June 27, 2022

The Sustainability of EU Agricultural Trade

On Thursday June 23, EU40 – the Network of Young MEPs, hosted an event entitled, ‘The Sustainability of EU Agricultural Trade: How can Europe strike the right balance?’ This highly topical in-person discussion, which took place at the European Parliament, was hosted by EU40 MEP Emma Wiesner (SE-RE). Fellow guest panellists represented the position of the European Commission, in Mr. Alberto D’Avino (DG Trade, Agriculture and Food), the vantage point of rural female African farmers in Ms. Ruramiso Mashumba (CEO Mnandi Africa), and local, traditional and regional agricultural production in Ms. Marta Messa (Director of Slow Food Brussels Office). Interventions from a multi-stakeholder audience were also welcomed throughout.

The debate itself, which was very engaging and dynamic, aimed to address a series of issues related to the Fit for 55 Climate Package and the Farm to Fork Agricultural Strategy. While our guest speakers did not always necessarily agree with one another, the discussion was nonetheless amicable and shifted over the course of the hour. MEP Wiesner commenced the debate by outlining her preference for mirror clauses in trade agreements – for instance as used for pesticides – as a means to drive sustainable standards. She would continue however by stressing the importance of implementation, describing how a certain regulatory course, if pushed too far, could create barriers to growth in developing regions. She also warned against an EU-size-fits-all approach. Mr. Alberto D’Avino of DG Trade, spoke on the topic of WTO compatibility, and noted how the Commission favoured multilateral and bilateral discussions/negotiations in bringing third countries on board, rather than to impose standards upon them.

Marta Messa, Director of Slow Food Brussels Office, insisted that their organisation was not against international trade per se, instead principally seeking to impress upon participants the benefits of a diversified agroecological food system. In her intervention, she also focused upon the impact of monocultures on soil health across large scale industrial farming in developing regions. Ms. Mashumba, CEO of Mnandi Africa, brought forward her own experiences as a farmer in Zimbabwe. She gave an example of growing snap peas, noting how, if they were slightly too long, they could not sell them, and would thus be thrown away, which left the room audibly quiet – this is linked to retail standards rather than government imposed standards. Ms. Mashumba also spoke of the importance of understanding the local realities on the ground – for example, the need for African farmers to be able to make a reasonable living – and how, what might readily work within an EU context, will not necessarily work within an African context.

There was a general consensus in the room that a balance needed to be struck, with the dynamic, ‘production is local but trade is global,’ winning out. Inequities in EU trading were also raised – for examples, how EU import duties incentivise raw materials to be grown in Africa rather than refined products – with import rules serving as a hindrance. It was also noted how the global perspective was at times missing during debate within the European Parliament, with not enough experts readily available to detail the global impact of trade. The issue of equivalence was likewise raised, with third country missions seeking an outcome-based approach to trade agreements, advocating a pivot away from the perceived understanding, that EU standards are higher and better than everyone else’s standards.