about this time that we had quite enough culture thank you very much, ditched the museum and had a waffle instead.