Europe Looks Backwards on Agriculture, Endangers a Trade Deal With the U.S.
Most people look at a gluten-free, vegan, sugar-free, organic, non-GMO, palm oil-free candy being advertised in a store with bemusement. Yet in the United States, aisles in supermarkets, entire retail chains, are dedicated to these kinds of products, which over the years have attracted a loyal customer base. This is quintessentially American, because consumers have choices.
In Europe, critics of modern agriculture seek not to convince the public with slogans and brands; instead they’ve launched an open attack on the free choices of consumers. Almost all GMOs have been made illegal in Europe, and an increasing number of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are being banned, despite scientific research showing their safety. This has led to rising food prices in Europe—while the EU average price increase is 2.5 percent a year, some member states saw up to 5 percent in pre-pandemic times, which outperforms inflation. More increases are to be expected if new plans come into motion.
The European Union’s executive body, the European Commission, recently published a new roadmap for agriculture, known as the “Farm to Fork” strategy. It is the cornerstone of fundamental agriculture reform, a move intended to foster sustainable agriculture. The strategy contains two flagship proposals: reducing pesticide use 50 percent by 2030 and increasing organic agriculture to 25 percent of total production by 2030.
On pesticide reduction, there is no ambiguity about the fact that this is a political ambition and not a scientific one. In the European Union, chemical crop protection products are approved by a government food safety agency. Requesting a reduction of 50 percent of products that are considered harmless in the first place has nothing to do with reasonable agricultural policy.
The origins of the hostility towards modern agriculture are multifactorial. There’s the skepticism of food from the United States, which is regarded as unsafe, as well as the ready availability and multitude of choices, which are perceived as unhealthy consumerism.
One of the most cited reasons is that American chicken is treated with chlorine—which has scared many European consumers (despite them happily eating chicken on a visit to the United States). This attitude arose from the misconception that EU regulators had deemed the process of using chlorine unsafe. In reality, those regulators expressed concern that the process, which is safe, would lead poultry farmers in the U.S. to be more negligent in the keeping of their chickens.
Another key factor relating to the reduction targets on pesticides is how Europe increasingly views risk assessment. In the English language, the words “hazard” and “risk” are used interchangeably, yet in the scientific world, they mean different things. “Hazard” is the ability of something to cause harm, while “risk” is the degree to which it actually is harmful. For instance, the sun is a hazard when going to the beach, yet sunlight enables the body’s production of vitamin D and some exposure to it is essential. As with everything else, it is the amount of exposure that matters. A hazard-based regulatory approach to sunlight would shut us all indoors and ban all beach excursions, rather than cautioning beachgoers to limit their exposure by applying sunscreen. The end result would be to harm, not protect human health. A risk-based assessment would take into account the varying factors present in the real world.
The twisted logic of hazard-based regulation is all too often applied in crop protection regulation, where it creates equally absurd inconsistencies. For instance, if wine was sprayed on vineyards as a pesticide, it would have to be banned under EU law, as alcohol is a known and quite potent carcinogen at high levels of consumption. All this is rationalized through an inconsistent and distorted application of what Europeans call the “precautionary principle.” Needless to say, Europe is practically the only region in the world that governs food standards in this fashion, and many countries have complained about this before the World Trade Organization.
EU institutions have a rigid and fundamentalist view on nature and agriculture. In a speech in May, the EU’s commissioner for environment talked about the European food strategy in a nature-based way: “When you have adequate protection, properly enforced, nature pays you back.” He added, “This is a strategy for reconnection with nature, for helping Europe to heal.” To do so, Brussels endorses organic agriculture and “agro-ecological practices.” The science (or lack thereof) of “agro-ecology” deserves an article all its own, but in essence, it means no pesticides, no genetic engineering, no synthetic fertilizers, and in many cases no mechanization. This method of farming has been described as “peasant farming” and “indigenous farming,” and rejects all the progress of modern agriculture. According to its own proponents, it reduces agricultural output by 35 percent on average.
With the current recession, one wonders what the consequences of these radical changes will be in Europe. U.S Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has been very present in European media, reminding authorities that modern farming is a great asset, that their choices will lead to bad outcomes, and that a trade deal across the Atlantic will be virtually impossible if Europe diverges even more from reasonable norms.
He’s right: the view of modern agriculture as a destroyer of nature is seriously flawed. Stanford University researchers have found that if we farmed in the same manner as 60 years ago, an area equal to the entire land mass of Russia—three times the size of the Amazon, four times that of the European Union—would have to be cleared of forest and natural habitat and brought into agricultural production. Adding to that, high-yield farming has avoided 161 gigatons of carbon dioxide since 1961, while research from the United Kingdom has shown that moving all current agriculture to organic farming would increase greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 percent.
The black-and-white view from which organic is good while conventional agriculture destroys ecosystems is a mere caricature of the reality of farming. If EU member states do not reject the “Farm to Fork” strategy, then they’ll lead their continent down a dangerous path towards less food security and higher prices. That isn’t in the interests of nature, farmers, or consumers.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.