War in Ukraine: Organic in the spotlight as food security debate ignites

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Within just a few days of Russia launching its invasion of Ukraine a new frontline opened up as a fierce debate over Europe’s food security ignited.

Fears that the conflict could place major stresses on supply chains and lead to food shortages across the continent grew rapidly. With access to Ukrainian (and Russian) food and feed exports dramatically closed off, and serious disruption to energy and fertiliser supplies threatened, EU institutions mobilised to agree an emergency response. 

At exactly this moment of maximum anxiety, agri-industry lobbyists are piling pressure on European Governments to delay or reverse key EU sustainability pledges contained in its flagship Farm to Fork initiative. Their tactic is obvious: to promote a false dichotomy between sustainability and food security. 

“At exactly this moment of maximum anxiety, agri-industry lobbyists are piling pressure on European Governments to delay or reverse key EU sustainability pledges”

The organic community recognises the dangers, but it also believes that war may be the wake-up call that finally tips the balance in favour of a much bigger expansion of organic and agroecological approaches, with the recognition that these paths offer the best opportunity to build more resilient food systems.

A food war on two fronts 
The war in Ukraine impacts organic on two main fronts. First, is the way it will affect imports of vital food and feed crops to organic markets worldwide. The second, is its wider implications for food and farming policy at a time of extreme ecological precariousness. 

To understand the first impact, we need to appreciate just how important Ukraine’s organic production is for Europe, and the rest of the world. According to European Commission data (2019), Ukraine is the single largest supplier of organic products to the EU, and second biggest globally. The vast majority of organic cereals, for example, is imported from Ukraine (32 % of wheat, 77 % of other cereals). It is a major grower of organic oilseeds, and producer of oilcakes (an important feed component for EU organic livestock production). Ukraine is also a significant producer of organic medicinal herbs, aromatic plants and honey.

Furthermore, Ukraine’s role as a major organic producer has grown sharply in recent years, after organic production was prioritised by the country’s deputy minister of economy, trade and agriculture, Taras Kachka. A sudden loss of access to Ukrainian and Russian grain exports presents a serious threat to organic value chains, which depend on long-term engagement and reliability of supply. 

But it is for altogether different reasons that organic finds itself at the centre of a fierce debate on food security, that the war in Ukraine has detonated. The war is piling pressure on farmers across Europe who have been hit with soaring fertiliser, feed and fuel costs. But instead of reading this as an urgent signal to start building a more resilient and ecologically sustainable agriculture system, many voices in politics and in the food industry are calling for further agricultural intensification. 

In early March, the European Commission announced that it would hold an emergency meeting of European agriculture ministers to look again at key objectives in its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies. The fear in the Commission was that the war would significantly dent Europe’s capacity to produce food. Even the pro-organic agriculture commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, warned that sustainability objectives “may need to be revisited if food security is endangered”. 

‘Food security’ is term that has added potency in time of war. And it is a phrase that is being weaponised by powerful agri-industry groups, as they use fear to roll back the EU’s ambitious programme for a transition to greener agriculture. “The European farm lobby has wasted no time to exploit this tragedy for their own economic gain”, noted the wildlife NGO Birdlife International to accuse the 

The organic sector is highly alert to these manoeuvrings. Ahead of the crucial meeting of European agriculture ministers, the prominent Danish organic commentator and IFOAM World Board member, Paul Holmbeck, warned: “The war in Ukraine, and disruption to grain supplies, is being used as a battering ram by classic agri-industry lobby interests. They want more pesticides and the ploughing up of nature set-asides. But this completely ignores the fact that our greatest food vulnerability is due to using so much land to produce food for animals, instead of people”. 

Volkert Engelsman, CEO of leading European organic produce importer Eosta, has warned that the crisis is being used by the fertiliser and pesticide lobby “to bombard the Farm to Fork policy and reverse progress towards sustainable agriculture by several decades”. 

Farm to Fork gets renewed backing 
To the considerable relief of the European organic community, on 23 March the European Commission formally restated its commitment to the Farm to Fork strategy (including the 25%-organic-by-2030 target for EU farmland), as part of a set of emergency measures aimed at safeguarding European food security. 

But there was frustration, and indeed anger, at the Commission’s decision to postpone reform of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR), which sets a binding 50% reduction in pesticide use across the bloc by 2030. Important biodiversity targets were also placed on hold.

After the European Parliament later gave its support to Farm to Fork, IFOAM Organics Europe said it saw the development as a “positive political signal, especially considering the weeks of intense lobbying to undermine the EU’s ambition to make agriculture more sustainable”. But it said it regretted the concessions made on biodiversity and pesticides. 

“(war in Ukraine) forces us to fundamentally rethink our food production systems to make it more I eat more independent from external inputs, less input intensive and more resilient.”

Jan Plagge

The Ukraine crisis shows no sign of abating. The situation remains extremely fluid, and its effects will potentially be long-lasting. The Green Party in the European Parliament has warned that “systematic attacks on the sustainability goals of the Green Deal” will continue to waged by vested interests. But others believe that the flawed logic of the agri-industry’s demands for a relaxation of environmental standards is being exposed. The UK-based Soil Association argues that “now is exactly the time to end farming’s reliance on chemical fertiliser”. And IFOAM Organics Europe’s president, Jan Plagge, suggests that the war may be the determining  factor that finally breaks farming’s dependency on all chemical inputs: “It forces us to fundamentally rethink our food production systems to make it more I eat more independent from external inputs, less input intensive and more resilient.”

Jim Manson

  • This article first appeared in, and was commissioned by, Bio Eco Actual.

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